I recently delivered a sermon about grief. This was possibly the most research ever put in to avoiding a question. The question that hits us first in the middle of suffering, grief, loss, pain, and injustice is “why me?”
Since delivering that sermon I have received quite a few follow up questions. Every sentence of this sermon could been taken to a deeper level, but the limits of time and patience have led to what you see below. It is an opening of a door and dialogue.
If you take the time to listen to or read the sermon below you are likely to find more questions lingering in your mind after than before, and that is by design. It’s not that we can’t find peace, resolution, justice, or answers, it’s that the pursuit of all of these shape our lives. They are found in relationship with each other and with God. So please, feel free to continue the discussion in any way possible. The worst possible response to these topics is silence.
Here is a direct link to download the audio only version.
August 23, 2015
Job 1:21-22 (ESV)
“‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.” Job 1:21-22 (ESV)
Open your Bibles to Job, chapter 1.
Why do bad things happen? Scott answered that question a few weeks ago. But when we’re in the middle of our own grief, those answers always fall short. No matter how true they are, they aren’t comforting or satisfactory. Our own pain is just too deep.
Let’s start with a story. For the past few years I’ve been teaching the fifth and sixth graders on Wednesday nights. This is an interesting age, caught between childhood and adolescence. One of our goals was to cover every book of the Bible over the course of two years. The way the timing all worked out, when we had finished the entire Bible we had one class period left. That last night, I simply went back through the gospel. I talked about God’s love and Jesus sacrifice. Eternal life. The purpose and plan God has for us in this life. Then I opened it up for questions.
Maybe I was expecting something like “did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?” Or maybe even my favorite: “can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” What I got instead surprised me a little. One boy raised his hand and asked: “My grandma was sick and was in the hospital, I prayed to God that she would get better. That would’ve been a good thing. God would have gotten the glory for that. But she didn’t. She died. How could God have done that?” We gently talked through some answers. The next kid raised his hand. Fighting back tears he said, “my mom left when I was young. I don’t really even remember her. My dad has had to raise me alone, and I know it’s been hard for him. How could God let a mother leave her kid?” Another kid said, “me, too.” And then another.
I had recently finished a study of the Old Testament as it relates to suffering. I had also been thinking about reasons people leave the church and experiences that keep people from even considering the church. As I thought about that night with the 5th and 6th graders, I understood that many people leave the church because we shy away from answering the big questions. In many cases, I don’t believe it’s about science or morality at all. Every life has a moment where something bad happens. Something tragic. When it happens, our gut reaction is to say “How could God let this happen to me?” As a church, we’re called to be prepared for this.
When it hits us in the face, when our lives are torn apart by loss and by grief, sound theological answers don’t seem to matter much. The question of “why did God allow a tsunami to kill 500 people on the other side of the world” is much, much different than “why did God allow my loved one to be taken so soon?”
In fact, C. S. Lewis has a famous quote in his book The Problem of Pain “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When he was not actually experiencing pain himself, he talked about it as a way God gets our attention. It’s an opportunity to draw closer to God.
But a few years later, after his own wife died of leukemia, he wrote something very different in his diary. “When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting inside. After that, silence.”
What caused this dramatic reversal? And then what caused him to journey back to faith? There are two sides to the problem of grief and pain. The intellectual side we can talk about during the good times. But when we are actually face to face with grief, loss, and suffering, our conversations take a different shape.
So what are the answers? When the only thing you want is to wake up and discover that what you’ve been living through was a nightmare? When you’ve been crying out to God, why, why, why?
This is something that everyone is touched by. Every life will encounter loss. If we turn from God because of the pain we are going through, we might be rid of God, but we aren’t rid of the pain.
In our culture, grief is something we work very hard to get past, work through, or even deny. Yes, we allow for a brief time of mourning, but then it’s time to move on. If we don’t move along quickly enough, we have workbooks that will guide us through the steps. We see therapists. We take medicine. But is that the right way to handle it?
Let me talk about grief itself for a moment. What I would like you to remember about grief is that it is a component of love. It’s not merely a side-effect or a consequence of love. Love is a good thing. We were created to live in relationship with each other, allowing our hearts to knit together with one another. We can explore just about any part of the Bible or human history to see this. From Genesis, when God says “It is not good for man to be alone” to Corinthians, where Paul tells us of “Faith, Hope, and Love. And the greatest of these is love.” It is clear we were created to love.
My uncle passed away unexpectedly a week ago today at the age of 48. I stood in his apartment with his friends, my family, the medical examiner, and the policemen. In the middle of the tears and hugs, the prayers and the meltdowns, one question resonated with me more than any others. His friend Lisa said, “I don’t know what’s going to fill the hole in my life that his passing has left.”
Maybe it’s because I’m so close to it right now, but that is the best description of grief I’ve ever heard. It’s a hole in our lives left behind when someone we love is gone. The more deeply we have loved, the more deep that hole will be, too.
Personally, I don’t think the hole in our lives goes away. Love changes us. When we fall in love, it transforms us. Our lives never go back to the way they were. Grief changes us, too. When we are separated from those we love the impact on our life never ends. The rest of our lives, our heart will long for what is lost. The thing to remember now, though, is that grief isn’t an event, it’s a part of our journey. The scars will always be with us.
When we first experience the loss, we find ourselves falling into that hole frequently. As time passes and often with the help of others we love, we find ourselves falling into that hole less often. But it’s still there.
Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost a son in a mountain climbing accident, writes that “grief does change over time. I think that’s mainly because you learn to live around the hole in your life, the gap. As you learn to live around it, it becomes less of a preoccupation. But every now and then some strange and unexpected chain of associations brings it all back; some experience makes you think of something, that makes you think of something else, that makes you think of a third thing, and soon the death of the one you loved is once again right there in front of you. That makes you feel the grief all over again. That’s how it should be, in my view.”
But he also goes on to say “If your love was an admirable thing in your life, then your grief is also an admirable thing in your life” His view is that grief isn’t something to avoid or be afraid of. It’s a natural part of life. It’s something to accept and experience.
Somehow, some way, people have come to believe that if God loves us, our lives will be free from suffering. That just isn’t the case. It’s not in the Bible, and it is isn’t reflected in the lives of the people in the Bible. The truth is, it doesn’t matter if you’re Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or if you think all religions are just made-up fairy tales. Suffering will happen.
1.) _Suffering_ will happen.
Why did this happen to me? Why did this happen to the person I love? Whether it’s the loss of parent, the sickness of a child, or some other tragic injustice, those questions are the first to hit. We often try to find a cause. We personalize it and try and figure out if it’s something we’ve done. Did I make God mad? Is this some kind of punishment for me? Is this proof that God just doesn’t care, that He isn’t all powerful, or that He isn’t even there?
We’re going to just barely peek into the book of Job today. It’s rich and deep. It’s beautiful and tragic. One of the main issues it explores is this question we are looking at today. Throughout the book, Job struggles with these “Why me?” questions.
So, let’s take a look at our buddy Job. Here in 1:1, we meet him for the first time.
“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Job 1:1 (ESV)
Here we discover he’s a pretty good guy. If you and I were at a potluck and I introduced myself by extending my hand and saying, “Hello! I’m David and I’m blameless and upright” you’d probably have some doubts. But here in the Bible, that’s how Job is introduced. Right off the bat we see that he’s blameless. Why is that important? Because Job is about to be put through the ringer. He is about to experience suffering, grief, and injustice to a level like few ever have.
Job was blessed. He had 10 children. 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, and 500 female donkeys. And he loved God. He didn’t let his abundance turn his heart from the Lord. His life was good and he was living it faithfully. And yet, in the course of a very brief time, he lost everything. Right in the middle of his normal life. It was a normal day…He was praying for his children, making his sacrifices to God, running his business, and giving to charity. Then tragedy after tragedy hits. All his livestock were stolen or destroyed, his property was taken, and his children died. All of them.
Job knew suffering. He knew injustice. It’s at this point, at the end of chapter one, that he utters the famous words that are at the top of your outline. He drops to his knees and praises God.
Now, there’s a lot we can learn from Job. But there is one thing that I don’t want you to take from this. I’m not giving you a formula for processing grief. Grief is one of the most unique emotions and experiences there is. It hits everyone differently and every time we walk that path it can be different. Yes, Job fell on his knees and praised God in his suffering. To tell you the truth, I’ve done that, too. But there were other times I didn’t. There have been times I’ve pretty much done the opposite. There were times Job grieved differently, too. What I’m saying is there isn’t one right way to grieve. The point here is that what Job suffered wasn’t a result of something he did. He didn’t deserve it.
But Job was just a man. A regular human, like you and me. From what we’ve read, it doesn’t look like he deserved what he got. But if he’s human, that means he’s not perfect, right? The Apostle Paul writes that all humans have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. So, logically, it’s still possible that the reason he experienced this suffering was because he messed up at some point. His suffering could still be a consequence, right?
Let’s take a look the other guy we’re meeting today. Jesus. When Jesus was walking the earth, he was fully God and fully man. That might sound confusing, but we can explore it further in a different sermon. What we know is that he experienced the same trials and temptations as us. He loved deeply. He laughed with his friends. And he experienced loss. We know that he grieved. In John 11, we learn of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. Lazarus had been sick and his sisters Martha and Mary had summoned Jesus. They knew Jesus could heal their brother and prevent an untimely death.
When Jesus arrived, it looked like it was too late. Lazarus was dead. As Jesus walked up, the sisters are grieving. There are mourners in sackcloth and ashes loudly crying out to God. Martha is very matter of fact taking care of business, handling the logistics, which is a way many of us deal with loss. Lazarus has been gone for three days. Jesus sees many emotions and many expressions of those emotions, but the one thing that isn’t on display is hope. It’s too late. Lazarus has been taken from this life too soon and there is no hope of his return.
Standing there, Jesus must already know how this is going to end. If you’re not familiar with the story, I’m going to go ahead and give away the ending. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Right then and there. This tragedy is completely undone. That wrong is righted, right here in this world. Jesus knows he’s going to do this. But before that happens, when he is in the middle of all these expressions of grief, something profound happens. It’s the shortest verse in the Bible.
“Jesus wept.” John 11:35 (ESV)
Jesus experienced grief. He grieved with his friends. He grieved with the strangers that were there.
What I’m really hoping we learn from this is that suffering happens in this world. It doesn’t matter if you’re the most blameless person who ever lived. Even if you’re the son of God–which trust me, you aren’t–but even if you’re the son of God you aren’t immune to it.
Every time God speaks directly to the issue, he has a specific focus. As humans, we tend to look back on the tragedy that happened to us. We continue to ask “Why.” We think we can find meaning by looking to the past. But we find that God always redirects that question. He never answers the why question. The fact is, it happens to everyone, so the why question doesn’t matter so much. Instead, God’s focus is toward the future. God’s focus is “to what end?”
2.) God’s focus: __To What End__ ?
I know that when you’re hurting, the last thing you want to think about is how your pain can be used for something positive in the future. But that’s God’s consistent answer. And when we look at the testimony of others, we see the same thing played out all around us. For example, as a way to work through his grief and pain, Dr. Wolterstorff wrote the book “A Lament for a Son.” In the years since then, hundreds of people have approached him to thank him for putting those words out there. They have found comfort in his words. He was able to express things they felt but couldn’t quite grasp. Now, this doesn’t balance the equation… we can’t say that his son’s death was worth it or that the reason his son died was so that the book would be written. But God was able to bring good from it. Without even knowing the answer to the “why” question, we can trust that God can use our pain to bring light into the world.
Job wanders through his grief with his friends and his wife for over 30 chapters. He cries out to God from the depths of his soul. It’s rich story, full of twists and turns. In the end, Job gets what so many of us crave. God shows up. God speaks. For three incredible chapters, God speaks to Job. But it isn’t the truth Job wanted. Job wanted to know “why.” God’s response never contains that answer. Instead, God shifts the perspective. He shifts it off Job and onto Himself and His plan. He reminds Job of who God is. He’s the creator of the universe. He designed everything and contains all wisdom.
“Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind?” Job 38:36 (ESV)
He also doesn’t owe anyone any answers. Everything is his.
“Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine.” Job 41:11 (ESV)
Now, it is tempting to see arrogance and frustration in God’s response. But from what we know of God, this isn’t the case. We must interpret these passages with the knowledge that God is good. God loves us. God wants us to have a relationship with Him. The reason he’s not answering the question isn’t because he doesn’t know the answer. He does. But we don’t need to. God wants us to focus forward. He wants us to accept the past and look to the future. The path we thought our lives would take has been changed forever. But we can keep walking anyway. We look to the future and to God. We aren’t to suppress our past…the people we loved truly matter and we will carry their memory for the rest of our lives. But our life didn’t end when theirs did. As long as God has us here, he has a purpose for us. We’re to let what happened shape us, but keep looking forward.
If we look at God’s responses, we can learn a critical lesson about our own grief and suffering. You can write this down… our response is to have an eternal focus.
3.) Our response: _Eternal Focus_.
Joey Bayly lost three sons…one at 18 days, one to leukemia at 5 years, and one at age 18 in a sledding accident. His book A View from the Hearse, has brought comfort and wisdom to thousands of people. His advice is summed up in this sentence:
“Don’t forget in the darkness what you learned in the light.”
The darkness we find ourselves in doesn’t negate the truth we know about God. The truth is, God is good. God loves us. And God is working in all things for the good of those who love Him. That doesn’t mean life is easy. Sometimes it’s unbearable. But that is only for the short term. If we broaden our perspective a bit, we know that on an eternal scale, God’s plan is beautiful. He is redeeming creation as we speak. He will make all things new. He will right every wrong.
If we look back to Job’s response to God, we can see Job’s shift in perspective.
“I know that you can do all things, that no plan of yours can be thwarted.” Job 42:2 (HCSB)
At this point, Job is still in the middle of his pain and suffering. The only difference is that he has seen the glory and the power of God. No wrongs have been righted. But he trusts God and God’s plan.
But what about you and me? God didn’t speak to us from the sky like he did for Job. Even though He didn’t give Job the answers Job was craving, at least he showed up, right? So what about us?
Well, as we start to finish up here, let me mention one more thing about grief. One of the most terrible things about it is how alone we feel. Grief is such a personal thing that nobody can understand what you’re going through. In general, the best way to help a person dealing with grief and loss is to simply show up. Be there. Be present. You don’t need fancy words. You don’t need any answers to the tough questions. You just need to be present. Help them to understand that they aren’t truly alone.
See, that’s what God did. God didn’t sit on his heavenly throne watching the suffering and grief of this world like it was a sick reality show. No, God came to us. Like I mentioned earlier, Jesus was fully man but He was also fully God. From His miraculous birth to his untimely death, he was fully man. We know that he felt pain. He got hungry. He grieved. He loved. His neighbors ran him out of town and tried to kill him. He was tempted. He was put on trial. Political leaders attempted to control him with wealth and power. Crowds of people tried to make him king. Those same crowds also called for his crucifixion. He was abandoned by his friends, was put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit. He was beaten, tortured, spit on, and ultimately murdered. He endured every trial imaginable. In those last moments on the cross, He cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He knew what it was like to feel like the line of communication with God was cut off. That God simply wasn’t there.
Knowing this may not lessen our own pain. But what we can take from this is that God understands our pain. He has experienced it himself. Now, I know that someone out there is thinking of a loophole. You’re thinking…Jesus never had kids. He doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a child. But remember this. Jesus was also God’s only son. God saw his son thrown in jail unjustly. He saw his son get beaten and be brutally murdered on a cross. And we know when that happened, He was angry… the earth shook, clouds blocked out the sun, and thunder rolled at the moment of Jesus death. Has there ever been a more powerful expression of grief than that? Even though God has a plan and God knew the plan, God still experience grief.
And then he responded. In the middle of his grief, he didn’t look back at the “why?” Instead, he looked forward “to what end?” God took that injustice and turned the darkest day in human history into the greatest story ever told.
You see, the murder of Jesus was the greatest crime ever committed. But the death of Jesus paid the price for my shortcomings. And yours. Jesus work on the cross paid a debt that we simply can’t pay. Now each and every one of us, no matter what we’ve done in our lives, can stand blameless before God. We can all be reconciled to Him. Redeemed. We can have a true relationship with God. And in that, we can find hope.
The story didn’t end there. They took Jesus body off that cross and put it in a grave. Three days later, Jesus walked out of that grave. He didn’t simply sleep off the effects of the crucifixion. The man had been tortured, had nails driven through his wrists and feet, and had a spear thrust into his side. You don’t sleep that off. No, after He was buried, He conquered death…proving that He was God. Because of the resurrection, we can have assurance that death doesn’t have the last word. We can find hope in the fact that this world isn’t all there is. When our time on this earth is through, we can be reunited with God and with our loved ones forever.
Many of us make the mistake of focusing only on this life. We think that the point of life is to enjoy our time here on earth. To be comfortable and happy. If that were the point, then grief would be a terrible and permanent interruption. It would drain life of its meaning, proving we’re wrong. But the point of life isn’t comfort. It isn’t even happiness. The point of life is to know and be known by God, which happens in the good times and the bad. But it is only in that space that we can truly find peace. It is only here that we can truly find happiness.
In the book of John, Jesus tells us:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 (NIV)
We can have peace. He has overcome the world. Maybe today you’re hurting and lost. You’re questioning God or coping with a great loss. When you find yourself in a pit because of grief, sorrow, pain, or injustice, just look around. Jesus is there with you, calling you to Him. Maybe today is the day for you to turn from your past and give your life over to Him. Maybe today is the day to return to Him, to step into the assurance and hope that can only be found in Him. I’m going to ask that every head be bowed as we join together in prayer. As we pray and sing, if you’d like to make a decision for Christ or if you would like to come down front for prayer, Scott and I will be here for you.