Monday, June 30, 2008

Comforting a Hurting God

by Shawn Brace

My wife and I attended a concert some time ago of a well-known Christian group. We decided to take my wife’s brother and his new wife to the concert for their wedding gift. It was a good concert (and I really like the group’s music), though portions of the concert were a little too raucous for me.

But there was a time in the concert when things got a little quieter and a little more somber. Before playing one of their more popular songs, the lead singer explained the story behind it.

Apparently, the group had befriended a little girl a few years before. Her parents had sent the group a video of their daughter, dancing to one of the group’s songs, and the group immediately fell in love with the adorable girl. They started communicating extensively with her, e-mailing or calling her when they were on the road, and visiting her when they had concerts in her area. They were smitten with the charming child, to say the least.

Unfortunately, they received bad news one day while they were touring. The little girl was diagnosed with Leukemia, and things weren’t looking very optimistic. The news immediately shook the group, and they kept close contact with the little girl and her family in the months that ensued. They tried to call and write as often as they could, and they visited her when the circumstances allowed.

One of the things that they were so amazed by was the faith of the little girl’s mother. She was, of course, always by her daughter’s bedside in the hospital, and she seemed to stay optimistic throughout the whole experience. One particular time, when the girl took a turn for the worse, the mother was seen standing over her little girl, with Bible opened on the floor, quoting Bible verse after Bible verse.

Sadly, the little girl never recovered, and the group received news one day that she had passed away. This, of course, shook them terribly, and out of immense agony and confusion, the lead singer penned the, now well-known, words, “I was sure by now/God that you would have reached down/and wiped our tears away/stepped in and saved the day.”[i] The opening words of the song reflect the pain of wondering why God didn’t step in and intervene during such a tragedy.

The words struck a chord in listeners’ hearts. Soon after the song’s release, it catapulted to the number one spot on the Christian music charts, revealing the fact that the problem of pain is still as relevant to the human psyche as it has ever been.

Everyone wants to know where God is when we hurt.

You’ve Got Questions . . .

For as long as the question has been asked, answers have been supplied just as speedily. When confronted with questions about loss or tragedy, we are often pointed to places in Scripture that tell us about the presence of good and evil in this universe; or that God works out everything for the good of those who love Him; or that it is our privilege to participate in Christ’s sufferings. These ideas may be good and true, and they may even be appropriate at times, but no matter how much we know the right answers, we are never immune from the pain that loss causes. Until further notice, death still has its sting on humanity, and it still leaves a scar.

About a year and a half ago, I received an e-mail from one of my good friends with some exciting news. He sent a mass e-mail out to all of his friends, announcing that he was engaged to a wonderful Christian young lady. Knowing his bride-to-be as well, I was very excited for the two of them. They happen to live in a country where there are very few Adventists, and the likelihood of finding a spouse of the same persuasion is very small.

Sadly, a few hours after sending the e-mail, his fiancée was tragically killed in a car accident. She was 24-years-old, full of life and beauty. He, of course, was devastated.

Truthfully, we may not have all the right answers about tragedies such as this. And I’m not even sure that God necessarily wants us to. What He does ask of us, however, is to “consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3).[ii]

To be sure, the last thing we want to do is “grow weary” and “lose heart,” so Christ invites us to simply “consider Him” for a moment.

I Come to the Garden Alone

In his epic work, The Cross of Christ, English theologian John Stott poignantly admits, “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. . . . In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?”[iii] Stott, of course, answers his own question by pointing to the fact that the question, itself, is irrelevant. God is not immune to tragedy. He is not immune to pain. He experienced the cross, in all of its fury.

Even before the cross, however, Christ’s pain reached a height that no other human being has ever experienced, or was ever intended to experience. I’m sure you’ve trodden over Gethsemane’s ground before, but another visit would perhaps help us “consider” Christ as He endured hostility.

You know the scene. Jesus comes to this place that He has so often visited before. It is a place that has brought many hours of comfort to His downtrodden soul.

This time is different, however.

While He invites all of His disciples to join Him, He especially invites His three closest disciples to continue on with Him. They are to be His companions for the evening, especially as the weight on His shoulders seems to get heavier and heavier.

To be sure, Peter, James, and John are quite perplexed by the scene that is unfolding. Just a short time before, Jesus was riding a donkey through Jerusalem and people were hailing Him as their Messiah and King. Now He seems so dejected and depressed. They can’t understand.

And then He says something that absolutely boggles their mind. He groans, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.” There wasn’t one hand that had physically been laid on Him, and yet He was speaking of dying. Such a puzzling statement to make.

But the four continue walking together until Jesus suddenly stops and says, “Stay here and watch with Me.”

Those last two words of the sentence are quite sobering. Jesus finishes the sentence by saying “with me,” a tall task for mere mortals. He invites them to partake of that which He is going through. He invites His three most trusted and beloved disciples to join with Him in His hour of darkness.

After inviting the three to watch and pray, Jesus continues on alone. He, of course, had always felt alone on this earth, humanly speaking. Although He was constantly surrounded by other people, He was profoundly alone. He was different than they.

But, no matter how alone He had felt at times, He always felt the presence of His Father.

Now He is really alone. In the absence of divine companionship, to which He now feels separated, He desires human companionship. And that’s why He encourages His closest disciples to stay close by His side and watch with Him. He desires their support.

Going only a little way away, He immediately falls to the ground and begins pleading with His Father. Drops of blood begin running down His face. He feels overwhelmed with the pain of the separation from His Father. He is convinced that He will never see Him again. He is convinced that His very existence will be obliterated forever.

In great pain and agony, He screams out, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”

He retreats to the place where He left His three favorite disciples. For once in His life, He is looking for a word of comfort. He is looking for encouragement from the men He had so often encouraged.

But His heart sinks to the ground as He turns the corner and sees them. They are sleeping, oblivious to the fact that Christ is in desperate need of their help.

Deeply disappointed, He cries out, “What? Could you not watch with me Me one hour?”

Again He does the same thing, and again He returns to find them sleeping. He does it a third time, only to discover the same result.

Here were three men who, hours before, swore that they would always be there for Jesus. These were the guys who boasted of their allegiance to Him. Yet in Christ’s darkest hour—when He was painfully estranged from His heavenly Father—His human friends separated from Him as well.

Having been let down by His human friends, Jesus is finally strengthened by an angel who has been sent on a heavenly mission. But not before the disciples were given ample opportunity to participate in something few humans have ever done—ministering to God Himself, helping, encouraging, and comforting Him at His darkest hour.

Ellen White adds extra insight about Christ’s Gethsemane experience,

The human heart longs for sympathy in suffering. This longing Christ felt to the very depths of His being. In the supreme agony of His soul He came to His disciples with a yearning desire to hear some words of comfort from those whom He had so often blessed and comforted and shielded in sorrow and distress. The One who had always words of sympathy for them was now suffering superhuman agony, and He longed to know that they were praying for Him and for themselves.[iv]

It’s a sobering thought—to think that God was in such a vulnerable position that He was hoping to be comforted by those whom He created. In His moments of pain and hurt and trauma, He, too, looked for answers. He, too, looked for a shoulder to cry on.

The truth of the matter is, God experiences pain on a level that we can’t even comprehend. While we lament over the hurt that we experience, the heart of God hurts to an infinite degree. Gethsemane shows us as much.

But when it’s all said and done, and we wonder about the problem of pain and suffering, I wonder if we’re asking the right question. Perhaps the right question isn’t where is God when we hurt? Perhaps the right question is where are we when God hurts?

Sadly, much like the disciples, we’re sleeping. And at the hour God desires to be comforted by us the most, we are in a deep slumber, dreaming of fortunes and mansions on high.

This is not to downplay the pain we experience at all, nor is it to say that our hurt doesn’t matter. What it is to say, however, is that as we hurt, God hurts alongside us—and even after. And in the hours of deep pain and despair, God longs for comforting just as much as we do.

Long ago, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David foretold of Christ’s experience in the book of Psalms when he wrote, “Reproach has broken My heart and I am so sick. And I looked for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none” (Psalm 69:20).

Will this be said of us when Christ comes to us, seeking comfort? In the midst of tragedy, God’s pain goes far beyond any that we could experience. He experienced, and continues to experience, pain on a whole other level.

[i] Casting Crowns, “Praise You in This Storm,” Lifesong, Reunion, 2005.

[ii] All scriptures, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New American Standard Bible.

[iii] John R.W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InverVarsity Press, 1986), 335.

[iv] Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1898), 687, 688.

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