The strange machine along the streets of Madrid seized my attention.
Its long arms reached out and wrapped themselves around the trunk of a tree. Its motor vibrated those arms at high speeds so they could shake the tree violently. Its net sat suspended just beneath the lowest branches. As the machine buzzed and roared, a hundred ripe oranges fell from the branches to land in the net below — a hundred ripe oranges that could feed and satisfy a hundred people. That machine was carefully designed to release the fruit from the tree — to release it by shaking.
The nets filled with oranges remind me of something the apostle Paul once wrote about times of trial and tribulation, of deep sorrow and loss. He contended that Christians must be prepared to be afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and even struck down — a collection of words meant to display the variety of ways in which God may call us to suffer (2 Corinthians 4:8–9).
The God who is sovereign over all things may lead us into times and contexts that are deeply painful. Yet we can be confident that our suffering is never arbitrary and never meaningless, for God always has a purpose in mind. Hence, Paul says more: we will be “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” For those in Christ, God’s purpose is never to harm us and never to ruin us.
“The God who is sovereign over all things may lead us into times and contexts that are deeply painful.”
So what is God’s purpose in our suffering? Why does God sometimes lead us away from the green pastures and still waters to call us instead to follow him into deep and dark valleys (Psalm 23)? These were questions that were much on my mind in the days, weeks, and months following the Lord’s decision to call my son to himself.
God Left Us Sonless
Nick, age 20, was at seminary and taking a break from his studies to play a game with a group of his friends when, in an instant, his heart stopped, his body fell to the ground, and his soul went to heaven. His friends tried to revive him, a passing doctor tried to revive him, responding paramedics and emergency-room doctors tried to revive him. But it was to no avail. God had called him home. And since God had summoned him to heaven, there was no doctor, no medication, and no procedure that could keep my son here on earth.
I don’t know why God determined that Nick would live so short a life, why he would leave this world with so little accomplished and so much left undone. I don’t know why God determined to leave Aileen and me sonless, Abby and Michaela brotherless, Ryn fiancéless and ultimately husbandless. I don’t know why God did it — why God exercised his sovereignty in taking away a young man who was so dearly loved, who was so committed to serving Jesus, and who had so much promise. But I don’t need to know, for, as Moses said, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
While I don’t know why God did it, I am already beginning to understand how God is using it.
Lamentation Without Resentment
On the streets of Madrid, a machine shakes the orange trees to cause them to release their fruit. It shakes them violently, shakes them so hard that it almost looks as if the branches must snap, as if the trunk must splinter, as if the entire tree must be uprooted. Yet this is the way it must be done, for the delicious fruit is connected tightly to the inedible branches. And the moment the machine has collected the fruit, I observe, it ceases its shaking, it furls up its net, it withdraws its arms, and it backs away, leaving the tree healthy and well, prepared to bear yet another harvest.
And just like that machine shook the orange tree, Nick’s death has shaken me and shaken my family and shaken my church and shaken Nick’s friends and shaken his school — shaken us to our very core. Yet this shaking, though it has been violent and exceedingly painful, has not caused us to break. We have raised our voices in lamentation, but never in rebellion. We have raised hands of worship, but never fists of rage. We have asked questions, but have never expressed resentment.
“God does not mean to harm us when he shakes us, but simply to release the fruit.”
To the contrary, as I look at those who love Nick most, I see them displaying fresh evidences of God’s grace. I see them growing in love for God, in the joy of their salvation, in the peace of the gospel, in their patience with God’s purposes, in kindness toward others, in the goodness of personal holiness, in faithfulness to all God has called them to, in gentleness with other people’s sins and foibles, and in that rare, blessed virtue of self-control. I see them bearing the precious fruit of the Spirit as never before (Galatians 5:22–23).
Shaken to Bear Fruit
Just as the fruit of the tree clings tightly to the branch, the evil within us clings tightly to the good, the vices to the virtues, the immoral to the upright. God does not mean to harm us when he shakes us, but simply to release the fruit — to do what is necessary to separate what is earthly from what is heavenly, what dishonors him from what delights his heart.
As I consider my wife, as I consider my girls, as I consider Nick’s precious fiancée, as I consider his friends and fellow church members, I see that they have been deeply shaken by his death — shaken by God’s sovereign hand. But I see as well that they have been shaken for a beautiful purpose. They have been shaken to bear fruit.