Being 8/28, it seems fitting that we record an episode on suffering, in honor of the precious truth we cling to in Romans 8:28. It’s certainly not hard to find such an email: thousands of people email us out of the most tragic pain they have ever experienced. It’s a regret that we cannot reply to every one of these emails. I wish we could. We can respond to this email from a podcast listener, a broken woman. “Pastor John, I need your help. Tragically, back in 2007, I backed over and killed my 18-month-old grandson with a car. I was devastated. I remain devastated. That day changed me. I was once a children’s church director and a Sunday school teacher. I don’t serve anymore. Thirteen years later, I can hardly drive without crying. The guilt I feel for my grandson is greater than the guilt I feel for not serving God. People say I should be happy; he’s in a better place. Or they say that God spared him a bad life — that he knew my grandson was going to go down a bad road. What do you say? What would make me happy again, serving God again, and at peace without my grandson? After all these years, can you help me?”
Whether I can be of help after all this time, thirteen years, will depend on whether the Holy Spirit is pleased to take what I say and do the miracle — the ongoing miracle — that in myself, I certainly am not able to do. So, my words now that I’m going to speak, that I have prayed about, come in the hopes that there will be a touch of God, and a miracle wrought through them, which in and of themselves could never happen.
Through Many Dangers
Now, before I point our friend to three biblical considerations, let me say a word about Romans 8:28 here on the eighth month and the twenty-eighth day of 2020.
The flow of thought in Romans 8 goes like this: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). And then skip a few verses, and you read,
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? [And you could add, “or running over your own grandchild.”] As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” (Romans 8:35–36)
“Some disabilities are physical, some are mental, and some are emotional and spiritual.”
And Paul responds to that litany of horrors that happen to God’s people: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37). Not instead of, but “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” So, it’s absolutely crucial, whenever we cite Romans 8:28, that we realize that verse does not spare us Christians distress, famine, nakedness, danger, but rather makes us inseparable from Christ in these miseries — in them.
That’s the clarification we must always keep before us: Romans 8:28 is not a promise of escape from misery, but a promise of being kept from delusion and unbelief and destruction in it, and that in due time God works it out for our good.
Three Ways to Keep Going
Now, here are three considerations that I would like our hurting friend — still hurting after thirteen years — to consider.
1. Live with the grief.
When Jesus broke into Paul’s life on the Damascus road, he said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Now at first, Paul had no idea what this meant. “Persecuting Jesus, the risen Lord of the universe? I don’t even believe you exist!” Luke had just said three verses earlier what Paul’s persecution involved: “Saul [was] still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). Two words stand out: murder and still.
And Noël and I just read devotions last night, by the way, in Acts 26:10, where Paul uses the plural for deaths that he had been involved in. I had never noticed that plural before, but here in Acts 9, he says he’s still breathing out murder, meaning, “I was part of Stephen’s killing, and I’m still doing the same thing on my way to Damascus.” He was a Christian-killer. And on the Damascus road, Jesus told him that he was not merely a Christian-killer; he was a Christ-killer. “You are persecuting me — Jesus. You touch my followers, you touch me. You imprison them, you imprison me. You kill them, you kill me.”
“Your grief and your loss are not a disease that heals; they are an amputation that produces a lifelong limp.”
And it appears from 1 Timothy 1:15 and 1 Corinthians 15:9 that Paul never, never forgot it. He never stopped feeling the sting, the horror, of being a Christian-killer and a Christ-killer. He did not mean to be a Christ-killer, but he did mean to be a Christian-killer. And here he is now at the end of his life in 1 Timothy, saying that he still feels it: he feels like the foremost sinner; he calls himself the “foremost” or the “chief of sinners” because, according to 1 Corinthians 15:9, he persecuted and killed Christians, and through them, the Lord himself.
Now, my point is not that running over your own grandchild is like killing Christians intentionally or killing Christ inadvertently. My point is this: here’s something so horrible in Paul’s life, in his background, that he did that he never, never stopped taking it into account. He never got beyond it. He never stopped thinking on it and its implications; it never stopped playing any emotional role in his life.
So, I’m suggesting that the way forward is not to be sought mainly in forgetting — or, God forbid, minimizing — the horror, but in fact remembering, owning, finding Paul’s supernatural way of living with the grief and the wrong that was done, in such a way that it does not paralyze ministry but mysteriously, painfully — even beautifully — deepens it. Read the context of 1 Timothy 1:15 and meditate on that possibility. That’s my first observation.
2. Bear with the disability.
Here’s the second one, and it follows from the first: it may be that the Lord is calling you to think of this tragedy and its effect not as a wound to be healed, but as a disability to bear. Some disabilities are physical: Jacob wrestled with God, God put his hip out of joint, and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life as an unavoidable reminder of his encounter with God (Genesis 32:24–25).
Some disabilities are mental, and some are emotional and spiritual. And it might help if your mindset shifts from getting beyond the pain, beyond the remorse, beyond the horrible, vivid memory — from getting beyond all of that — to acknowledging the ongoing presence of the pain, the remorse, the memory, as miraculously transformed from a ministry-paralyzing reality to a ministry-deepening, ministry-softening, ministry-empowering reality.
Think of the Christ-exalting people you know who have a profound disability. We could all probably think of one or two or three. And perhaps they have this disability because of a mindless accident. And by a miracle of sovereign grace, they have transformed that life-ruining disability into a life-giving, power-in-weakness ministry of grace. That’s my second observation: an alteration of mindset.
3. Embrace brokenhearted joy.
And now finally, the third observation, which follows from that, and in a sense is an extension of the first two. Surely one of the great hindrances to ministry after such an unspeakable calamity is the deep sense that if I rejoice or if I delight in some ministry, I will, by that delight, by that joy, treat the death of my grandchild with disrespect; I will, by that joy, minimize the horror of the deed and the loss to the family. So, there hangs over you a sense that you dare not return to any form of normalcy lest you make light of what feels infinitely heavy.
Here’s what I’m suggesting: that minimizing is not going to happen after thirteen years with you; it’s not. The voice of thirteen years of sorrow and ministry paralysis is to show you that you have a disability that you never will leave behind. You will never become chipper about it. You’ll never become frivolous about it. You’ll never become callous about it. You’ll never become indifferent to that awful moment and that immeasurable loss. You won’t. You won’t.
“Paul found a miracle of grace to transform the sorrowful, emotional weight of his past.”
I’m suggesting that the grief and the loss are not a disease that heals; they are an amputation that produces a lifelong limp: you won’t ever run the same. And that limp, I am suggesting, is the miraculous capacity to minister to other people with a kind of joy (mark that word: a kind of joy), and a kind of hope, and a kind of peace that only a person can have who has drunk this bitter cup that you have drunk. It will be unique to you: your particular kind of joy, your hope, your peace.
What did Paul mean when he said in 2 Corinthians 6:10 that he carried out his ministry “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”? Could it be that part of the story that Paul carried with him all the time was the memory that he was a Christ-killer, as indeed all of us are in one sense Christ-killers?
Whatever the sorrow was (and oh, how many reasons Paul had to be sorrowful) what matters most is that Paul found a miracle of grace to transform the sorrowful, emotional weight of his past from a ministry-paralyzing memory into a ministry-deepening power, even with a kind of joy that was peculiar to this amazing man — not a superficial joy, but the kind of joy that only the chief of sinners can have in the grace of God.
And that’s my prayer for you.