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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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

Afflictions Are Limited

alone-boy-child-256658 (1)A Scripture Meditation by W. F. Bell (1948-2018)

“Though I have afflicted thee, I will afflict thee no more.” Nahum 1:12

The entire human family, including God’s elect, will at times suffer various afflictions; however, our great and wise God, “according to the multitude of his mercies,” assures us that they are limited (see Lamentations 3:31-33). The rod does not last forever. Just as the prophet Nahum (“comfort”) gave a message of comfort to the nation of Judah in the seventh century B. C., revealing that Jehovah would eventually remove the Assyrian rod from their land, so too we are assured that the trials and sorrows of God’s people will one day come to an end: “Though I have afflicted thee, I will afflict thee no more.” Thus we have this comforting promise to us in the New Testament:”Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). Note, “receiving!” 

It was C. H. Spurgeon who once said, “Our Father in heaven takes away the rod when his design in using it is fully served.” Yes, whatever that “design” is, our merciful God will some day take it away. So, let us “be of good cheer,” looking to our Lord Jesus Christ alone, who knew all about afflictions of soul and body when hanging on the tree of Calvary as our Substitute. Dying for his people, “the just for the unjust,” he was identifying himself with us in all of our afflictions, according to 1 Peter 2:23-24; 3:18. What wondrous love, mercy, and condescension this was from our precious Savior!

Whatever trials we are facing today, let us learn anew that “in the faith” we must look beyond our present circumstances to a brighter day. Satan, our enemy and adversary, will not win in the end, so we are admonished: “Whom resist steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you. To him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 5:9-11).

“These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in me.”
John Newton (Gadsby’s #295)

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Depression

book-address-book-learning-learn-159751

I’m living inside a book return
The door opens and in they come
But I can’t read them fast enough
Light appears and the door slams shut

A thousand books weigh on my brain
A million words calling me insane
Not one can help my soul explain
The depths of my numbness to pain

I suffer beneath a familiar face
Gagged by volumes about my case
Each page numbered with more disgrace
Bound in a box of no escape

No one will ever find me here
No words of hope can bring me cheer
I’m lost in a prank of polished steel
Trapped in the depths of vaulted fear

Behind the lines

“The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour.”
~C.H. Spurgeon

This poem was inspired by reading Zack Eswine’s book Spurgeon’s Sorrows: Realistic Hope for those who Suffer from Depression.

 

In Silence

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Lord, will you never answer
Has my sin kept you away
What have I done, or not done
How long do I have to wait

All I hear is silence, not the peaceful kind
It’s screaming at me, your will, not mine
But I want answers now, I need your help
Where is your presence, in silence
In silence

Lord, I’m pleading for mercy
Is there not another road
Is this my fate, is it too late
To change the path I must go

He opened not his mouth
As they led him out
Like a sheep before slaughter
In silence

Behind the lines

For the times when there seems to be no answer and we have to trust Him and wait.

Psalm 28

To you, O LORD, I call;
my rock, be not deaf to me,
lest, if you be silent to me,
I become like those who go down to the pit.

Hear the voice of my pleas for mercy,
when I cry to you for help,
when I lift up my hands
toward your most holy sanctuary.

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