Suffering for the Sake of the Body

Session 5

The Pursuit of People Through Pain

This class was named Suffering for the Sake of the Body, so I feel like I owe you some reflections on that. What I decided to do a few years ago was fold into this class something I’d written first after the Littleton, Colorado massacre, where the students had killed those other students. And then, of course, other horrible things have happened, the most dramatic of which probably is 9/11.

Responding to Immense Suffering

I wrote about this because when it happened it was so amazingly in the news, and people in our church knew people in Colorado that were affected by it. People were asking, “What do you say to these parents whose children were just shot in high school? What do you say? What do you do?” I had never tried to put together a larger, more or less, exhaustive or systematic guide for myself or for the elders, but that’s what I did here, that’s what this is. I wrote that then and then I’ve adapted it as the years have gone by and I’ve thought about other things.

I’m just going to tick these off. I won’t take time to read most of the texts. I want to bullet the kinds of things to watch out for when you’re ministering to people in pain. I set it up with Littleton and 9/11, so I’m going to skip all that and get right down to it. These have a kind of order to them. I’ll just read them and comment on them briefly because we have about 40 minutes or so to do this.

1. Pray

The first thing you want to do is pray. Ask God for his help for you and for those you want to minister to. Ask him for wisdom and compassion and strength and a word fitly chosen. Ask that those who are suffering would look to God as their help and hope and healing and strength. Ask that he would make your mouth a fountain of life (Proverbs 10:11). Pray like Moses prayed:

May my teaching drop as the rain,
     my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
     and like showers upon the herb.

Isn’t it wonderful when in a crisis situation you’re there and your words become that? They’re not hurtful. They’re not artificial. They’re not phony. They’re not over-the-top pietistic. They’re just real and helpful. That’s what we pray for. So pray like crazy, because there are no canned things here. These aren’t little sardines, like 21 things we’re going to pull out of our can to use in suffering. I hope you don’t go there with these but that you just catch on to flavor of these and ask God to build them into your soul so that it’s authentic.

2. Express Empathy

Second, feel and express empathy with those most hurt by this great evil and loss. Weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). You can’t turn feelings on and off. That’s why we pray. You need to feel. Jesus does. We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with us, but one who in every way was tested like we are, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus feels with us. If you can come into a situation and feel, that can be expressed.

A little warning here. I had the warning for later, but I’ll stick it in here. Don’t say, “I understand.” That’s a stupid thing to say. Don’t come in beside somebody who’s kneeling over their dead child, or who just learned that they have cancer, and say, “I understand.” Because they’re going to scream, “You don’t understand. You don’t know what I’m dealing with. You see a little bit of it.” It just sounds naïve. You’re not in their skin. I think it’s far better to say, “I can’t imagine what you’re dealing with.” That’s true. “I understand” is not true. You don’t, even if you’ve walked through the same thing.

They may bestow on you the blessing of saying to you, “Nobody understands like you,” but that would be a reflex to other things you’ve said, not “I understand.” Don’t say, “I can feel what you’re feeling.” Don’t say, “I’ve been there.” That all sounds like you’re minimizing their pain. That’s what it feels like. I don’t care if you think or feel that, that’s the way it will come across. Don’t go there. Say other things. We’ll get to that.

3. Express Compassion

Third, feel and express compassion because of the tragic circumstances of so many loved ones and friends who have lost more than they could ever estimate. Express compassion. Say, “I’m so sorry.” Don’t try to say anything big and fancy. If you come into a situation where a huge loss has just happened, feel the loss and say, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” And then just sit there. Job’s friends were there for seven days without a word. That was their golden moment. When they opened their mouths, they put their foot straight in. I’ve come to a lot of people in horrible situations, and I don’t say much. If they ask me to say something, I’ll say something, but mainly you hug. I’ll get to that too. I’m starting to jump ahead of myself.

4. Give Tender Care

Fourth, take time and touch, if you can, and give tender care to the wounded in body and soul. Little illustrations will come to my mind as we go along here.

Ronald Ericsson was a grand, old statesman of Bethlehem my first 15 years here, and then he died. But before he died, he had an adopted son that he had adopted from Ethiopia, I believe. He was 25 years old. I was living at the time — this being 1983 probably — where Tom Stellar lives today. The hospital right down here was called Metropolitan, I believe. I got a phone call. David, the son, was in surgery and he died. It was going to be a relatively simple surgery, they thought.

This is irrelevant to the point, but it was a human error. When they fixed the aorta back on, they didn’t tack it right, and as soon as they took him off the machines, the little flap went bang. It just stopped everything. Before they could get back in and fix it, he was dead. So they came out to Roland, who was there just waiting for this surgery and said, “We lost him.” It was out of the blue. This was not the kind of surgery where you’re supposed to lose him. He was the phone within five minutes to me. I lived two blocks away. He called me and said, “Pastor John, they lost David.” I was speechless, but I said, “I’ll be there.” So I walked straight over to the hospital.

Now what do you do? What would you do? I’ve done this, goodness knows how many times. I did it last September with my son. You walk into the room, and you don’t say a thing. You take him, and you weep your eyes out. I thought this morning, there’s some things you don’t want to see very often, even though it’s very beautiful, and that’s two grown men in embrace, both of them heaving with sobs. You don’t want to watch that very often. That’s all I did. And then I don’t remember after that. They need to talk, so you can ask some questions. You can say, “What did they tell you? What happened?” He needs to narrate the horror.

That hug is really important. One of the brothers who talked last night is a doctor, and doctors have to be professionally careful. But at one point he just said to a woman, “Do you need a hug?” I think that’s a good way to do it if you are in a relationship where this could be a little bit strange. It’s not strange if you’re a pastor, you can hug everybody. You have a professional license to.

5. Hold Out God’s Promises

Hold out the promise that God will sustain and help those who cast themselves on him for mercy and trust in his grace. He will strengthen you for the impossible days ahead in spite of all darkness. In other words, you’re not addressing here the problem of evil. You’re addressing the impossible feelings like, “I cannot go on. I can’t go on without my husband. I can’t go on without my son. I can’t go on like this. There is no future. My life is ruined.”

Probably the best way to express this is in prayer. Wayne Grudem called me when his son’s 23-year-old wife was killed after four months of marriage, weeping on the other end of the phone in Phoenix because his dead daughter-in-law was in the medical examiner's office over at Regens Hospital in Minneapolis, and his son was there. He asked if I would go so I said, “I’ll go.” We walked in there. It’s a horrible place. You don’t want to go to the medical examiner’s office. It’s so cold. It has to be slick because you have to clean it easy. What would you do? His son was 24 years old, and he had been married four months, and his wife was dead in the back room. He hadn’t seen her yet.

I walked in, and I just sat down beside him, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where he was spiritually, and I didn’t know what he would receive. I just sat there trying to discern. My presence meant, “Dad had to call his good friend John, and John’s standing by his boy in his father’s place.” That’s what I meant, that was the meaning of my presence. That’s enough. There came a point where I just leaned over, and I said, “Let’s pray.” And I prayed things like this, I said, “Oh, God, help him. Help him.” That’s all.

6. Affirm that Christ Tasted Suffering

Sixth, affirm that Jesus Christ tasted hostility from men and knew what it was to be unjustly tortured and abandoned and to endure overwhelming loss and then to be killed so that he is now sympathetic mediator for us with God.

Now, that’s a long sentence to say something very simple. Isn’t it remarkable? I find it remarkable that if you walk into a situation where people are already ministering, one of the things you will hear pretty regularly in certain settings is, “God knows. God knows.” What is that supposed to mean? It’s helpful, evidently, and I think it is. Well, what it means most deeply is that Jesus Christ has gone through horror in his life. Our God and our king and our priest is not in an ivory palace looking down on a world of woe and saying, “I wonder what that’s like? I want to try to love them, I want to try to be helpful to them, but I wonder what that’s like.”

God sent his Son into the world to walk through the greatest miseries — and he stayed single and chaste, by the way, all the way to the end — and he died a torturous, horrible death in order that we might go to someone and sooner or later and say, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but God can. God can. He sent his Son, and in his Son he felt some of what you’re dealing with.”

7. When Necessary, Declare the Evil of Any Sin Involved

Seventh, declare that this murder — I’m talking about Littleton, Colorado now, or the Trade Towers coming down — was a great evil and that God’s wrath is greatly kindled by the wanton destruction of human life created in his image.

That’s important. Somewhere along the way, people who are going to hear you ultimately say, “God was in charge of this,” should also know that you hate murder, and it’s evil, and God is wrathful against murderers. You will totally distort this seminar if you say, “We got the message about sovereignty so dominantly that God can’t be mad at murderers because he ordains murderers.” If you say that, you’re not delivering my message. That’s your message. My message is that God hates murder. He hates what he ordains here. It’s the way we make sense out of the Bible. It says, “Thou shall not kill.” He hates murder. And then he ordains the death of his Son. He controls all of life. The Lord gives and the Lord takes.

So we need to say it loud and clear, “The boy who shot your son did a wicked thing. God disapproves of it, and he’s going to burn him in hell unless he repents. If he repents, he burned his sin in his Son’s death on the cross. Therefore, no injustice will ultimately be done if you forgive this boy, because Jesus either bore it or they will bear it. You don’t need to bear it. Don’t live with a lifelong bitterness towards the murderer of your son.”

8. Acknowledge God’s Sovereignty Over Sin

Eighth, acknowledge that God has permitted a great outbreak of sin against his revealed will. His sovereign will happened, but his reveal will didn’t happen. And acknowledge that we do not know all the reasons why he would permit such a thing now when it was in his power to stop it.

You can use the language of permission and that God’s will was broken — his will revealed in his Ten Commandments — and you don’t have the answers. Most of the people that come up to me after a service and want to pray about something say, “Why? Why is God letting this go on? Why is this happening?” My answer is, “I don’t know the detailed answer. I can just give you a few big picture answers, and you know those already, probably. So let’s just pray that God would help you discern what he is doing, if it would be helpful to know.”

9. Acknowledge the Destructive Power of Satan

Ninth, express the truth that Satan is a massive reality in the universe, and that he conspires with our own sin and flesh and the world to hurt people and to move people to hurt others. But stress that Satan is within and under the control of God.

You understand, don’t you, that I’m not giving you a syllabus here for what you do in every circumstance? I’m giving you the array of things that could be said at some point along the way as you’re dealing with people, not that you do each of these. But I’m stressing the reality that Satan is an important worldview piece that people need to get into their minds and hearts so that they can make sure he’s in his proper place. His proper place is real and ugly and not ultimate.

10. Express the Personal Accountability of the Offenders

Tenth, express that these terrorists — I’m thinking about the New York situation with 9/11 — rebelled against the revealed will of God and did not love God or trust him or find in God their refuge and strength and treasure, but scorned his ways and his person.

That’s not too different from the one we’ve already seen.

11. Fear Rebellion in Your Own Heart

Eleventh, since rebellion against God was at the root of this act of murder, let us all fear such rebellion in our own hearts and turn from it and embrace the grace of God in Christ and renounce the very impulses that caused this tragedy.

Now you’re moving to help, and this should be sometime later after the tragedy, as you’re trying to help people prosper from all that God is doing. One of the things is to recognize that murder came from rebellion against God. You can ask, “Are you going to rebel against God and join them in the very thing that brought your suffering? You don’t want to. You want to let it have a sanctifying effect, not a rebellion-producing effect.”

12. Call for Repentance

Twelfth, point the living to the momentous issues of sin and repentance in our own hearts and the urgent need to get right with God through his merciful provision of forgiveness in Christ so that a worst fate than death will not overtake us.

I think one of the things we need to be very cautious about is letting sentiment and sentimentality take over as we deal with people who walk through pain. We should be extremely hesitant to be theologically forceful or provocative in those early hours and days. But don’t stay there. Don’t stay squeamish. There are big issues of sin in their own lives that have to be dealt with. That’s the way Jesus dealt with it in Luke 13:1–5. They were saying, “What about the sin of Pilate who slaughtered these people?” And Jesus said, “If you don’t repent, you will likewise perish.” That seems so insensitive, right? Well, Jesus wasn’t sentimental. He was blunt most of the time. He hardly ever pulls any punches. He always says things that seem tough.

Well, we should eventually get to the point where we say to a person a year later, “You know what? I think you might be angry in a way that shows that this loss was your idol.” That’s tough and risky, but somebody has to say it eventually. Grieving people are sinners, not because they’re grieving. They’re just sinners. You’re a sinner, I’m a sinner, and they’re sinners. Everybody is a sinner. You can’t ignore the reality of sin, and so we need to confront it. Friends confront. They don’t just constantly stroke and say, “Oh, you’re okay.” While meanwhile, there’s just selfishness and sin flourishing in her heart, even while they’re crying maybe.

I learned a long time ago in my counseling office when I would meet with people that I do not jump to the conclusion that tears mean remorse. Tears simply mean somebody is in pain, and the pain could be, “I don’t like the consequences of my sin, and I’m angry about them, and they really hurt.” And they might not be upset with their sin at all. You better make that discernment pretty quick, or you’re going to go down the wrong road in counseling. If that person is crying because they got sick from their sin, or they lost a relationship because of their sin, or they lost their job because of their sin, and there’s no moral brokenness for their own pride and sin, then the tears are worthless as far as repentance goes. They think because they’re so sad that they must be penitent. They’re not. They’re just sad about the consequences.

I mean, there are many, many people in courtrooms, when they’re sentenced to 10 years in jail or life imprisonment who break down, and they’re not the least bit sorry for what they did. They just know, “I don’t want to lose 10 years of my life. This is really ugly, and I’m sad about it,” and they’re proud to the core inside. So discern in your counsel and in your friendships whether a person is getting to the point where they might need some firm exhortation about considering selfishness or idolatry.

13. Remember That Christians Are Not Immune to Calamity

Thirteenth, remember that even those who trust in Christ may be cut down like these thousands who were in New York and Washington, but that does not mean they have been abandoned by God or not loved by God.

Even in those agonizing hours of suffering, God’s love conquers through calamity. Even Christians can be swept away, as I’m sure there were many Christians in the Towers and in the Pentagon. Point that out from Romans 8.

14. Mingle Weeping with Godward Confidence

Fourteenth, mingle heart-wrenching weeping with unbreakable confidence in the goodness and sovereignty of God, who rules over and through sin and the plans of rebellious people.

In other words, as you move towards making affirmations about the sovereignty of God, make sure they’re said with the right emotional demeanor. Timing is a big issue here. I met a man in Orlando years ago when I was there. He had a son who at that time was about 17, and he had the mind of about an 18-month old and had a fairly mature body. His son was in a wheelchair.

The van was totally fitted out. I mean, their whole life was built around this for the last 17 years. He was telling me with radiance what a gift this boy is to the church, because for whatever gracious reason from God, he smiled all the time. He couldn’t talk. He just smiled in his wheelchair. The church loved him, and had loved him all these years. But then he told me, “It took me about eight years to accept this.” I was seeing him 17 years later, and he seemed absolutely, totally on top of it and in charge and emotionally able to affirm God’s sovereignty and all that. But he just confided in me, “It took me about eight years to accept this.”

So if you’re leaving with that person during those eight years, what do you do? You don’t assume that they won’t make it. You don’t assume they’re going to throw away their faith. They might, but you don’t assume that. You assume they’re in a clouded, dark, hard season, and you’re going to stick by them and help them. You’re going to help them get through to the point where they can look at this with enough confidence in God and distance that they say, “Okay, we’ll find a pattern of life that works, and God will somehow turn this for good.”

15. Trust God for the Impossible

Fifteenth, trust God for his ability to do the humanly impossible and bring you through the nightmare and in some inscrutable way bring good out of it.

You’re pleading with them, “Let’s trust God. We can’t see how he’s going to do it. It looks impossible, but we’re going to trust him to bring us through.” You call for faith.

16. Explain How God Ordains Some Things He Disapproves

Sixteenth, when the time is right and they have the wherewithal to think clearly, explain that one of the mysteries of God’s greatness is that he ordains for some things to come to pass which he forbids and disapproves.

In other words, this is what some of you right now are having the hardest time with, and understandably so. I’m arguing that he disapproves, and even that he’s very angry at the very thing which he ordained. So, what do you want to do for a person who’s never even thought that? This may be months later, year later, and you’re trying to build into their lives larger and larger biblical categories for handling their past and present and future, and you say, “In order to make sense out of the Bible, we need to have a category in our mind for the fact that God has two kinds of wills. He has a sovereign will by which everything comes to pass, and he has a will of demand, or will of command, or a revealed will by which he says, ‘Don’t commit adultery and don’t steal and don’t lie and don’t kill,’ and then he ordains all those things, ultimately, because he’s sovereign and could stop any one of them from happening at any time.”

Get that category in their heads because then they’ll read their Bible and they won’t stumble at cross. Because the cross is where that is most clear. God hates murder and he ordained the murder of his Son so that we would live.

17. Express Your Delight in the Sovereignty of God

Seventeenth, express your personal cherishing of the sovereignty of God as the ground of all your hope as you face the human impossibilities of life.

The very fulfillment of the new covenant promises of our salvation and preservation hang on God’s sovereignty over rebellious human wills. I think a key here is your personal testimony. In other words, somewhere along the way when somebody is saying, “I just can’t see how you could believe in a sovereign God in view of what happened to me,” instead of being argumentative, be testimonial.

Here you have to be real. You say, “I know that’s hard for you to grasp, but I don’t know how I would cope with what I have been through and am going through right now if I didn’t believe God was totally sovereign over my life and able to turn these things for the good of others and my good. To me, his sovereignty is the key to my hope. I wish you saw it that way, but I can understand why it’s hard to see it that way.”

God’s Keeping Power

A very specific application of this is asking the question, how do you know you’re going to wake up and be a Christian tomorrow? I wonder what your answer to that is. If your answer is, “Oh, the continuity of my personality,” well, that’s pretty fragile. That’s pretty fragile. People’s personalities change. Experiences make you change your mind about God.

So what makes you think you’re going to wake up and be a believer in the morning? The Biblical answer is the new covenant promise of Jeremiah 32:40–41, which says:

I will put the fear of me in their hearts,
     that they may not turn from me.

My only confidence that I’m going to wake up and be a believer in the morning is that God is going to make me a believer in the morning. He’s going to hold me. He’s going to hold me in the palm of his hand, and he’s going to work his will in my life. I think, “He who began good work in me will complete it to the last day (Philippians 1:6). Part of my testimony to the person who’s stumbling over the sovereignty of God would be to say, “One of the reasons I love the sovereignty of God over the human will is that my will is so fickle and so fragile that I don’t even know if I’ll be a Christian in the morning if God doesn’t hold onto to me.”

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it Prone to leave the God I love Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it Seal it for thy courts above

That’s the only reason I have any hope that I’ll persevere to the end. That’s a testimony about your own walk with and love for and dependence on the sovereignty of God.

18. Hold Fast to God as Your Lasting Treasure

Eighteenth, count God your only lasting treasure because he is the only sure and stable thing in the universe. Psalm 73:25–26 says:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
     And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
     but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Urge that on them. Bear witness. In the end, we’re going to lose everything. Everybody dies. Yesterday I was reading an interview with Billy Graham in Christianity Today. Somebody said, “We heard you say that long ago you read a book on how to die and it helped you, but you never had read a book on how to age.” They were asking Billy Graham, he turned 90 yesterday.

He said, “Yeah, that’s right.” We will all die. And on the way to die, we will lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose until there’s a tube in our noise and a machine is doing our breathing. Our eyes will be glazed over, our fingertips will be cold, our toes will be black, and our whole family will wish we’d die. We will wish we die, and we don’t die. That’s what most of you are going to go through. The only thing that’s going to be stable there is Jesus. So learn to treasure him above everything.

19. Remind Everyone that Dying is Gain

Nineteenth, remind everyone that to live is Christ and to die is gain, for those who are gone and for you when you die.

20. Pray for God to Incline Hearts to His Word

Twentieth, pray that God would incline their hearts to his word, open their eyes to his wonders, and unite their hearts to fear him and satisfy them. Keep praying for people that as they’re struggling with their losses that these things would happen; that their eyes would be open to the superior wonders of God in his word. That he would unite their hearts to him.

21. Sound the Trumpet for Radical Service

Twenty-first, at the right time, sound the trumpet that all this good news is meant by God to free us for radical, sacrificial service for the salvation of men and the glory of Christ.

Help them see that one message of all this misery is to show us that life is short and fragile and followed by eternity, and that small, man-centered ambitions are tragic. In other words, tell them not to waste their lives. Let their grief and their pain open eternity and show them how short, fragile, and precious this life is and how strong God is in it.

I haven’t lost too many people close to me. My mother died when I was 28 years old. That’s the one that had the biggest effect on me. I remember being in a bookstore right after the funeral. I was still in Greenville before I came back to Minneapolis. I was in a bookstore, and I was looking at the poetry section because I like poetry. I remember taking a book down and opening it up and just feeling a huge sense of the reality of eternity and the preciousness of everything — the feel of the pages, the smell, the store, and the sky outside. There was just amazing aliveness to that moment, all owing to my mother’s death.

You walk up to eternity when you look at a person that was alive and now is lying there. You want to say, “Wake up, you can’t be dead.” You’re touching them. They look alive. And then you think, “Why, you’ll never wake up.” I mean those moments, if God is merciful, they open us to realities and feelings and possibilities that are untold if we’re willing to get really radical.

Life is going to be short here. Mom’s gone to heaven. Daddy’s now gone to heaven. Felicity’s gone to heaven. We’re losing people right and left. People are going to heaven every day. This is real or not real. Are we going to play games here and dink around with computers, or are we going to get serious about what counts in life? That’s where you want people to go. They can’t go there right away. They can’t do that right away. But sooner or later you want them to start to taste, “Come on, let’s feel the breezes again. This life is going to be lived here and we’re going to drop and go to heaven and be with them forever, so let’s give it everything we have.”

More Than Conquerors

Romans 8 is a good place to end. Let me point you to a part of it that you may not have thought about before:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Romans 8:35–37).

In the famine, in the nakedness, in the peril, in the sword, in the persecution, and in being slaughtered all day long — like in Orisha, India, or like Graham Staines being burned alive — we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Now what does that mean? We’re being killed all day long. In all these things we are more than conquerors. How can you be more than a conqueror? I think my old teacher, Dan Fuller, was right when he suggested it means this. A conqueror slays the enemy and they lie dead at his feet, and he’s alive, victorious. More than a conqueror means the enemy gets up and serves him.

You don’t just decimate death, it serves you. You don’t just decimate the devil, he serves you with his thorns in the flesh that make you holy. So, Paul concludes:

I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).

They’re all going to not only not separate us, they’re going to be doorways to paradise and serve us. That’s the confidence that I pray that you will take away from this seminar.