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The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018

“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.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

What, then, shall we say in response to this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  It is God who justifies.  Who is he that condemns?  Christ Jesus, who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  (Romans 8: 28-34 NIV)

Everything Matters (6)

I remember the day that I finally understood my Mother.

She was a strong woman that was a teenager during the Second World War in Holland.  Apparently she ran errands for the Resistance on her bike but she wouldn’t talk about it much.  Something happened.  We don’t know much about that time of her life.  At least I don’t.  But she met my Dad who was working in a shop and they got married, had two kids in Holland and then decided to emigrate to Canada in 1953.

Mom had a difficult character anyway, but life was hard and that didn’t make things any easier.  On top of that, she ended up having eight kids in total.  The house was always full.  I remember one Thanksgiving Day dinner when we were all sitting at a long table in our house at 6 Bond St.  The table was full of food and Mom had just placed the heavy turkey in the middle of the spread when the table collapsed and everything came crashing down.  What a surprise!

I was a middle child, three from the bottom actually, and I had Mom’s character in spades.  I could fight with her ’till the cows came home.  It was my sister, Jolanda, who really provided the love in the family.  She was going to become a nurse.  I remember one time when my Mom hit me with a pair of pants in the middle of one of our fights.  Nothing serious, of course.  What can a pair of pants do to you, after all?  But in this case, one of the pants wrapped around my head and a tip struck my open eyeball and I yelled in excruciating pain.

My Mom wasn’t having it and thought I was exaggerating but my sister, Jolanda, looked more closely and realized that I had to go to the hospital right away.  After the surgery, I had both of my eyes covered for over a month.  Blind as a bat.  But I remember getting my first Monopoly game as a present (though I couldn’t play with it) and lots of applesauce (which was my favorite).  Mom was contrite, of course, but we still had our fights throughout my teenage years.

It wasn’t until I was in my thirties, with children of my own, thinking about my Mom and her apparent lack of interest in me (she had eight kids after all), that it finally struck me.  You see, there are a couple of things that I haven’t told you yet.  Yes, she had a tough character and had issues of her own, but there was more going on that I knew about at the time but didn’t really understand the impact of those events on my parents.

When I was around 12 or 13 years old, Jolanda died of leukemia.

She was 17 years old.  She was at a Youth Event in London, Ontario, I believe, and her nose started to bleed and wouldn’t stop.  They rushed her to the hospital of course, but six months later she died.  I remember the Sunday Service when she gave her testimony of faith from a hospital bed rolled into the sanctuary for the occasion.  My family had Bibles printed in her memory and distributed them to all of her friends.

To this day, we have no idea of the impact of her testimony on the church and her school friends and friends of the family as they watched a brave, young girl demonstrate her faith in God in such a practical way.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

A couple of years later, my brother Steve had a terrible car accident and almost died.  From what I remember, he was driving an Austin Mini and slammed into the back of a truck late at night.  Apparently, his girlfriend was with him but he was able to swerve the car in such a way that his side of the car took the worst of the impact and she was saved from anything critical.  But Steve was in the hospital for months.  His frontal lobe was deeply damaged and for a while we weren’t sure that he was going to make it.  Finally, he left the hospital and began his convalescence in our home.  He had to learn everything all over again, how to use his fine motor skills, holding a spoon, drinking hot drinks, learning to walk again, and all of the other things that we take for granted.

Of course, his mind was still that of a teenager four or five years older than I was so learning everything all over again was a frustrating and humiliating process that had its own emotional impact.

After a year of so, Steve was on his feet and able to function more or less like normal.  He got involved with the wrong people, drugs were a problem, and he was more rebellious that I was (if you can believe that).  My parents decided to sell their store to a friend and move to Prince Edward Island on the East Coast of Canada to get away from the situation in Ontario.  But, at the last minute, Steve didn’t come with us and simply struck out on his own.  The rest of us made the move to PEI and started to work on a small hobby farm near Twin Islands.  I remember working with my Dad and my brother, Jim, cutting logs and growing peanuts.

But my Mom went into a deep, black depression.

I was forgotten during these formative years and I resented it.  That fueled my own rebellion and we had our shouting matches to prove it.  Our adventure in PEI lasted about six months and by October of that year we were back in Clinton, Ontario starting a new store and beginning a new life.  We needed to be close to Steve to help him whenever we could.  It all made sense.  But as a teenager, I had no idea of the impact all of this was having, especially on my Mom.

When I finally figured it out, that she was dealing with grief from the death of Jolanda and fighting off fear in the case of Steve, I began my own healing process.  Her kids were dying and she was terrified because she couldn’t do anything about it.  Life was out of control.  Her faith was in the balance.  She couldn’t think straight much less pray and it affected her relationship with the entire family.  Now I get it.  I think we all do.  Suffering and pain has touched a lot of families and each family reacts a bit differently.  But we get it.

So when we talk about suffering for the gospel or “groaning” under the curse of pain and death, and all the tragedies that befall us, we are not taking it lightly or treating it calmly.  These things matter.  Everything matters.

Faith matters.  Of course.  But that is something we discover, not manufacture.  It is either there or it’s not.  Yes, we can nurse that faith, and exercise it in those dark moments.  No doubt.  Faith matters.

Hope matters.  Of course.  That’s what we have been talking about when we dwell on our glorification, when we think about our mission and the anointing of God upon our testimony.  Jolanda understood that instinctively.  But not only hope in the context of suffering for the gospel but also when we suffer under the curse of decay and death and all of what that means.  In that case, our hope comes as we contemplate the prayer support we get from the Holy Spirit and from Jesus Christ, Himself.  He understands our grief, our temptations, our weaknesses so when He prays, we can rest assured that His prayers matter.  To God.  To us.  His prayers are powerful and effective and He is praying for me.  That gives me hope.

But still there is a problem.  If the Holy Spirit is “groaning” on my behalf, expressing the emotional pain that I am going through, and Jesus is “interceding” with God earnestly because He understands what I need, then why does it seem that God remains silent.  I, myself, may not be able to pray but, supposedly, I have divine prayer support.  Why is God not listening?  Why doesn’t He do something?

It’s something that we all struggle with.  Sure, we can say, in faith, that the issues of life are bigger than our problems.  We can also agree with God that our testimony needs His anointing and that the salvation of our friends, our family, our neighbors is of vital importance.  We get it.  But it is still difficult to ignore the suffering and pain that we are going through.  Everything matters.  Everything hurts.  Everything seems to be falling apart.

There is no good answer to the problem of suffering and pain at that visceral level.  When a child is in pain, any parent would give their right arm to take their place and take the pain on their own shoulders.  I have felt that way and I’m sure you have too.  If God loves me, why doesn’t He take the pain away.  Maybe I can’t do it as a parent but God is all powerful and can do anything.  Doesn’t my pain matter to Him?  Why doesn’t He do something about it?

Part of the answer is that often God does do something about it.  He heals people.  He changes situations.  He intervenes and makes things better.  He does that far more than we realize, but not always.  Not always.  And that is the rub.  Why does he save some people and not others?  Why did Jolanda die but Steve did not?  Why was I ignored but my sister was not?  We may never know the answers to all of our questions.

Does God care?  Do I matter to God?  Is God at all emotional about me?  Does He like me?  And if He does, why doesn’t He intervene in my life and save me from my situation?  The Psalms are full of testimonies of David (and the other Psalmists) both asking this question and giving the answer that God does intervene, He does care, everything does matter to Him.  Jesus said that even the sparrows are important and the number of hairs on my head are numbered and cared for.  God is aware of it all.  He cares.  Everything matters.

But as a parent, I also know that sometimes my children have to suffer for their own good.  Sometimes the pain of a needle is a necessary precaution to fight off disease.  Sometimes eye surgery is a necessary evil.  Sometimes discipline hurts but it produces a better character in the end.  Yes, of course.

It is sometimes difficult to see the meaning in our suffering and pain.

That is so true.  We are not God after all.  He tells us a lot of things in the Bible about His priorities in this redemptive emergency.  He tells us about the horrors of the second death that awaits all of those who are NOT in Christ.  He tells us that this life is a drop in the bucket compared to eternity and that the dangers of the judgment far outweigh the suffering and pain of this life.  He tells us that our glory far outstrips anything we might endure in this vale of tears.  That is our hope.

But God goes even further.  He doesn’t just tell us things in general about His plans for mankind but He, Himself, endured the worst suffering and pain possible in order to save us and we are reminded that Jesus understands everything that we are going through.  He took upon His own shoulders the worse of the eternal suffering and pain that awaited us and saved us from that horrible experience of separation from God.

In the end, we have to accept that Faith Matters.  Hope Matters.  But what matters the most is Love.  Love Matters.  And that is what Paul is talking about here.

Remember that the prayers of the Holy Spirit and Jesus, himself, are interpreted by God the Father “according to His will.”  And that’s what we really want, isn’t it?  To please God.  To be in His will.  Just taking away the suffering and pain, if it means that my testimony suffers, or that my wife or children suffer, or are not saved, is simply not worth it, no matter how much I wish that I didn’t have to go through it.

Jesus understands that.  He didn’t want to go to the cross either but he found the courage within himself to say “not my will but your will be done.”  He could do that because he knew that His Father loved him.

Love Matters. 

Paul tells us that “we know that in all things God works for the good for those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (vs. 28).  We often quote those verses, a bit lightly, in those moments when we are NOT in a place of suffering and death.  But these are heady matters.

“We know….” Paul says.  Do we?  This is part of our spiritual maturity in Christ.  To agree with God that His redemptive will is good, pleasing and perfect no matter what it costs us.  We agree.  We know.  But here, Paul says that we know something about God.  Not just about His will.  We know something about His character.

This was the secret that gave Jesus courage.

He knew his Father and he never doubted that His will for him was good, pleasing and perfect.  He knew that his Father loved him dearly.  He could not doubt the love of God for him and that is why he could say “not my will but yours be done.”

Do you see the connection?

Yes, I know that Paul is talking about our love for God in this passage but look deeper.  Only love recognizes love.  I don’t consider myself to love God all that much.  I wish I did.  I long to.  But my love is rather weak.  Whatever love I have for God, I know was given me in the moment of my regeneration (together with faith and hope).  But it is there.  And because I love God, I know who He is.  I know His character.  I know that everything that happens to me matters to Him.  I know that He cares.  I know that He is paying attention.  I know that He weeps with those who weep.  Yes, we know this.  Paul is right.

But what is this “good” that Paul is talking about?

What possible “good” can come out of suffering and pain?  In the context of this world, quite a bit, actually.  But the “good” that God is focused on is described in the next verse where Paul points out the purpose of our lives “to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (vs. 29).

We have been saying this all along.

God is creating a certain type of person, someone like His son, who trusts his Father enough to go to the cross just because his Father asks him to do so.  Someone who loves God enough to obey Him.  Someone who can bear up under the sufferings of the curse and still bless God and follow Him even when there are questions and doubts and difficulties.  Someone who can reverse the original sin of rebellion and mistrust and change it into obedience and love.  That transformation is unusual and convincing and empowers our testimony that God is real and can make a difference in our lives.

Love recognizes love.  Love matters.

Our “smatterings” of love are enough to recognize that God cares deeply even though His agenda is eternal and He is willing to sacrifice our comfort to accomplish the salvation of real people.  Jolanda knew this truth.  She knew God loved her.  She used what little time she had to give her testimony and impact a whole generation of kids her age in our small town and beyond.  You see, that’s the thing.  We actually agree with God that it is worth it.

And that is what makes us More Than Conquerors “in all these things” as Paul points out in vs. 37.  In all what things?  We use this verse for everything from passing an exam to dealing with grief.  He had just quoted a text from the Old Testament talking about how “we face death all day long” and “we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  Life is unfair.  Persecution will happen.  Suffering and death will happen.  We need to face reality for what it is.  But, in that context, Paul declares, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (vs. 37).

Everything that happens to us matters to God.

The question is whether we trust Him even in the midst of suffering and pain.  If so, our testimony will have the anointing power to transform lives.  If not, we still have to suffer and endure pain but now it is meaningless and worthless.  Everything matters to God.  The question is whether everything that matters to God, matters to us.  The salvation of our family, friends and neighbors most of all.

And right there is the thing.  That is how we can transform our suffering under the curse into suffering for the gospel.  The bridge is our testimony.  The key is trusting God.  The purpose is to save the people we care about.  Transformation is painful but, in the end, it is more than worth it.  Don’t you agree?

The Desert Warrior

Lord, I know that everything matters to you.  You don’t let any details escape your attention.  Thank you for that.  I know that you will intervene whenever possible and at just the right time.  I also know that if you want me to suffer for the gospel, I am in agreement with you.  Please save my children, my family, my friends and make my suffering and pain worth something to you and to your kingdom.  In your name I pray.  Amen.