…Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way [John 4:48-50].
In the Name + of Jesus. Amen. Jesus scolds the official but he brushes this aside. He’s come to Jesus about an urgent matter. His son is about to die. The official does not lament that Jesus greets him with an unkind word. He doesn’t look for signs and wonders to explain why this has happened. He never surrenders hope that this man, Jesus is ‘very good,’ nor does he think of the suffering of his son as something harmless, and regard it as nothing. He brings his pain about his son’s suffering and death to Jesus in all its felt profundity, because he believes that it is God who is at work in life and death and all things.
In faith the official hears Jesus’ words and he hopes that under the curse a blessing lies hidden; under the consciousness of sin, righteousness; under death, life; and under affliction, comfort. He listens for God’s promise. He listens for God’s Word of comfort. He does not look for signs and wonders. He is not like those who do not have God’s Word, who follow their own feelings and remain without comfort in their tears and sorrow.
He buoys himself up with the hope that Jesus, even though He seems to be angry, nevertheless does not hate him or his son or is casting him aside. But sometimes, as Isaiah [28:21] says, God does strange work and simulates anger, in order to kill the mind of the flesh, which is opposed to God. As Job says: “Even though he slays me, yet will I hope.” The official, like Job, is sure that God has something else in mind and is not really angry.
The official relies on God’s promises and attributes to Jesus this power, that He will restore his son to life. He trusts that, as the Epistle to the Hebrews [11:19] says: “God is able to give life even to the dead.” Faith doesn’t ask “Why,” is my son suffering? Why is my beloved boy dying? It hears Jesus’ promise, trusts that the promise is true because its God own promise, then goes home satisfied.
Now, there’s no doubt that the Why questions about suffering perplex us. And as we search the Scriptures and consider stories such as this official’s, or even Job’s, we’re tempted to see those as worst-case scenarios designed to help us get our heads straight in relation to our comparatively small “first world” problems. We look for ways to manage pain. We medicate. We minimize. We moralize. We rage and we run. We develop theories to explain what is happening to us. While they may temporarily help us categorize and compartmentalize our thoughts and feelings, when true suffering comes all our speculations are washed away like so much garbage in a flood.
The Why of suffering keeps us shrouded in a seemingly bottomless void of abstraction where God is reduced to a finite ethical agent, a limited psychological personality, whose purposes can be weighed and measured on the same scale as ours. But since no one alive can see the beginning from the end, from God’s vantage point of the eternal now, we’re left stranded in a prison of inscrutability. And sadly, we often prefer our confinement to the disorienting possibility that our suffering is actually ordained, that God is involved in it.
As with Job, there is a battle being fought in the heavenlies. Trust in God’s promises, not explanations from God, is therefore the pathway through suffering.
Fortunately, we worship a God whose name is Salvation, God with us, Christ our Lord, who is in the business of freeing captives and creating trust where there was none before. In fact, the cross tells us that He does so (and has done so) through suffering and death, not despite it.
God’s gifts are available because Jesus went through the valley of the shadow of death and rose from death. The ‘Good News’ of the Gospel is that God does not brush aside our life with all its pain, shame, rejection, lostness, sin, and death. To your pain, the Gospel says, “You will be healed.” To your shame, the Gospel says, “You can now come to God in confidence.” To your rejection, the Gospel says, “You are accepted!” To your lostness, the Gospel says, “You are found and I won’t ever let you go.” To your sin, the Gospel says, “You are forgiven and God declares you pure and righteous for Christ’s sake.” To your death, the Gospel says, “You once were dead in trespasses, but now you are alive in Christ.”
And let us not forget the official, who refused to ask Why so that he might know Who… His encounter with Jesus testifies to the truth of that blessed little formula: Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Our hope is not Jesus plus an explanation as to why suffering happens. Our hope is not Jesus plus an explanation as to why your child or spouse is so difficult, why the cancer hasn’t gone into remission, why finances continue to be so tight. In fact, the truth that many people don’t understand, until it’s too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you in proportion to your fear of being hurt by them.
What is that thing in your life that if God were to take it away, you’d feel like life was not worth living? When we’re able to answer that question, we will figure out what we are really worshipping, and what, by definition, lies at the root of our suffering. It could be your children, your spouse, an ambition, or a dream of financial success. Those good gifts that God gave us for our enjoyment we have turned into false gods. Suffering often comes upon us and overwhelms us when these things are being stripped away from us by God. Indeed, there is nothing like suffering to remind us how much we need God.
The Good News of suffering is that it brings you to the end of yourselves. It brings you to the place of honesty, which is the place of desperation, which is the place of faith, which is the place of Christ. Suffering leaves your idols in pieces on the ground. It puts you in a position to hear that God sent His Son not only to suffer in your place but also to suffer with you. Our merciful Lord and Savior has been through it all. He is with you right now, in the sin, and in the death, and in the attacks of the old evil foe, in simple, earthly words, water, bread, and wine. And while He may not deliver you from pain and loss according to your liking, He’ll walk with you through it. That is simply Who He is. Our blessed Emmanuel, God-with-us.
It is ironic then that one of the most beautiful and encouraging verses in the Bible which points us to our Emmanuel is also one of the most dangerous. You know which one I’m talking about. St. Paul says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” [Romans 8:28]
Make no mistake, in relation to suffering and death, Romans 8:28 can be a bona fide conversation stopper. A spiritual “shut up.” And lest we think only Christians are prone to such insensitivity, the secular translation, “Don’t worry; it’ll all work out,” is no less ubiquitous. This is classic minimization of suffering and death.
Minimization involves any attempt to downplay or reduce the extent and nature of pain. Any rhetorical or spiritual device that underestimates the seriousness of suffering and death essentially minimizes it. Quick fixes like, It was God’s will, are inevitably minimizing tactics. Platitudes such as, We know he is in a better place now, are minimizing tactics. If moralization reduces suffering to a moral or spiritual issue, minimization makes similar reductions. For example, doctors do this when they reduce suffering to a matter of medication or chemistry, or when psychologists assign suffering to one’s dysfunctional upbringing.
In fact, naturalistic or materialistic outlooks are especially susceptible to minimization.
Whether suffering and death is approached through the eyes of faith or not, the God of the Bible never reduces or compartmentalizes suffering and death—ever. The problems of life brought on by our sinful misuse of God’s grace and gifts are large and varied. Pat answers that ignore this truth are not only inaccurate but also unkind.
When the bottom falls out of our lives, we don’t necessarily find it comforting when people try to cheer us up. No matter how well intended, such overtures create pressure that adds to our distress. Not only are we suffering, but now we feel bad about how we make those around us feel or, at least, about the disconnect between where they are telling us they would like us to be and where we actually are.
All of our attempts (well intentioned as they may be) to minimize suffering and death reveal our universal, fatal love affair with signs and wonders, as Jesus put it. That is, we are infatuated with control and law. “If I can just recast suffering in a diminished role, then I will hurt less.” Or conversely, “If I just do the right thing or just obey enough, God will be pleased, and I will hurt less.”
Neither approach takes Jesus Christ into much consideration. He is a passive bystander at best in either scenario. Both approaches stand on the premise of you and me possessing power that we simply do not have. Yet the knowledge of our limitations does not stop us from exhausting ourselves, from destroying ourselves in our tireless attempts to grab the reins away from God. The breadth of our disagreement with God about how things ought to be is the opposite of minimal.
An old joke is repeated year after year in the graffiti on public buildings. Someone writes for all to see, “Christ is the answer.” After it someone has added, “But what is the question?” The addition is perceptive… Is there a real problem to which Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death offers a solution? What is so impossible about your condition that it should require a death for healing and new life to occur? The extreme nature of the solution, one person’s death for the “salvation” of others, presupposes an extreme need on the part of the others. That’s you and me, by the way.
The cross makes a mockery of our attempts to defend and deliver ourselves, to place a why of our own imagining on suffering and death. God provided a shocking remedy that both reveals and addresses the depth of our illness, our “sickness unto death.” Indeed, despite our efforts to contain, move past, or silence it, that ol’ rugged cross stands tall, resolutely announcing that: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things, St. Paul said, even misused Bible verses and the men and women who misuse them. Instead of diminishing our pain, then, these words proclaim the corresponding and overwhelming gratuity of our Redeemer. The cross and faith turn you away from the Why to the Who, to Jesus Christ dead and risen, who is at work in life and death and all things.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. [Hebrews 4:15-16]
Go on your way, for Christ’s sake you have received grace upon grace, and though you die you will live. Amen.