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

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Sing, Meditate, Be Glad

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“I will sing unto Yahweh as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have my being. My meditation of him shall be sweet; I will be glad in Yahweh.” Psalm 104:33-34

Here is one of my favorite texts in all of the Bible. How precious are these words, and all of this psalm. Surely you can feel the exuberance of the psalmist in writing of our “very great” Creator (v. 1). Indeed, all creation loudly proclaims Yahweh’s praise (v. 24). Note in our text that we are to sing “to” the Lord, meditate “of” him, and be glad “in” him! Those little words describe experimental Christianity about as well as words possibly can. Correct? Surely, by the Holy Spirit’s blessing, you see this and feel its spiritual power!

The elect of God are not afraid to sing. They may not have great voices or have much harmony, but they still sing “to” the Redeemer (he’s our audience). We often “sing to the Lord” riding down the road, don’t we? We sing in our homes, we sing at work, as well as in church services with other believers. We humbly sing “as long as we live.” We cannot do otherwise.”Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God” (Isaac Watts). We cannot sing unless we truly know Christ! Without Christ we only sing the world’s ditties. But true children of God get excited about the songs of Zion, which bring joys, gladness, and holy rejoicing to God’s people beyond expression (1 Peter 1:8). Our meditation “of” the Savior is a daily delight, the psalmist calling it “sweet.” Holy meditation is never sour or boring, though some may think it is. For sure, John Newton was right when he wrote, “Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know.” Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ is known from quickened hearts!

“Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). The psalms are full of Yahweh’s praise (like Psalm 104), so we gladly sing them. We regularly sing hymns like “How Great Thou Art,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.” What a wonderful spiritual song is “Amazing Grace,” one of the most beloved of God’s children. How precious are the “spiritual songs” of the Old Testament (Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32, 1 Samuel 2, etc.). All true hymns truly praise “HIM” who is the Savior!

Come, poor sinners, come away;
In meditation sweet,
Let us go to Golgotha,
And kiss our Savior’s feet.

Him, your fellow-sufferer see;
He was in all things like to you.
Are you tempted? So was He.
Deserted? He was too.
                   Joseph Hart

Jesus, before Thy face I fall,
My Lord, My Life, my Hope, my All;
For I have nowhere else to flee,
No sanctuary, Lord, but Thee.
                       Samuel Medley

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A Scripture Meditation by W. F. Bell (1948-2018)

Create In Me A Clean Heart

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Have mercy on me, O God
According to Your unfailing love
For I was born in iniquity
My sin is ever reminding me
Create in me a clean heart

There’s blood on my hands, O God
I have failed and lost sight of Your love
Don’t cast me away from your presence
Hide your face from my great transgression
Create in me a clean heart

Come deliver me, O God
According to Your redeeming love
Wash my heart and then make it whole
Renew my life and then scrub my soul
Create in me a clean heart

Restore me into joy, O God
Open my lips to sing of Your love
Lead me away from sin’s temptation
Let me rejoice in Your salvation
Create in me a clean heart

Behind the lines

Psalm 51 – David’s Psalm after God used Nathan to confront him over Bathsheba and Uriah.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
(Psalm 51:7-12)

He’ll Guide Us Forever

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We will tell of the LORD
We will make Him famous
Teaching future generations
To proclaim His greatness

He’ll guide us forever
Even when we struggle
Bringing peace and joy to our hearts
In the day of trouble

And He is our fortress
Withstanding enemies
For He rules over Mt. Zion
The King of the City

He’ll guide us forever
And He’ll never fails us
So tell the next generation
That He is the Savior

Behind the lines

Psalm 48

Walk about Zion, go around her,
number her towers,
consider well her ramparts,
go through her citadels,
that you may tell the next generation
that this is God,
our God forever and ever.
He will guide us forever (Psalm 48:12-14).

Sovereign Grace

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Our ears have heard the famous stories
Of the wonders You have done
Our eyes can’t know those ancient glories
But our hearts and minds are won

It wasn’t the strength of an army
That gave Israel the land
No, it was Your arm, Great and Mighty
And the fury of Your hand

It’s not in the bow, sword, or armour
That we place our hope and trust
It’s in the Spirit, Son, and Father
That we will forever boast

Let not our hearts go back to Egypt
Let not our hearts idols raise
But give us other god amnesia
And lips to sing Sovereign Grace

Behind the lines

Psalm 44
O God, we have heard with our ears,

our fathers have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm save them,
but your right hand and your arm,
and the light of your face,
for you delighted in them (Psalm 44:1-3).

Look Away From Me

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Lord, teach me to number all of my days
My life is but a moment in Your mind
For I’m just a breathe that blows away
I’m a raindrop in the sea
Easily confused and so blind
Let me not complain about Your design

Where do I put my hope if it’s not in You?
Come rescue me from this rebellious land
For my punishment is ever renewed
I have no words of defense
Please stop the blows from Your hand
When you discipline me for my sin

Lord, hear my prayer and listen to my cry
Don’t ignore my tears falling on the floor
Look away so I can smile if I try
Kill the sin or leave me alone
Let me die and be no more
Look away, look away from me, LORD

Behind the lines

 

Psalm 39

“Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
(Psalm 39:12-13)

 

 

 

 

 

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