The Final Hours of Suffering

Funeral Message for Nancy Nelson (1952–2023)

Bethlehem Baptist Church | Minneapolis

When Bob and I spoke about a week and a half ago concerning the focus of this memorial message for Nancy, he said, “Well, along with all the good news that there is in Jesus Christ, one major focus should be on suffering.”

That may surprise some of you — not because you are unaware of Nancy’s lifelong suffering, but because you may wonder whether such a focus could prove to be both encouraging for those of us who are left behind and a fitting tribute to Nancy’s faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But Bob, Nancy, and I have known each other for over forty years, and Bob knows the kind of things that I will say in response to the issue of suffering. This is not a gamble. God’s word is clear about many things, including some very important truths about suffering.

And I should make clear and explicit that I make no claim to speak on my own authority with regard to such a delicate and painful topic. That’s not the way Bob and I think about this. He is not asking me to bring some nice thoughts out of my own head. We would dare to speak about suffering in a setting like this only because God’s word, the Bible, has spoken to us about suffering, instructing us to see it in a certain way.

So, I invite you to come with me into the Scriptures as we focus on five aspects of suffering, especially as they relate to Nancy’s experience.

  1. The Origin of Suffering: Genesis 3
  2. The Duration of Suffering: Romans 8
  3. The Mystery of Suffering: Genesis 50
  4. The Death of Suffering: The Suffering of Christ
  5. The Final Hours of Nancy’s Suffering: 2 Corinthians 4

What we’re trying to do, as we stand here on the brink of eternity, is see Nancy’s life in the light of the greatest realities. Nancy’s life began, at least in time, on September 30, 1952, and her life will last forever. Jesus said, again and again, “Whoever believes in [me] has eternal life” (John 3:36). That’s the life we’re talking about, and to see this life — Nancy’s life — in relationship to the greatest realities in the universe is very helpful. It brings deeply rooted stability for those of us who are left.

1. The Origin of Suffering

According to Scripture, God created the world, and there was no suffering in it. It’s in the first sentence of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The capstone of that creation was man in God’s own image: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). And when God had finished the work of creation, with man as male and female as the climax, the Scripture says, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). There was no evil and no suffering in it.

Then in chapter 3 of Genesis, the moral catastrophe of sin entered the world through Adam and Eve, and it has been our unhappy birthright ever since. Sin is the inclination of the human heart to find God undesirable, to replace his authority with our own, and to prefer his creation to him.

There was one tree in all the luscious garden that God, in his bountiful goodness, said not to eat. Of that tree the woman and the man ate. They substituted their wisdom for God’s and said, “The tree is good for food, and a delight to the eyes, and desirable to make one wise,” and they ate (see Genesis 3:6).

“The suffering of God’s children dies in the suffering of God’s Son.”

And suffering entered the world. Peaceful relationship with God collapsed into fear and shame. The love relationship between the man and woman collapsed into selfishness and scapegoating. The unique spheres of each of their lives were shot through with pain. To the woman God said, “In pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16), and to the man he said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).

All of nature fell into the state of mixed horror and beauty that we see today: horrible train crashes in India, little plane crashes outside of Washington, a dam bursting in Ukraine, Nancy’s death, and millions of other sorrows. Every hour, 6,500 people die in the world. All of this pain traces back to the entrance of sin in the world. As the apostle Paul put it, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, . . . so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not as though there is a one-to-one correspondence between every sin you commit and every suffering you experience. It doesn’t work that way. Some of the most righteous and loving people suffer the most in this world, and some of the most wicked people suffer the least in this world.

Our suffering in the world doesn’t identify particular sins in our lives. Suffering is the trumpet blast that there is such a thing as sin. The broken physical order of the world is a shout to the effect that there is a broken moral order in the world. Nancy’s suffering was not a statement about her particular sins. It was a wake-up call to all of us to seek reconciliation with God because of our sin.

2. The Duration of Suffering

For those who embrace reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ, suffering will have an end. In Romans 8:18–21, the apostle Paul reaches back to Genesis 3, to the time when the world was subjected to the curse of suffering, and then forward to the time when that curse will be lifted. He says,

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

That is spectacular. Who are these children of God? Here’s the answer of Scripture:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son [Jesus Christ], born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5)

[Jesus] came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. (John 1:11–12)

The children of God are those who see Jesus Christ as the Son of God, our Redeemer, and receive him as the supreme treasure of their lives. For them, for those like Nancy Nelson, suffering has an end — and it ends in glory in the presence of God.

Another spectacular thing is that Paul tells us the whole fallen, futile, suffering creation is waiting for that day. For when our glorification is complete, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21). Suffering will have an end for the children of God.

3. The Mystery of Suffering

Do you recall the story of how Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his brothers because of their jealousy? He is taken away from his home to Egypt, and for thirteen years things go from bad to worse in his life. He ends up in Pharaoh’s dungeon because of the slander of Potiphar’s wife, who accuses him of a sexual assault that he didn’t commit.

The tables turn when Joseph interprets a dream for Pharaoh. The outcome is that Joseph is made the second most powerful man in Egypt. Seven years of prosperity come to Egypt, and Joseph stores the grain because, according to the dream, seven years of famine will follow. Nine years pass, and finally Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt, pleading for relief from Joseph’s stores. Joseph was 17 years old when they sold him into slavery. Now he is 39. They don’t recognize him.

When the truth comes out, the question is, How will Joseph treat his brothers? They had caused him very great suffering. When the brothers fear the worst, Joseph says two astonishing things, and this is the mystery of suffering.

In Genesis 45:7–8, he says, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” Then in Genesis 50:20, he says to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

“The last gasp of the children of God makes their experience of the coming glory greater.”

Here’s the mystery: He does not say, “You meant evil against me, but God used it for good.” He says, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The mystery of suffering is that God is always accomplishing his purposes through man’s purposes, even when man’s purposes are evil and bring great suffering. God is not a helpless bystander in the world. He is sovereign over it, and his wisdom and justice and goodness hold sway in all that happens.

4. The Death of Suffering

How is it that God, who justly brings suffering on a sinful world, can suspend that justice, and forgive those who trust him and bring them into everlasting, pain-free joy? How does their suffering die without undermining the justice of God in not punishing God-belittling sin?

The answer is that the suffering of God’s children dies in the suffering of God’s Son. In his own suffering, Christ bore our just punishment. God did not suspend justice; he satisfied justice. Here is the way the prophet Isaiah put it seven hundred years before Christ:

He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him [on Christ] the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5–6)

The suffering of God’s children dies in the suffering of God’s Son. It doesn’t come to an end in this age but in the resurrection, which brings us now to our final point about suffering.

5. The Final Hours of Nancy’s Suffering

One of the most difficult questions that Christians ask in the final hours of life is, Why so much suffering right up to the end? The reason the question is difficult is that there’s no time left in this life for a dying person to experience any growth or improvement through his suffering, so it all seems utterly pointless, wasted, without any purpose or design that could give it meaning — Nancy’s final suffering included. Does God speak to that question?

He does, in 2 Corinthians 4:16–18:

We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

If we look only at what is seen, Nancy’s final sufferings were meaningless. But if we look through the lens of God’s word at what is not seen, what we perceive is amazing. It’s found in verse 17: “this light momentary affliction” was “preparing” (katergazō, which means “bringing about, producing”) for Nancy “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

It does not say that her affliction will be followed by the weight of glory. It says that her affliction prepared a weight of glory, which means this: God wastes no suffering, right up to the end. The last gasp of the children of God makes their experience of the coming glory greater. Bob — her suffering, for a lifetime and to her last breath, was not meaningless. It was not wasted, not even at the end.

So, we should say with the apostle, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” the children of God (Romans 8:18).