The Hands of God…Kind or Harsh?

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties upon him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6, 7-ESV)

Last week I was released from the clinical trial for which I waited so long to qualify at the National Institutes for Health in Bethesda, MD. They did not like me and I feel totally rejected—just kidding. A recent CT scan showed that my pancreatic cancer is advancing and these trials have strict protocols saying that if there are indications the treatment is not working then the individual must be released. I applaud the research that is being done NIH by the doctors and nurses and techs. Though a huge facility, I was treated as an individual with dignity. My doctor is a believer who prayed for me every time we met. I have one more trip down there to have a final “safety check” and then that is it, unless they find another trial for which I might qualify.

At this point in my journey I am left with no treatment options. There are no more chemo, radiation, or immunological protocols that will work anymore and it would seem that it is just a matter of time until this pernicious disease ultimately steals my last breath. I say all of this recognizing that some of my readers are on chemo or another treatment and hearing this may be a discouragement to them. But please realize that even though these treatments did not cure me, God has used them to extend my life. Only 9% of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer live 5 years from their diagnosis—I am into year 4. So, be thankful when there are treatments available and though they are rough to go through, they are a gift from your Heavenly Father. and your outcomes may be far different than mine. It has been a joy for me to see some of my friends ring the bell or hit the gong after they finish their course of treatment. (A typical rite of passage for the cancer patient after they successfully complete their chemo or radiation regimen.)

So now, how does one deal with the reality that there are no more treatment options? One thing’s for sure, it doesn’t make you want to go back on chemo, but it does make you more consciously dependent upon God and that you are in his hands. I’ve always believed that over the last 4 yrs., knowing that “man does not live by chemo alone,” but now when there is nothing else left it has become more real—I am in his hands. The hands whose fingers knit me together in my mother’s womb and created the pulsating universe. The hands which have protected me, guided me, disciplined me, and saved me. The hands from which nothing will “pluck” me in life or in death.

I’m not totally at peace about all of this, in spite of what some of you have concluded. I get frustrated with the ways of God. I just learned this morning of a dear sister in Christ who passed way last night a long illness and the pain the family is bearing, but even Jesus wept outside the tomb of Lazarus. However, sadness, frustration, and even anger at God doesn’t mean one does not trust him, as much as it indicates that we cannot bear the weight of our own existence and are helpless in spite of our own bravado or super-spirituality. So, we have a choice either to take things into our own hands or fall back into the hands of God.

Many of you have heard me talk about the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, composed in Heidelberg, Germany as a teaching tool for young people. The Synod of Dort approved the catechism in 1619 and it has become the the most widely used confession of the Reformed church, translated into many non-European languages world-wide. The questions and answers of the catechism were divided up into 52 Lord’s Days intended to be taught on each Sunday of the year with scripture references. (check it out at http://www.heidelberg-catechism.com)

I want to draw your attention to 2 parts which form the bedrock of my trust. So, no matter how much I kick and scream about my situation, this is where I stand:

Lord’s Day 1

Q. What is your only comfort in life and death?

A. That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Lord Day 10

Q. What do you understand by the providence of God?

A. God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.

Q. What does it benefit us to know that God has created all things and still upholds them by his providence?

A. We can be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and with a view to the future we can have a firm confidence in our faithful God and Father that no creature shall separate us from his love…

I don’t know what you are facing, but I hope you have a faith like this. Not a smoke and mirrors faith in a domesticated God, but a faith that can yell, and scream, and lament his “strange ways”—and yet still trust. A bottom-line trust that you belong to Christ in life and in death, because he died for you; that you are in the hands of God and that nothing will separate you from his love; that nothing will ever enter your life that has not first passed through his fatherly hands so you do not need to be afraid.

Billows Oe’r Me Roll…

big-waveGloria and I are vacationing at the Outer Banks in NC. We are with four out of five of our kids (and their spouses/fiancé), and all five of our grandchildren. One does not normally gain insights on suffering when on vacation unless he gets sunburned or eats bad sushi, however, yesterday I experienced something that gave me such an insight.

I was standing in the ocean about waist deep keeping an eye on my grandson and granddaughter playing in the shallower surf- my back to the open sea. Suddenly, I was hit by a breaker square in the back and it sent me hurtling towards shore. It knocked my prescription glasses off as well as my New England Patriots cap (some of you are happy about that).

I wasn’t hurt, but I was stunned and practically blind without my glasses which I immediately tried to find. Then I was hit with another wave and then another. Finally, I stood up (which I should have done in the first place) and began to search for my glasses to no avail. Fortunately, however, I have two pairs of contact lenses with me.

I was reminded of Job’s experience when his initial suffering came in such sharp succession- where one messenger told him of a tragedy, then another, and another…like waves crashing over him without mercy. And in subsequent chapters, though Job maintained his faith his sight was affected. “Behold I go forward but He is not there; and backward, but I do not see Him” (23:9, 10).

In Psalm 42:7 the writer describes his difficulties this way: “All your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” And Jonah quotes this very verse when he was in the belly of the great fish. “For you have cast me into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (2:3).

Have you ever felt like that in your suffering- wave upon wave? Have you looked for God in your suffering but have not been able to find him? Though there are no easy answers for what you are experiencing, I have found it helpful to stand up or stand on what you know to be true, while you are trying to deal with all the things you do not understand. And like the Psalmist, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (42:11).

That is my insight; now I am going back out to the beach to look for my glasses.

The Dark “Night” of Suffering

NightI just finished reading a small disturbing book written by Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. “Night” is a chilling tale of his experience in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps as a fifteen-year-old. The book is not for the faint of heart because the account of the sheer cruelty of the Nazis is appalling.

Upon his arrival in Birkenau by cattle car, Elie and his father were separated from his mother and sisters, whom they would never see again. The Jews were evaluated to determine whether they should be exterminated or put on the work detail. Elie and his father are deemed fit enough to work, but as they were herded to the prisoners’ barracks, they were taken past an open-pit furnace where the Nazis are burning babies by the truckload.

“The Jewish arrivals were stripped, shaved, disinfected, and treated with almost unimaginable cruelty. Eventually, their captors marched them from Birkenau to the main camp, Auschwitz. They eventually arrived in Buna, a work camp, where Elie was put to work in an electrical-fittings factory… A vicious foreman forced Elie to give him his gold tooth, which was pried out of his mouth with a rusty spoon. The prisoners were forced to watch the hanging of fellow prisoners in the camp courtyard. On one occasion, the Gestapo even hung an eight-year-old boy who had been associated with some rebels within Buna. Because of the horrific conditions in the camps and the ever-present danger of death, many of the prisoners themselves begin to slide into cruelty, concerned only with personal survival. Sons begin to abandon and abuse their fathers. Elie himself began to lose his humanity and his faith, both in God and in the people around him.” I won’t tell you any more of the story just in case you want to read the book for yourself.

Behind the physical and emotional struggles, the book revealed the spiritual struggle of this young Jew raised in the Torah and Cabala (teachings of Jewish mysticism). For me, the key paragraph in the entire book summed up that struggle: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night…Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever…Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams into dust.”

He uttered a similar cry when he witnessed the hanging of the little boy who tragically did not die immediately because he was too light for the rope. “For more than an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes…He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not glazed. Behind me, I heard a man asking: ‘Where is God now?'” How would you answer that question? I am not sure that anyone could at that moment because the absolute evil of that event would have sucked our breath away. However, eventually you would need to process your experience and help someone else through theirs.

The Foreword to the book was written by Francois Mauriac, with whom the author became friends later in life. Mauriac’s words are stunning. “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer could I give my young questioner, whose dark eyes still held the reflection of that angelic sadness which had appeared one day upon the face of the hanged child? What did I say to him? Did I speak of another Jew, his brother, who may have resembled him- the Crucified, whose Cross has conquered the world? Did I affirm that the stumbling block to his faith was the cornerstone of mine, and that the conformity between the Cross and the suffering of men was in my eyes the key to that impenetrable mystery whereon the faith of his childhood had perished?…The Jewish nation has been resurrected from among its thousands of dead. It is through them that it lives again. We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Eternal is Eternal, the last word for each one of us belongs to Him.”

There are no easy answers to the problem of suffering. However, we believe that at the heart of suffering itself is the Cross and “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace; and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:3-5). “And the last word for each one of us belongs to Him.”

The Laboratory of Suffering

9-laboratory-equipment-in-science-research-lab-olivier-l-studioDid you hear about the teacher who was helping one of her pupils put on his boots? He asked for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time they got the second boot on, she had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked, and sure enough, they were. It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool as they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the correct feet. He then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” She bit her tongue, rather than get right in his face and scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” like she wanted to. Once again she struggled to help him pull the ill-fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they got the boots off when he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear ’em.” Now she didn’t know if she should laugh or cry. But she mustered up what grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots on his feet again. Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed ’em in the toes of my boots.” I will leave it to your imagination as to what happened next.

A young man once asked Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, if he would pray that God would give the young man more patience. Dr. Barnhouse told him “I will pray that God will give you suffering.” The young man was startled and repeated his request. Barnhouse again said that he would pray for God to give him suffering and then explained what he meant by quoting Romans 5:3 “for we know that suffering produces patience.” Patience is the first thing most of us would admit we need, but the way it is normally achieved it’s the last thing any of us would want. Certainly there are those trials which come upon us that leave us numb and bloodied; the death of a loved one, or a tragedy out of the Twilight Zone. As I write this I am thinking of a wonderful family in Massachusetts whose oldest daughter, Kris, has been in a coma for several weeks due to Viral Meningitis. I am also thinking of the great sadness experienced by the family of one of my college roommates who died on Christmas day. They are learning patient endurance as they hang onto their God and His goodness through their tears. Please pray for them.

For most of us, however, our laboratory of suffering is more akin to a mitten in the toe of a boot by comparison. The annoying people at work or school, a selfish spouse, your ungrateful kids, demanding parents, or the frustrating people in your church who don’t see things the way you do. All of these situations are also the petri dishes in which patient endurance grows and develops. Why? Because God uses these situations to show us that everyone else is wrong and we are right, so we have to develop patience in order to live with these yahoos? I don’t think so. Rather, God uses these situations to show us our own loveless and selfish hearts so that we will humble ourselves before Him, repent, and trust His grace and mercy to change us to be more like Jesus. That is why Paul finishes his thought in Romans 5:3, 4 by saying “for we know that suffering produces patience; patience, proven character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”