The Poetry Of Suffering

I recently completed two books on the gift of suffering: Suffering Is Never For Nothing by Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015) and Though I Walk Through The Valley by Vance Havner (1901-1986).

Elisabeth Elliot is well known for her missionary work and has written many books. Her first husband, Jim, was killed on the mission field. (Her second husband died of cancer). Havner was a beloved Southern Baptist preacher and author, and his book chronicles his experience during the loss of his wife of 33 years (Sara) to Cushing’s Disease. 

What I found interesting is that they both turned to poetry and hymns to help their audience relate. Poetry seems to be the preferred language of suffering. It is God’s gift of grace written by kindred sufferers to point us to the sacrifice of the Man of Sorrows. Poetry helps us to process suffering without directly comparing levels or degrees of it. 

Is it any wonder that God gave us the Psalms to comfort our weary souls? There are times in our lives where we find ourselves like David: 

I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:8-10

Havner wrote: “One thing I have learned in my journey through the Valley – I am not the only one who has traveled this trail. Every day I meet some fellow pilgrim. Almost every other person I talk with has been scarred by tragedy, bereavement, suffering.” 

Elliot wrote: “I’ve come to see that it’s through the deepest suffering that God has taught me the deepest lesson.”  And, “Suffering is a mystery that none of us is really capable of plumbing. And it’s a mystery about which I’m sure everyone at some time of other has asked why” 

She defines suffering this way: “Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have. She explains, “I think that covers everything.” 

She goes on to say:

“The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.” 

“And let’s never forget that if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be careful never to love anything or anybody. The gifts of love have been the gifts of suffering. Those two things are inseparable.” 

Later Elliot puts it all in perspective: “It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize this seeming contradiction between suffering and love. And we will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God.” She describes the cross of Christ this way: “It is the best thing that ever happened in human history as well as the worst thing.” 

Likewise, Havner writes: “Nobody ever walked through so dark a Valley and He walked it by Himself. We can never suffer as He suffered, die as He died. He has been through the Valley and we need fear no evil for He walks it with us.” He continues, “So…my fellow traveler, wending your way through dangers, toils, and snares you will meet a host of kindred souls. You have joined the brotherhood at the price of heartache and tears.” 

Elliot goes on to quote several poets and hymn writers:

Measure your life by loss and not by gain,
Not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth.
For love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice,
And he that suffereth most hath most to give.
~Ugo Bassi

She references a line from a hymn by Richard Baxter, “Christ leads me through no darker rooms than He went through before.”

She then provides a short poem from the perspective of a young girl who at six-weeks old had an inflammation of the eyes and the doctor tried a procedure which burned both her corneas so that she was blind for life. Here’s the 9 year old words of Fanny Crosby: 

O what a happy soul am I although I cannot see.
I’m resolved that in this world contented I shall be.
So many blessings I enjoy that other people don’t.
To weep and sigh because I’m blind, I cannot nor I won’t.

Elliot closes her thoughts with a poem by Grant Colfax Tuller:

My life is but a weaving between my Lord and me;
I do not choose the colors, He worketh steadily,
Oft times He weaveth sorrow and I, in foolish pride,
Forget He sees the upper, and I the under side.
Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly,
Shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needful in the Weaver’s skillful hand,
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern he has planned.

As Havener travels through his own valley after his wife died, he states: “I have not lost her for I know where she is!” Then he shares the following anonymous poem: 

Death can hide but not divide;
Thou art but on Christ’s other side;
Thou are with Christ and Christ with me,
United still in Christ are we. 

He goes on to quote lines from John Greenleaf Whitier’s poem “The Eternal Goodness.”

I know not what the future hath
Of marvel or surprise,
Assured alone that life and death,
His mercy underlies,
And if my heart and flesh are weak
To bear an untried pain,
The bruised reed He will not break,
But strengthen and sustain.

And in another chapter he writes of the joyous expectation of Christ’s return and the longing to go home, but if Christ delays, then:

One sweet solemn thought
Comes to me o’er and o’er;
I’m nearer home today
Than I’ve ever been before.
~ Phoebe Cary

A few days after Sara’s passing Havner wrote: “There is not much that I dread from here on out. When one has drained the bitterest cup he is better prepared for any other potion that life may serve. Indeed he can sing:”

Let sorrow do its work,
Send grief or pain;
Sweet are Thy messengers,
Sweet their refrain,
When they can sing with me:
More love, O Christ, to Thee,
More love to Thee! More love to Thee!
~ Elizabeth P. Prentiss

He ends his book referencing Paul’s suffering and how he “had to find it is far better to learn that God’s grace is sufficient and His strength is made perfect in our weakness.” Then he quotes Fanny Crosby:

All the way my Saviour leads me;
What have I to ask beside?
Can I doubt His tender mercy,
Who thro’ life has been my Guide?

Fanny’s words of hope remind me of my dad who often quoted her hymns. He passed away from cancer in October of 2018. With tumors growing out of his body through weakened scars of surgeon incisions, no longer able to walk, our conversation turned to heaven’s joy and no more suffering, and he profoundly and joyfully said in his last days, whisper-voice, “Praise God!”

There is Hope in the midst of suffering…

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10

Advertisements

Prison, Providence, And The Lesson Of John The Baptist

Our understanding of God’s Providence, His divine guidance and care to fulfill His purposes, often comes into question when we find ourselves in a dilemma where we can’t understand our circumstances. Said another way, there may be times where we find ourselves in senseless situations that are completely out of our control. Our need is dire, and we have no choice, but to throw ourselves at the mercy of a Sovereign God. (Which is where we all must get to eventually, some get there sooner than others.)

We often think of providence in a lighthearted, purely positive sense, where God’s supernatural care gets us out of jams. For instance, we’re late for work, but every redlight turns green, or in terms of near misses, such as the lightning strike was eight feet from my house, or that out of control car missed my bumper by inches. 

Looking at scripture, one recurring theme where we see God’s providence, turns out to be far from lighthearted. It’s found repeatedly in prison stories where His people are unjustly thrown, facing death, enduring awful conditions, and their faith is stretched in ways we can’t imagine. It’s exactly where God wants them, they’re in His hands. The outcome uncertain, but God… It’s through the furnace of affliction where we must learn to trust Him, and where He receives the most glory. 

By the way, prison can take many forms. We don’t have to be behind bars or facing execution to be trapped in a desperate place. Whatever form prison may take in our lives, it’s precisely where God’s people must learn to trust, wait, and depend on Him. It’s where we cast our burdens upon Him for He cares for us. And we have an Advocate interceding, the Man of Sorrows, who has been there. 

When we think of the many prison situations in the Bible, we often remember the positive outcomes. For example, Joseph (falsely accused and jailed, but God…), Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (framed to a fiery furnace, but God…), Daniel (in the lion’s den, but God…), Paul in chains…

But what about the negative outcomes? What about all those martyred for their faith, like Stephen? What about John the Baptist – losing his head? 

God’s plans and purposes are not always positive from the standpoint of our desired outcome. God ultimately provides deliverance for His people through Christ and the cross, where the ultimate injustice, the ultimate mishandling of a trial, the ultimate wrongful death, brings total forgiveness and healing to prisoners of sin. Through his death and resurrection, Christ our Substitute, saves us from the eternal punishment and death we all deserve (mercy), while at the same time providing eternal life that we don’t deserve (grace). 

We may live through difficult and senseless times, we may be rescued from whatever prison we’re in, or we may die like John the Baptist, but God…through Christ, has provided eternal life to those who put their faith and trust in Him. Though we may die, yet shall we live in eternal joy. Life in the presence of the One we can worship and enjoy forever. That, my friends, is the ultimate providential care and guidance that He uses to accomplish His purpose. Christ is worth dying for. And on our journey to the Celestial City, we too must learn, to live is Christ, but all praise be to God, to die is gain. 

Pain

Please take it away
Lord, give me Your novocaine
Let me not be numb

Behind the lines

I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.
My heart throbs; my strength fails me,
and the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me.
Psalm 38:8-10

Another Day Strong

italy-2080072_1280

Some days are harder than others
Without your curves under the covers
Waking up knowing I’ll never hold another…like you
But then there’s days when I think everything’s gonna be alright
And nights when my heart tells me I’m gonna survive
Without you snuggling by my side

Another day gone, another day strong
I’ve gotta long way to go, down this lonely road
I don’t feel like I’m getting far, when I’m missing you so hard
But I’m praying one day at a time, since you’ve been gone
I’m another day strong

Some days I’m haunted by your face
Driving by spots where we used to date
Sometimes you appear in crazy ways…out of the blue
Like hearing that song you always sang the wrong words to
When a caller on the radio sounded just like you
Catching the scent of your perfume

I’m moving on, never the same
Changed by love, changed by pain
But your memory will never fade

Another day gone, another day strong
I’m another day strong

The Prayer of Jehoshaphat

As we approach the National Day of Prayer, below are six principles on what to do when we don’t know what to do, as found in 2 Chronicles 20. This is not a six-step prayer formula with guaranteed success. Instead, it’s six-steps for praying through tears with hope and dependence as we wait on the Sovereign.

In the passage, Jehoshaphat, the King of Judah, was completely overwhelmed as a great army was approaching prepared for war. So, what do we do when we’re overwhelmed with the battles of this life and the way forward seems impossible?

1. Seek the LORD
The first thing Jehoshaphat does is seek the LORD through prayer and fasting:

Jehoshaphat was alarmed and set his face to seek the LORD. And he proclaimed a fast throughout Judah. So the people of Judah gathered to seek the LORD, and indeed, they came from all the cities of Judah to seek Him (2 Chronicles 20:3-4).

2. Acknowledge His Power
Next, he acknowledges where his Hope comes from:

Then Jehoshaphat stood in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem in the house of the LORD, in front of the new courtyard and said, “O LORD, God of our fathers, are You not the God who is in heaven, and do You not rule over all the kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in Your hand, and no one can stand against You (2 Chronicles 20:5-6).

3. Acknowledge Our Weakness
He admits weakness, but not without hope:

Our God, will You not judge them? For we are powerless before this vast army that comes against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You (2 Chronicles 20:12).

4. Eyes On Him!
This brings other verses to mind:

My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net (Psalm 25:15).

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth (Psalm 121:1-2).

…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2).

5. Wait On Him
The people stood waiting (their wait was short, but the wait could be long) and then God spoke through Jahaziel:

Meanwhile all Judah stood before the LORD, with their little ones, their wives, and their children. And the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jahaziel…

And he said, “Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the LORD to you, ‘Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you” (2 Chronicles 20:13-17).

6. Worship While Waiting
Even before victory, they believed, worshipped, and sang. The good news is we know that Christ has won the ultimate victory, but we often have to fight for the right perspective during our darkest hours:

Then Jehoshaphat bowed his head with his face to the ground, and all Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem fell down before the LORD, worshiping the LORD (2 Chronicles 20:18).

….And when he had taken counsel with the people, he appointed those who were to sing to the LORD and praise him in holy attire, as they went before the army, and say,

“Give thanks to the LORD,
for his steadfast love endures forever.”

And when they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed (2 Chronicles 20:20-22).

Engage
Comment with a praise story of how God answered your prayer as you trusted Him through a difficult situation.

Alive

jesus-3279901_1280

Resurrected, and…
Alive! I…I have seen Him
Go tell the others!

Behind the lines

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her (John 20:15-18).

…“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…(John 11:25).

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: