May 2012 – “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).
This is one of the strangest statements in the Bible. It is a paradox and a mystery. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus. Happy are the sad! What do these strange words mean? Who are the mourners, why are they sad, and how are they comforted?
The Mystery of Human Suffering
Most of us know about Jim Elliot, the missionary martyr who died in Ecuador in January 1956 when he and four other missionaries were killed by the Auca Indians (now called the Waoranis). The story made headlines around the world and inspired books, films, and generations of Christian missionaries. His wife Elizabeth told the story in several books, including the bestselling Through Gates of Splendor. More than a half-century later, we still repeat Jim Elliot’s famous words, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."
Jim Elliot’s story gripped the evangelical world, making him arguably the most famous missionary of the 20th century. What most people don’t know is that he had an older brother who went to Peru as a missionary in 1949. During his 62 years on the field, Bert Elliot established 150 churches. He died in Trujillo, Peru on February 17, 2012 at the age of 87. When Randy Alcorn interviewed him in 2006, Bert described his younger brother this way:
Jim and I both served Christ, but differently. He was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.
Bert Elliot was home on furlough when Jim and the other missionaries were killed. He and his wife wrestled with whether or not they should return to the field:
“Why doesn’t God take care of us?” he remembered asking. “If we give our lives to serve him, how come there’s not the protection?” The answer that came to him then became the hallmark of his own life. “It’s in dying that we’re born to eternal life,” he said. “It’s not maintaining our lives, but it’s giving our lives.” So a few months later, Bert Elliot and his wife, Colleen, returned to the jungles of Peru. (Life Story on Oregon.com).
Randy Alcorn described Bert Elliot as a “faint star that rose night after night, faithfully crossing the same path in the sky, to God’s glory."
Jim Elliot was a great meteor, streaking through the sky.
Bert Elliot was a faint star, crossing the same path night after night.
Which one did the greater work?
Why did one die young and the other live 87 years?
No matter how long we ponder the matter, these questions cannot easily be answered because “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29). God has his reasons but he’s not obligated to explain them to us. The “secret things” describe the deep purposes of God that we simply are not capable of understanding. What sort of explanation would suffice to explain to us why one man lives while another man dies?
God has his reasons but he doesn’t explain them to us.
I still remember the last time I saw Peter Blakemore. It happened at a pastor’s prayer meeting in connection with the National Day of Prayer. I came a few minutes late and found the men gathered in a circle ready to pray. As I walked in, I recognized most of the pastors immediately, except for one man in a wheelchair who was facing away from me. He had two teenage boys by his side.
When I sat down, I realized the man in the wheelchair was Peter Blakemore, pastor of Harrison Street Bible Church in Oak Park, Illinois. Peter was 42 years old, married, with seven children. He had lived in Oak Park all his life, the only exception being the years he spent in college and graduate school. His father pastored Harrison Street Bible Church for over thirty years, and then Peter took up the ministry in his father’s stead.
It all started when Peter noticed a strange pain that wouldn’t go away. He sought medical help, but the doctors couldn’t pinpoint the source of trouble. Eventually they found a tumor, performed a biopsy, and sent it off for analysis. It took a long time to get a correct answer, but in due course, a lab on the West Coast reported that Peter had contracted a rare form of cancer. He began chemotherapy in a desperate attempt to eradicate it.
When I saw Peter at the prayer meeting, he was bent over a bit, but smiling as he sat in the wheelchair. As we prayed, I heard a strange noise coming from my left. It was Peter’s eldest son, rubbing his Dad’s back because the pain was so intense.
A Face Radiant with God’s Glory
I think Peter was the last one to pray. He said something like this: “Lord, when I discovered I had cancer, the only thing I asked was that you might use this to honor and glorify your name. I thank you, Lord, that you have abundantly answered my prayer. If I make it, I will stand up and give you praise. But if I don’t, I’ll give you honor and glory till the very end.”
As soon as the prayer meeting broke up, I sat down beside Peter and asked him how he was doing. The news was not good. A tumor had developed in his right lung, growing to the point that it had shattered several of his ribs. That was why he was doubled over in pain.
Peter told me that the doctors did not know for sure what kind of cancer this new tumor was. They told him that it could be one of two kinds. “If it is one kind,” he said, “I have two or three weeks to live. If it’s the other kind, then I have one or two months.”
He said it calmly, without fear or panic. In fact, he was smiling as he said it. As I looked at him, his face was radiant with the glory of God. Like Moses of old, my friend Peter had seen the Lord, and now nothing else mattered.
You Can’t Trace God’s Footsteps
He told me that he preached the previous Sunday for the first time in seven weeks. They had to prop him up in his wheelchair, but he somehow found the strength to preach for an hour from Romans 11:33, “His paths (are) beyond tracing out.” That text means that you can’t trace God’s footsteps. You don’t know where he’s come from, and you can’t tell where he is going. All you know is that he is with you in the midst of your suffering.
The room was empty. All the other pastors were gone. Peter’s last words to me were these: “All my life I’ve been speaking about God’s grace and trying to get people to listen. Now they listen when I speak, because I’ve discovered that through it all, God’s grace is sufficient.” With that, his sons began to wheel him from the room. Though bent over with pain, he smiled and waved at me as he left.
The words of Paul came to my mind, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16).
And still the question remains. Why did my friend Peter die so young when he had so much to offer the world?
It is a mystery hidden in the mind and heart of God. All human explanations must ultimately fail. Is there an answer to the question Why? Yes, there is, but the answer is hidden from our view.
To all our questions, God replies, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). The answer is a Person, not an explanation. Someone may reply, “But that’s not enough. I want a real answer.” To which I reply, “If God himself is not enough, then no answer would ever satisfy you.”
The Ministry of Divine Comfort
But to leave the matter there would not be fair, for the Bible has a great deal to say about the ministry of divine comfort. It tells us a number of important truths we need to remember.
1. God himself draws near to those who hurt.
Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Here is a promise of God’s special presence in the midst of our pain. Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord himself draws near to us in times of great suffering. We sense his presence in a way that goes beyond the natural. We hear his voice though there is no sound in the room. Many Christians can testify to this special sense of God’s nearness felt during a time of great suffering.
2. God uses suffering to draw us to himself.
In this same Psalm David declared, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (v. 4). Suffering turns us to the Lord as nothing else can. Perhaps you’ve heard it said this way, “You never know if Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have. And when Jesus is all you have, then and only then will you discover that Jesus really is all you need.” Recently we received a letter from a prisoner named Monica who said,
I finished reading “An Anchor for the Soul,” and I am about to begin reading it again. . . . I truly believe I have been blessed by the situation I am currently in. Because of it I know I have gained eternal life with Jesus. If I had not been arrested, I doubt I would have ever come to know Jesus as I do now.
Prison is not “good” in the sense that we usually use the term, but going to prison can be good if it causes us to turn to the Lord. So it is with all the troubles, difficulties and afflictions of life. We pray more, and we pray more fervently during a time of crisis because we know that if God doesn’t help us, we’re sunk. Sometimes I think that God allows certain things to happen to his children in order to get our attention focused completely on Him.
3. We grow faster in hard times than we do in good times.
Romans 5:2-4 describes the process God uses to develop godly character in our lives. In fact, Paul says that “we also rejoice in our sufferings” (v. 3). That may appear to be a misprint, but it isn’t. Paul isn’t suggesting that we should become masochists who rejoice in the hard times as if we enjoyed the pain. That wouldn’t even be a Christian idea. He doesn’t say, “We rejoice because of our sufferings” but rather, “We rejoice in our sufferings.”
Even in the most difficult moments, God’s people can rejoice because he is at work doing something important in them. The next few verses explain the process. Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, character produces hope, and “hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit" (v. 5). What starts with suffering ends with the love of God. This is a wonderful progression, but you cannot get to the love of God without starting in the place of suffering.
More than one person has said to me, “I wouldn’t trade my pain for the things God has shown me.” If that doesn’t make sense to you, it is only because you haven’t been there yet.
4. Our sufferings qualify us to minister to others.
2 Corinthians 1:4 tells us that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” The Greek word translated “comfort” in this verse is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 5:4. God uses our sufferings to comfort us so that when we are better, we can then minister to others in his name.
No one understands cancer like someone who has been through it. No one understands divorce like a person who’s been through it. No one understands the pain of a miscarriage like a mother who has lost a child that way. No one knows the pain of losing a job like someone who has been told, “You’re fired.”
Many Christians are superbly qualified to minister to others, and they don’t even know it. They are the ones who have been deeply hurt by the troubles of life, and through it all they have discovered that God is faithful. Those folks have an important message to share. They can say with conviction, “God will take care of you. I know, because he took care of me.”
They have earned their degree in the School of Suffering, and now they are qualified to minister to others who are newly enrolled.
The Majesty of God’s Sovereignty
What do these things teach us about the character of God?
1. Because God is sovereign and we are not, most of our questions will never be answered in this life.
Some people can’t live with that truth, so they devise human answers to explain suffering and death. Those answers almost never work, and sometimes they hurt more than they help. When I am called to the hospital, I never try to answer these hard questions. They are beyond me. Better to say less and be silent before the Lord than to try to explain the mysterious ways of God.
2. Because God is good, we know that he has our best interests at heart.
That sentence gets to the heart of Romans 8:28. The older I get, the more I am convinced that the goodness of God is the central issue of life. If you believe God is good, you can endure things that would break most people. You can live with unanswered questions so long as you believe in the goodness of God. But once you doubt his goodness, you must become either a secret atheist or an angry Christian. And really, there’s not much difference in those two categories, if you think about it.
In stating it that way, it is important to remember that God’s goodness doesn’t depend on our happiness. When our oldest son was in high school, he and a few friends survived a late-night wreck that totally destroyed our new van. The man at the local body shop estimated that when the van hit the tree, it was going at least fifty miles per hour. The force of the impact drove the engine eighteen inches off its block and into the passenger compartment. You could see tufts of hair in the windshield left from the force of the impact. In the providence of God, the van hit the tree in the center of the front bumper. “If it had hit the tree six inches to the left or right, you would have been going to the funeral home, not to the hospital,” the man told us.
I cannot explain why things happened the way they did. At one point that night, there were four people in four different hospitals. But no one died, and we eventually replaced our van. Several months later, during a Thanksgiving service, my wife rose to give a testimony. She said something like this: “Many of you know that our oldest son and his friends barely survived a terrible wreck. Some people have told us that God was good to spare Joshua and the others who were with him. It’s true that God was good to us, but God would have been good even if Joshua had died in the wreck.”
I confess that I was unnerved when I heard those words. Like many people, I am accustomed to connecting God’s goodness with my happiness. But it doesn’t work that way. I listened to Eddie Fox describe what happens in the Methodist churches of Nigeria. He said that whenever the church gathers, the speaker will say, “Hallelujah,” and everyone responds, “Amen.” When the speaker says, “God is good,” with one voice they reply, “All the time.” Our Nigerian brothers and sisters are right. God is good all the time.
God’s character is not on trial in your sufferings. You may think it is, but it isn’t. Job tried to put God on trial, but the Lord ended up putting Job on trial.
God is good, and his mercy endures forever. That is true regardless of our moment-by-moment experience.
3. Because God is wise, nothing is ever wasted in our experience.
Romans 8:29 tells us that God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. I often think of a sculptor sitting down before a hunk of marble. On the outside, the marble looks ugly and unformed. But the sculptor sees something beautiful inside that hunk. So with hammer and chisel, he begins to chip away. For many weeks he shapes, cuts, and polishes, until little by little an image emerges from the stone. On and on he works, never stopping until the sculpture is complete. What was once ugly is now a thing of beauty.
Even so, the Lord takes the hammer and chisel of human suffering to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. In those moments when we feel that God has simply hammered us into the ground, we discover later that nothing was done in anger, nothing in haste, but everything was according to his plan so that, in the end, we might be beautiful, like Jesus himself.
The most beautiful Christians I know are not the young, the rich, the educated, the successful, or the influential. Those persons may be happy, but their lives are shallow because the sculptor has not yet picked up the hammer and the chisel. No, the most beautiful Christians I know are those who have been through suffering and come through it with their faith in God intact. They may not laugh as much as others and their faces may be lined with care, but the beauty of Christ is in their eyes and their voices testify to God’s amazing grace.
If you feel the heavy weight of God hammering down on you, rest assured that nothing is being wasted. Everything has a purpose. In the end, God will be glorified, and you will be more beautiful than you ever dreamed possible.
4. Because God is love, he will not leave you alone in your pain.
This is the promise of the second Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). God will come to you. You may not feel it or believe it, but it is true, for he has promised it. If it were necessary, I could produce a long line of witnesses who could testify to God’s comfort in the midst of great suffering.
But it is not necessary to do that. I know God will come to you, because he came for you two thousand years ago. God proved his love when he sent his Son Jesus into this sin-cursed world. He didn’t have to do it. He chose to do it. He did what we would never do. He voluntarily sacrificed his only Son. He not only sent him to earth, He stood by and watched Jesus die a terrible, bloody death.
After Calvary, God has nothing left to prove to anyone. How can you doubt his love after you look at the bleeding form of Jesus hanging on the cross?
See from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love or sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
-Isaac Watts, (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”)
I realize that this may not answer every question, but it does answer the most important question: Does God care for me in the midst of my suffering? The answer is yes, God cares for you, and if you doubt his love, fix your gaze on the Cross and be comforted.
We understand these strange words a bit better when we see them refracted through the bloody haze of Good Friday. See him on the cross, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3 KJV). He knows what you are going through. He will personally comfort you, and in the end, you will be blessed.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.