This world is full of pain and heartache that reaches into every one of our lives in some way, not to mention the endless suffering we see on the news. Given all the struggles and pains of this world, Pastor John recently explained the emotional complexity of being a follower of Christ is this broken world. In a recent sermon The Pain of the World and the Purposes of God, here’s what he said:
7.2 million people die of cancer in the world every year and in America it has been steady for years. About 600,000 people die of cancer every year, just behind heart disease and sometimes vying for first place — a disease that is unique in its adaptability to evade our efforts to kill it. Another current reality is that I was preparing for 1 Peter as I taught for the last two days, and 1 Peter is permeated with suffering, more than any other New Testament book. And so I have that on my mind: the suffering of 1 Peter.
And then, as you can imagine, I had on my mind the ISIS killing last Monday of the couple dozen Ethiopian believers and before that the Egyptian believers and after that the 12 Christians that were thrown overboard in the Mediterranean Sea, not to mention the 900 people from North Africa who were trying to get to Europe who drowned in the last several weeks from the capsizing of their boats. And then I didn’t anticipate that there would be an earthquake that would kill at least 2,400 people, and that number will probably double during the next several days. And as we speak, people, perhaps, are lying alive under rubble wondering, “Will anybody reach me?” And so that cluster of contemporary realities drew me to speak on this topic: The Pain of the World and the Purposes of God.
In 1995, I was 15 years into my 33-year pastorate, and we entered the biggest crisis that we had ever faced as a church — 230 people had walked away. They were angry at me. We had disciplined a staff member. They didn’t like the way it went down. I had opposed a $450,000 pipe organ that I didn’t think was God’s will for us, and hundreds of people left, and it was the worst time in my ministry and the worst time in the church and I didn’t know what to do. I was 49-years-old and I thought, “I don’t know whether there is a future here for me or what will become of this church.”
One of the things we did was we formed a group of 23 people, about 3 or 4 staff members, plus some lay people, and we met for a year and a half. We simply prayed, studied, and asked, “Who are we? What has happened? Is there a future? What will it be? What will it look like?” During that time they sent me away to a little monastery 10 miles away over in Saint Paul and said, “Go away. Pray. Listen to God and bring us a vision for the church, and we will interact with it. We know you are not God and you are not infallible, but you are our leader. Go hear from God as best you can and then we will refine what he gives you.”
And one of the things I believe God gave me was a vision for my life, and when I brought it back, it was a one-sentence vision. It still is the vision. I asked, “Could it be the vision statement of the church as well?” And it became the vision statement of the church. If you walked into Bethlehem today Downtown, it would be on the wall. If you walked into the North Campus it would be on the wall. We don’t have a South Campus building. We rent that. So they won’t let us put things on the wall there. And that sentence goes like this:
I personally and we as a church — as does Desiring God and Bethlehem College and Seminary — “We exist to spread [a very operative word] a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples [with an “s”] through Jesus Christ. We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.” And when we embraced that statement, we did not mean, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things except earthquakes or, the supremacy of God in all things except cancer or, the supremacy of God in all things except babies born with profound disabilities. We didn’t mean that. We meant “all things,” no exceptions.
We Christians are very complex, emotional people if we have our eyes open and our hearts are in tune with the Word of God, because the world is a complex place. The world is a beautiful place and a horrible place. So you walk outside right now, it is beautiful, isn’t it? It is beautiful. And in Nepal somebody is groaning under rubble just about to die of thirst. It is a horrible place and a beautiful place.
And inside us we who love people and are instructed by Jesus Christ how to live, we hear the words, “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). There is a wedding and a funeral everyday at the same time all over the world. And if you are in a church this size, you will always know somebody weeping and you will always know somebody on tiptoe happiness, which means that 2 Corinthians 6:10 is true. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” And you don’t have to be very old in the Lord to know that this reality is true and possible.
When I got that phone call that every 28-year-old dreads — or 15-year-old or 40-year-old — that Mom was killed in a car accident, I hung up the phone. My wife looked at me and my 2-year-old looked up at me and asked, “Daddy sad?” And I went back to my room and knelt down and cried for two hours. In that moment — during the longest crying I have ever done in my life — in those hours, I was saying, “Thank you that I had her for 28 years. Thank you that she was a Christian. Thank you that she didn’t suffer long. Thank you that my Dad is alive — I don’t know if he will be alive when I get there. Thank you for what a great mom she was. You have been so good to me.”
I know that is possible. And you may not have lived long enough to taste it, but it is possible to be simultaneously profoundly sad and profoundly happy — simultaneously, not sequentially — simultaneously. This combination is possible.