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Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

God, Suffering, Lament, and Mourning

Aug 29, 2016

Oftentimes a diverse and unrelated bunch of events will nicely come together, and inspire a hopefully coherent and unified article. This is one of them. Thinking about brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering in various ways is one of these events.

Sadly contemplating the woeful, even diabolical choice Americans face in November for who will run the country is another. Reading the book of Lamentations again is a third such element in all this. And chancing upon a documentary on TV last night about a plane crash was the fourth piece to my puzzle.

Much of this amounts to learning to trust God when your world comes crashing down around you. I have known my fair share of suffering, and certainly persecuted believers overseas are in a league of their own when it comes to horrendous pain, suffering and grief.

But I have Western friends who are believers who are going through a lot of misery and turmoil right now, and I can only pray for them and hope they fully feel God’s sustaining presence. As to the US elections, I have said it often enough: while I am not a prophet, the only way I can look at the two main demonic choices Americans have to select from is to see this as the just judgment of God on a sinful and rebellious nation.

grief 1There is no way any true follower of Christ can look upon either candidate other than with complete revulsion and grief, knowing America has gone so far down the tubes that this is the best we can come up with. This grieves me and bothers me continuously. All I can do is trust an unchanging God in such changing and ugly times.

My third bit of input was again reading what may be one of the most depressing and discouraging books in the entire Bible: Lamentations. But in spite of the horrific destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by a sinister and evil pagan nation, and all the anguish and grief that followed, it is also a book filled with hope and clear pictures of God’s grace.

The temple especially was THE symbol of God’s blessing and presence amongst his people. The Israelites felt that they were invincible because of this, so when it was all mercilessly destroyed, their whole world and worldview was utterly smashed.

Robin Parry offers helpful commentary on just how devastating all this was. He notes that the overwhelming trauma of the people as depicted so graphically in the book

was induced as much by the social and theological import of the situation as by the physical pain. This crisis cut right to the heart of Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. The impregnable city of God, the joy of the whole earth, had been turned to ruins; the temple, the very dwelling place of YHWH on earth, had been desecrated and destroyed; the king, descended from the Davidic line appointed by God to rule over Israel “forever” (2 Sam 7:14-16), was captured and deported; the people who had been given the promised land as an inheritance had been vomited out of it into Babylon. The theological world of the Israelites was torn asunder leaving questions about the possibility of their ongoing relationship with God. The crisis was so traumatic because it was experienced as a total abandonment by YHWH.

Of course as we read elsewhere in Lamentations and the entire Bible, this was not a final abandonment. But it certainly felt like it at the time. But I have discussed this book and some of its key themes elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/10/22/the-book-of-lamentations/

My final bit of input into this meditation involves part of a doco I saw on television last night. It was the 2014 film, “Miracle Landing on the Hudson”. It got my attention because just earlier I had learned that a Hollywood film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks, called Sully, is due to hit the big screens on September 9. See a trailer of the film here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjKEXxO2KNE

Both films are about the forced landing on the Hudson River in New York of US Airways Flight 1549 piloted by Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger in January 2009. With 155 people on board, it was miraculous indeed that everyone survived, with only 5 people seriously injured.

Sully was regarded as a hero, but the events during the accident were harrowing and horrific indeed for everyone involved. The prospects of sudden death are always sobering, but tales of heroism and human dignity were aplenty as the plane came down and then rested briefly on the river with everyone struggling to get out.

One scene from the doco especially stood out for me. A woman with children on board afterwards told of how utterly helpless and useless she felt as a mother, not being able to do anything to save her children. She had no control over events at all, and she felt completely stripped of her ability as a mother to protect her loved ones:

“Yes it was an overwhelming sense of failure as a mother, absolutely. You know that’s just the last thing you want to do as a mom, is take your children to their death. . . . You felt so futile… Then it was just a matter of waiting for that point of impact.”

A male passenger next to her offered to brace her baby boy for her, so she reluctantly gave the baby to him. “I wanted him to be in a safe place. I had to let him go and hope that he may be saved. And then I had to let go of everything – you know.” The whole film can be seen here, and the moving words of the mother are found at the 2:13:35 point: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cFUQRiZMwLM

Wow, what a sense of utter hopelessness and despair. A loving mother not able to do anything to save her own child. Everything was taken out of her hands. She had no control at all. Yet is that not really what life is like? We think we have all power and all control.

But without God we would not even exist for a second. It is his safe hands that keep us, not our own hands. And sometimes God has to take away the support structures and safe places and security we so much depend upon to see that it is him and him alone that should be the sole object of our trust, hope and commitment.

Our own strength will not save us. Governments cannot save us. Programs cannot save us. We are indeed totally in a place of futility and hopelessness without him. The Israelites had to learn that as they lost everything. All their security in Jerusalem and the temple was completely wiped out.

Now there was nothing, and no one, but Yahweh. It is the same for us. Trump will not save America. He will not make America great again. He is part of the problem, not the solution. Only Jesus Christ can save us and make us great. Thus we need to hold on to everything in this life very loosely. It does no good to cling to anything. Even loved ones.

Yes we love and care for family members and friends, but they too may be taken away from us at any moment. We too may find ourselves on a plane spiralling out of control, heading for certain death and destruction. Are we ready for that? And are we able to take our overwhelming grief and sorrow and give it to God when we do lose loved ones and experience great loss?

As I mentioned, the sufferings we in the West face are in many ways nothing compared to the horrific persecution and death so many believers face elsewhere. Nonetheless, broken relationships, busted marriages, lost loved ones, family conflict, betrayal and so on are all real matters of grief and suffering.

And I know many believers going through these very things right now. So let me finish here with a moving passage from a very moving book. Everyone should have this short volume. Everyone who suffers can find great comfort here.

I refer to the 1987 book, Lament for a Son by Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff. It is about the tragic loss of his 25-year-old son who had died in a mountain climbing accident 4 years earlier. The hundred-page book is filled with wisdom, pathos, insight, beauty and tears.

There is so much I could quote from. Early on for example he says this about his son: “We took him too much for granted. Perhaps we all take each other too much for granted. The routines of life distract us; our own pursuits make us oblivious; our anxieties and sorrows, unmindful. The beauties of the familiar go unremarked. We do not treasure each other enough. . . . I didn’t know how much I loved him until he was gone.”

But it is his meditation on Matthew 5:4 that I wish to leave with you as a final reflection. That verse is well known:
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” He writes:

What can it mean? One can understand why Jesus hails those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, why he hails the merciful, why he hails the pure in heart, why he hails the peacemakers, why he hails those who endure under persecution. These are qualities of character which belong to the life of the kingdom. But why does he hail the mourners of the world? Why cheer tears? It must be that mourning is also a quality of character that belongs to the life of his realm.
Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused and who ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death. The mourners are aching visionaries.’
Such people Jesus blesses; he hails them, he praises them, he salutes them. And he gives them the promise that the new day for whose absence they ache will come. They will be comforted.

[1873 words]

11 Responses to God, Suffering, Lament, and Mourning

  • Bill, thank you for your post. I too am one of those in the West who agonize over the state of affairs in America as well as in this country, particularly in connection with the “marriage equality” issues and the bigoted Left. I have, however, found comfort in the re-reading Francis Schaeffer and his book on Lamentations, Death in the City. Schaeffer certainly wrote prophetically and we will do well to consider what he said so many years ago.
    Respectfully
    Andy

  • Thanks Andy. And many thanks for reminding me about that important book. I just pulled it off the shelves and am half way through rereading it again. It will likely become the stuff of one of my next articles.

  • Powerful quite from Wolterstorff. Thanks for sharing it Bill.

  • I understand that verse in my own life. I have lost body mobility, friends, family, job in 5 short years. Yet in all this happening in the past five years! I am still able to serve still able to stand with those whom oppose social justice for the poor, homeless & those whom have lost their will to fight. I continue to fight the good fight & have grown immensely as I’ve had to press into God & learn some new lessons on imitating Christ in my daily walk. Grace upon Grace. Growing in humility to others 😂

  • Powerfully coherent Bill; thanks.

    In pursuit of Christ we can remain in constant clarity, even in such turbulent and socially skew-whiff times.

    Kerry, keep drawing strength from the Almighty Father. It sounds like you are doing so many good things for the Kingdom of God in the community.

    Even if our work unto the Lord doesn’t get the desired earthly results we expect; in the heavenly realm things are happening, and they might just glisten with Gold.
    Tim

  • Thank you for your daily blog – I don’t often comment.
    Yes, too many are looking to government or some other place or thing/s for the missing pieces. Jesus the Christ is “more precious than gold and sweeter than honey.”
    Would be wonderful if national leaders could remind us about the importance of knowing Jesus.
    The trick is to find the peace in the chaos. The still point in a turning world.
    Thanks again for today’s post and your daily blog.

  • Many thanks Sandra, and Timothy, and Kerry, and Chris.

  • And as mentioned Andy, here is the article drawn from Death in the City. Thanks again for the reminder.

    billmuehlenberg.com/2016/08/30/francis-schaeffer-west-gods-judgment/

  • Thank you for this deeply needed gift of encouragement, Bill. All I need to add is a ditto to Andy’s words. Only God knows what is in Malcom Turnball’s heart and mind. I just pray that the Holy Spirit falls afresh on him and all those in power here in Australia as well as the rest of the World.

  • Hi Bill. After reading the quote from Wolterstorff & commenting previously on this post I ordered the book. It arrived last week and I have since read it. I’m so glad to have done so. As a pastor myself and one who has suffered the death of a child I found the book to be one of the best Christian reflections on death and suffering I have ever read. Definitely not trite, or superficial, Wolterstorff shares the deep wound that the death of his son caused him. Yet he also engages with our God who is Himself a suffering God. Thank you again so much for sharing this.

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