I apologize for announcing one text and title for this message and putting all that off until next week and going in a different direction. Everything in me in the last few days has been moving in another direction. Almost all my thinking and all my emotional energy has been spent pondering and holding fast to the great reality of God’s sovereign goodness in the bitter providences of our lives.
There are at least five things that have conspired to crystallize what I believe God wants to say to all of us this morning, but especially to mothers.
1. Mother’s Day every year brings up the memory of my mother’s death on December 16, 1974. It was a bus collision in Israel, and a very strange thing that my father sitting next to her lived. He was exactly my age when she died.
2. I have had to think and pray a lot about the reality of $6.5 million instead of $9 million for our new educational building. And I thank God for every dream and every sacrifice in your hearts.
3. Wednesday night’s vote did not go the way I hoped it would, and I have been steadying my heart with God’s sovereign goodness ever since.
4. Christianity Today arrived in my mailbox on Friday, and the cover story is about the debate over “openness of God.” The introduction says,
A few theologians are now teaching that God doesn’t know the future precisely because the future does not yet exist. Thus, while God is very good at calculating the odds, he still takes risks — especially in dealing with his free creatures.
It is a great sadness to many of us that the leaders of our college and seminary do not see this unorthodox view of God as serious enough to exclude from what will be promoted as evangelical by at least of one of our faculty. And what makes the matter relevant this morning is that Christianity Today is exactly right to say,
These theological debates have enormous implications for piety and pastoral care — especially for how we respond to the tragedies that invade our lives.
5. What put me over the edge in planning for today was reading the cynical Washington Post article in the StarTribune yesterday. It was about another mother who was killed, with her baby, while sitting with her husband in a single–engine Cessna 185 floatplane over the jungles of Peru about four weeks ago.
The Peruvian Air Force mistook the missionary plane for a drug plane and opened fire. Missionary Veronica Bowers, age 35, was holding her seven–month–old daughter Charity in her lap behind MAF pilot Kevin Donaldson. With them were Veronica’s husband Jim and six–year–old son Cory. The pilot’s legs were shot and he put the plane into an emergency dive and amazingly landed it on a river where it sank just after they all got out. One bullet had passed by Jim’s head and made a hole in the windshield. Another bullet passed through Veronica’s back and stopped inside her baby, killing them both.
“To be a mother is a call to suffer.”
How Do You Handle Bitter Providences?
So the question is: How do you handle the setbacks, the disappointments, the abuses, the heartaches, the calamities, the bitter providences of your life? And I ask it specifically to mothers, because to be a mother is a call to suffer. When Jesus looked for an analogy of suffering followed by joy, he said (in John 16:21),
Whenever a woman is in labor she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy that a child has been born into the world.
To be a mother is a call to suffer. Not just at the beginning of life, but also at the end. Simeon said to Mary, Jesus’s mother,
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed — and a sword will pierce even your own soul. (Luke 2:34–35)
Mothers suffer when their children are born. Mothers suffer when children leave them and go to the mission field. Mothers suffer when their children die. Mothers suffer when their children are foolish. “A wise son makes a father glad, but a foolish son is a grief to his mother” (Proverbs 10:1). To be a mother is a call to suffer. Oh yes, it’s more. But it’s not less.
“God does have good purposes in the hurts that others inflict on us.”
So what do we do? Do we go the way of openness theology to handle the disappointments and heartaches and calamities of life, and say with one popular writer
When an individual inflicts pain on another individual, [one should not] go looking for ‘the purpose of God’ in the event . . . Christians frequently speak of ‘the purpose of God’ in the midst of tragedy caused by someone else . . . But this I regard to simply be a piously confused way of thinking. (44–46)
In other words, God had no particular purpose for taking Roni and Charity Bowers and leaving Jim and Cory. Were all the words of Elisabeth Elliot and Steve Saint and Jim Bowers at Roni’s memorial service a “piously confused way of thinking,” and no true ground for comfort and strength?
The Biblical Foundation
I’ll tell you what they said in a moment. But first let me lay a Biblical foundation, because in the end it is not the testimony of man that settles us, but the testimony of God in his word, through Jesus Christ.
Consider two passages of Scripture, one from the Psalms, and one from the Gospel according to Matthew.
Joseph’s Slavery, God’s Sovereignty
In Psalm 105 we have an inspired interpretation of an inspired Old Testament story, the story of Israel going down to Egypt preceded by Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his brothers. We learn two crucial things from verses 16–17:
And [God] called for a famine upon the land; He broke the whole staff of bread. He sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.
Notice two things: the governance of God over natural calamities, and the governance of God over the sinful actions of men. It says “God called for a famine” — that is a natural calamity that came on the world. And it says, God “sent a man before them, Joseph, who was sold as a slave.”
“God’s sovereign goodness to all who trust him is the solid ground of our comfort in calamity.”
That was sinful of his brothers to do, and in that sinful act God had a purpose — so much so that the psalmist called their sinning God’s sending — just like it says in Genesis 50:20 (Joseph to his brothers), “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.”
When it says, “God meant it,” it says more than, “God used it.” This is the exact opposite of what openness theology teaches. God does have good purposes (good intentions, good meanings) in the hurts that others inflict on us. And we may and should take great comfort in this sovereign goodness in the setbacks and disappointments and heartaches, calamities and bitter providences of our lives.
God Decrees Missionary Suffering
Then consider the words of Jesus on why missionary candidates should not fear to go to the hard and dangerous places, and why mothers should not fear to let their sons and daughters go — or even take them. In Matthew 10:28–31 Jesus says to his disciples to get them ready for suffering:
Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
Notice three things:
1. Jesus knows that people will kill the bodies of his missionaries.
This is going to happen. But, he says, don’t fear those who can only kill the body, and can’t kill the soul (verse 28).
2. Jesus says that we don’t need to fear this hostility because no sparrow falls to the ground apart from God.
And you, his disciples, are more valuable than many sparrows. So how much less will you be shot out of the sky apart from God! God governs the flight of a sparrow, and God governs the flight of arrows and bullets. This is the basis of every Bible story about the victory of God. “The horse is made ready for battle but victory belongs to the Lord” (Proverbs 21:31). Because bird flight and arrow flight and bullet flight belong to the Lord, this is the solid ground of our comfort in calamity: God’s sovereign goodness to all who trust him.
3. The Bible sustains with real comfort.
Now listen to the testimony of Roni Bowers’ husband at his wife’s memorial service — and words of Steve Saint and Elisabeth Elliot. These testimonies don’t increase the authority of the Bible. But they do show the power of the Bible to sustain in a way radically different from the way openness theology tries to comfort.
Two weeks ago (April 27) Jim Bowers stood in front of twelve hundred people in Calvary Church of Fruitport, Michigan and said,
Most of all I want to thank my God. He’s a sovereign God. I’m finding that out more now. . . . Could this really be God’s plan for Roni and Charity; God’s plan for Cory and me and our family? I’d like to tell you why I believe so, why I’m coming to believe so.
And then he gives a long list of unlikely events in and after the shooting, and alludes to God’s sending his Son to the cross. Here are some of the key sentences that only those who trust in God’s sovereign care for his own will truly understand. He said,
Roni and Charity were instantly killed by the same bullet. (Would you say that’s a stray bullet?) And it didn’t reach Kevin [the pilot] who was right in front of Charity; it stayed in Charity. That was a sovereign bullet.
He speaks of his forgiveness to those who shot at the plane:
How could I not when God has forgiven me so? Those people who did that, simply were used by God. Whether you want to believe it or not, I believe it. They were used by Him, by God, to accomplish His purpose in this, maybe similar to the Roman soldiers whom God used to put Christ on the cross.
Steve Saint's Tragedy
Steve Saint was at the memorial service. In 1956, when Steve was a boy, his father was speared to death by the Auca Indians of Ecuador. Steve came to the microphone and looked down at Cory, the six–year–old boy whose mother and sister had been killed.
Cory, my name is Steve. You know what? A long time ago when I was just about your size, I was in a meeting just like this. I was sitting down there and I really didn’t know completely what was going on. . . . But you know, now I understand it better. A lot of adults used a word then that I didn’t understand. They used a word that’s called tragedy. . . But you know, now I’m kind of an old guy, and now when people come to me and they say, “Oh I remember when that tragedy happened so long ago.” I know, Cory, that they were wrong.
You see, my dad, who was a pilot like the man you probably call Uncle Kevin, and four of his really good friends had just been buried out in the jungles, and my mom told me that my dad was never coming home again. My mom wasn’t really sad. So, I asked her, “Where did my dad go?” And she said, “He went to live with Jesus.”
And you know, that’s where my mom and dad had told me that we all wanted to go and live. Well, I thought, isn’t that great that Daddy got to go sooner than the rest of us? And you know what? Now when people say, “That was a tragedy,” I know they were wrong.
Then Steve Saint looked up at these twelve hundred people and told them the difference between the unbelieving world and the followers of Jesus. He said, “For them, the pain is fundamental and the joy is superficial because it won’t last. For us, the pain is superficial and the joy is fundamental.”
“For the world, the pain is fundamental and joy is superficial because it won’t last. For us, pain is superficial and the joy is fundamental.”
Words of Elisabeth Elliot
Finally, I mention what Elisabeth Elliot said to the family:
You wonder what God is doing, and of course, we know that God never makes mistakes. He knows exactly what He is doing, and suffering is never for nothing. . . . He has given to you, Jim, the cup of suffering, and you can share that with the Lord Jesus who said, “The cup the Father has given to me, I have received.”
She ended with a poem by Martha Snell Nicholson (a “mendicant” is a beggar):
I stood a mendicant of God before His royal throne
And begged him for one priceless gift, which I could call my own.
I took the gift from out His hand, but as I would depart
I cried, “But Lord this is a thorn and it has pierced my heart.
This is a strange, a hurtful gift, which Thou hast given me.”
He said, “My child, I give good gifts and gave My best to thee.”
I took it home and though at first the cruel thorn hurt sore,
As long years passed I learned at last to love it more and more.
I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace,
He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides His face.
That’s where we have been in Romans 7. It isn’t law–keeping that justifies us before God. It isn’t first law–keeping that sanctifies us. It is the lifting of the veil so that we see Jesus for who he is, dying in our place and rising again so that we receive him as the treasure of our lives.
And if it takes a thorn to pin aside the veil — if it takes disappointment and loss and heartache and calamity and bitter providences — then, for Christ’s sake, and for the sake of our eternal joy seeing and savoring him, let it come. Amen.