“…give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (ESV)
I was not intending to write another blog on the issue of pain and suffering, but two experiences prompted me to take one more stab at this most thorny issue. The first was when a friend asked if I would write more about our son’s battle with cancer and death addressing the issue of rejoicing in all things—not a challenge to be taken lightly. The second was when my wife and I had dinner at an incredible restaurant in Scottsdale, AZ last week. It was a unique experience. We were sitting at the “chef’s counter” while a team of very young cooks prepared the food. The young chef closest to us had a remarkable resemblance to Andrew, who died over 6 years ago at age 21. His profile was almost indistinguishable from Andrew, and Barb and I were both overwhelmed emotionally. This is the first time since his death I have seen anyone who even remotely resembled him. My longing for my son has never been higher. The wounds—still very fresh—were opened and probed. I recalled the words of the psalmist: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 1116:15).
Rejoicing in All Things
Attempting to address my friend’s challenge of rejoicing in all things, I first addressed this question: Why did God allow Andrew to be afflicted with cancer and die? I will never be able to give an answer in this life, however God’s omnipotence is unquestionable. I believe that God is always right, but I do not know why my son died at age 21. When severe suffering finds us, we are left without an explanation—there are no words. We can only place ourselves in God’s hands and await His eternal explanation. I am comforted by the words of Jesus in John 13:7, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Barb and I often speak of Andrew in terms of Hebrews 11:38—of whom the world was not worthy. Spurgeon reminds me that God brings suffering to those He trusts the most. More might be accomplished through Andrew’s death than through his life. His life was not cut short, it was complete, but still we grieve his absence.
Human attempts to explain the problem of grief are so inadequate. There is no satisfactory explanation for tragedy’s dark mystery. For each human answer there is the counter-question of why God’s purpose could not have been accomplished in a different way. We cannot explain the calamites of life. Efforts to do so are always futile and unproductive. We are left without an explanation because God has not given us one in His Word. The ancient book of Job deals with the age-old question of evil and suffering, but it never answers the question. It left Job with God’s reminder of His creative powers and sovereign majesty, and the simple implication that He was great enough to be trusted. I will continue to trust Him, even though I do not understand my own adversity, pain and grief. For all that I know about God supersedes my own human plight and declares to my soul that He is worthy of all glory and I can trust Him. I declare with Job, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him”.
What Does the Word Say?
The book of Job proclaims that we live by faith, and that faith is surrounded by mystery. Reason gropes in the dark for answers. Faith reaches beyond the darkness to God. God did not give Job the answer to the problem of suffering. But He taught Job the proper attitude—that of complete trust in God despite all the incentives to the contrary. There is no facile answer to the problem of unmerited suffering in a world created and presided over by our righteous and just God. My wife and I have experienced the tear-stained darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, but we have not found the answer to the question of human suffering. That will have to wait. We have not found the why of human suffering, but we have found the only One who can make it bearable. We are perplexed but not in despair (2 Corinthians 4:8). The final resolution of the problems of this world lies beyond death. Human suffering for which there is no satisfactory explanation has been shared by our Redeemer in His atoning death on the cross (Isaiah 53:4, 5). Until God’s plan is complete, we live with the mystery of human pain and suffering.
So, to the issue of being thankful in all things: I do not believe that I must be thankful for Andrew’s death. Death is not a pleasure to our Lord. Death is the final enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26). It is not part of the ultimate manifestation of God’s creation. It is the result of man’s sin. How then am I to respond to Paul’s admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, “In everything things give thanks”? I can thank God for Christ’s victory over death. Ultimately death itself will be destroyed. I thank God for life—especially Andrew’s life—not for death. Yet I can thank God that through death He brings us into His eternal presence. I thank God that He rescued Andrew from sin and death, and I thank God for his home-going to heaven.
God was not working in opposition to Andrew when he called him home, though this is not easy for me to understand. We will not always understand why our loving heavenly Father allows us to be afflicted, but we trust Him to know what is best for our eternal future. Though we cannot comprehend His ways we do take comfort in His promises (2 Corinthians 4:17). I have learned that the deepest and most serious questions of our lives are written in our pain and grief. This is why the psalmist declares in Psalm 119:71, “It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees”. The explanation will have to wait until we see Jesus. God does not explain the reasons for the ways in which He deals with us in time, but someday He will unveil His perfect wisdom to us in eternity. We cannot trace His hand but we can trust His heart (1 Corinthians 13:12). When I read Isaiah 55:8-9, I understand that the reason for Andrew’s death lies in a realm far beyond my comprehension.
A Limitless Understanding of God
I am thankful that my understanding of God is not limited to the experience of grief in the death of my son. Were that the case, I would not know enough about God to realize that He is good, and that I can trust Him in the darkest of circumstances. I am grateful that I know enough about God that I can trust Him in areas which I do not understand. I was a bit surprised to find this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” I am grateful that Barb and I have the presence of God in the tragedy of Andrew’s long battle with cancer, his death and in the dark days which have followed. Spiritual conviction, born in the light of Christ, carries us in the darkness.
As before, I am most grateful to address all of you. I remain yours in the Lord Jesus,
“Though Satan should buffet and trials should come,
Let this blessed assurance control:
That Christ has regarded my hopeless estate,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.”
“O, Lord haste the day when our faith shall be sight;
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound and the Lord will descend,
Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, O my soul!”
It is Well with My Soul, Horatio Spafford