Happy are the Sad
January 14, 1996
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” This is one of the strangest statements in the Bible. It is a paradox and a mystery. “Blessed are those who mourn,” said Jesus. Happy are the sad! What do these strange words mean? Who are the mourners, why are they sad, and how are they comforted?
I. The Mystery of Human Suffering
This week I had several unique experiences. On Monday I spent all day at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Hospital, arriving about nine in the morning and leaving sometime after six that night. Marlene and I stayed with Roberta Hoppe during Len’s nine-hour cancer surgery. As we sat there waiting for news from the operating room, it occurred to me that this was the longest time I had stayed in any hospital since my father died twenty-two years ago. Many of us had prayed earnestly for Len ever since he was diagnosed with cancer a few weeks ago. At his request, we prayed for a miracle of divine healing so that he would not have to go through the surgery, but that request was not granted. But God did spare him through the surgery, which in its own way was a gracious miracle.
Why one miracle but not the other? This is a mystery beyond human knowledge.
But that was only the beginning of the week. On Wednesday morning we had Mike Ferrelli’s funeral here in this sanctuary. Mike died of cancer last Saturday. He was only 42. Although many of us prayed for Mike, most people did it by faith because he came to Calvary less than three years ago, and for the past year his cancer has made it difficult to attend services.
I’ll never forget the first time I met him. We were still having the Wednesday night Bible study in the chapel and one evening a nice looking couple walked in. I had no idea who they were. It turned out to be Mike and Barb. When I asked if anyone would like prayer for healing, Mike came forward. He told us that he had just been diagnosed with cancer. It was hard to believe because he was a big, well-built fellow. I’ll forget his reaction when I asked him if wanted to say anything before we prayed for him. With tears rolling down his face, he said, “I’ve been away from the Lord for awhile, but I’m coming back tonight. And whether God heals me or not, I’m going to dedicate my life to him no matter how long I live.”
Mike and I talked many times over the past two years. A few months ago I dropped by to see him at home. It was clear that the end was near. Cancer had reduced him to a shell of the man he had once been. But he was still smiling. As he sat in his rocking chair, we started talking about what it’s like to die. I told him about heaven and gave him the promise of God that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. And I did something that afternoon that I’ve never done any other time. I told him what I was going to say at his funeral service. It only seems fair that the guest of honor should know what is being said about him. Basically I told him that I was going to tell them about his rededication to Jesus Christ and how he had died as a Christian and gone to heaven according to the Lord’s own promise.
About three weeks ago I had the privilege of going to Mike’s home and serving him his last communion. Then a week ago Wednesday Barb called and asked me to come over because he was fading fast. I got there about 10:30 P.M. and I held his hand and we talked about heaven. “Mike, you don’t have a thing to worry about. When you die, you are going directly into the presence of Jesus Christ. Before Barb can get to the phone to call me, you will already be in heaven.”
His funeral on Wednesday morning was a triumphant affair. Barb played the organ and Rex Welsh sang “How Great Thou Art” and “Finally Home.” When my time came to speak, I kept my promise to Mike and said exactly what I had told him I was going to say. And I told them not to say, “We’ve lost Mike.” That’s not right. A thing is lost only when you don’t know where it is. Mike’s not lost. We know exactly where he is. He’s in heaven.
Then I came to the Wednesday night supper and picked up the prayer list. It seemed to have a record number of sick people on it. I was struck by the fact that I didn’t know almost half of the names on the list.
All week long I’ve been pondering this. Len Hoppe and Mike Ferrelli. And all the other names on our prayer list. Why does one man live and another man die? Why does one person get sick and his brother stays healthy? Two men riding in a jeep roll over a mine. One is spared, the other loses a leg.
It is mystery hidden in the mind and heart of God. All human explanations must ultimately fail. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” (Deuteronomy 29:29). Is there an answer to the question Why? Yes, there is, but the answer is hidden from our view. Consider the words of the magnificent doxology in Romans 11:33-36,
“Oh the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” In one of his last sermons, Peter Blakemore preached on this very text last summer. He said that God doesn’t leave a trail in the sky. You don’t know where he’s coming from or where he is going.
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?” Answer: No one!
“Who has been his counselor?” Answer: No one!
“Who have ever given to God, that God should repay him?” Answer: No one!
No one knows the mind of the Lord, no one gives him advice, and God doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for why he does what he does. Thus the great conclusion to the doxology: “From him and through him and are all things. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
This is the only solid answer to the mystery of human suffering. To all our questions, God replies, “I am that I am.” The answer is a Person, not an explanation. Someone may reply, “But that’s not enough. I want an real answer.” To which I reply, If God himself is not enough, then no answer would ever satisfy you.
II. The Ministry of Divine Comfort
But to leave the matter there would not be fair because the Bible does have a great deal to say about the ministry of divine comfort. It tells us a number of important truths we need to remember:
First, God himself draws near to those who hurt.
Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Here is a promise of God’s special presence in the midst of our pain. Through the Holy Spirit, the Lord himself draws near to us in times of great suffering. We sense his presence in a way that goes beyond the natural. We hear his voice though there is no sound in the room. Many Christians can testify to this special sense of God’s nearness felt during a time of great suffering.
Second, God uses suffering to draw us to himself.
In this same Psalm David said, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears” (v. 4). Suffering turns us to the Lord as nothing else can. I think it was Ron Dunn who said, “You’ve never know if Jesus is all you need until Jesus is all you have. And when Jesus is all you have, then and only then will you discover that Jesus really is all you need.” We pray more, and we pray more fervently during a time of crisis because we know that if God doesn’t help us, we’re sunk. Sometimes I think that God allows certain things to happen to his children in order to get our attention focused completely on him.
Third, we grow faster in hard times than we do in good times.
Romans 5:2-4 describes the process God uses to develop godly character in our lives. In fact, Paul says that “we rejoice in our sufferings.” That may appear to be a misprint, but it isn’t. He isn’t suggesting that we should become masochists who rejoice in the hard times as if we enjoyed the pain. That wouldn’t even be a Christian idea. He doesn’t say, “We rejoice because of our sufferings” but rather, “We rejoice in our sufferings.” Even in the most moments, God’s people can rejoice because he is at work doing something important in us. The next few verses explain the process. Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, character produces hope, and verse 5 says, “Hopes does not disappoint us.” Why is that, Paul? “Because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” What starts with suffering ends with the love of God. This is a wonderful progression, but you can’t get to the love of God without starting in the place of suffering.
More than one person has said to me, “I wouldn’t trade my pain for the things God has shown me.” If that doesn’t make sense to you, it’s only because you haven’t been there yet.
Fourth, our sufferings qualify us to minister to others.
II Corinthians 1:4 tells us that God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” The word translated “comfort” in this verse is the same word Jesus used in Matthew 5:4. He uses our sufferings to comfort us so that when we are better, we can then minister to others in his name. Several days ago when Barb Ferrelli heard about Len Hoppe, she called Claudia Eaton and volunteered to go and sit with Roberta because she knows what Roberta is going through. She doesn’t even know Roberta but she was willing to go. Why? Because no one understands cancer like someone who has been through it. No one understands divorce like a person who’s been through it. No one understands the pain of a miscarriage like a mother who lost her child. No one knows the pain of losing your job like someone who lost his job.
God will take care of you. I know, because he took care of me.
There are people in this church who are superbly qualified to minister to others. They are the ones who have been deeply hurt by the troubles of life and through it all, have discovered that God is faithful. Those folks have an important message to share. They can say with conviction, “God will take care of you. I know, because he took care of me.”
They earned their degree in the School of Suffering and now they are qualified to minister to others who enrolled after they graduated.
III. The Majesty of God’s Sovereignty
I want to close by suggesting what these things teach us about the character of God.
Most of our questions will never be answered in this life.
First, because he is sovereign and we are not, most of our questions will never be answered in this life. Some people can’t live with that truth, so they devise human answers to explain suffering and death. Those answers almost never work and sometimes they hurt more than they help. When I am called to the hospital, I never try to answer those hard questions. They are quite simply beyond me. Better to say less and be silent before the Lord than to try to explain the mysterious ways of God.
Second, because God is good, we know that he has our best interests at heart. That in one sentence is the meaning of Romans 8:28. The older I get, the more I am convinced that the goodness of God is the central issue of life. If you believe God is good, you can endure things that would break most people. You can live with unanswered so long as you believe in the goodness of God. But once you doubt his goodness, you must either become a secret atheist or a very angry Christian. And really, there’s not much difference in those two categories, if you think about it.
If you believe God is good, you can endure things that would break most people.
In stating it that way, it’s important to remember that God’s goodness doesn’t depend on our happiness. I have heard people say, “God was good to let my husband survive that wreck.” True, but God would have been just as good if your husband had died or if you had lost your job. God’s character is not on trial in your sufferings. You may think it is, but it isn’t. Job tried to put God on trial, but the Lord ended up putting Job on trial.
God is good and his mercy endures forever. This is true regardless of our moment-by-moment experience.
Third, because God is wise, nothing is ever wasted in our experience. Romans 8:29 tells us that God has predestined us to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. I often think of the sculptor sitting down before a hunk of marble. On the outside, the marble looks ugly and unformed. But the sculptor sees something beautiful inside that hunk. So with a hammer and chisel, he begins to chip away. For many weeks he shapes, cuts and polishes until little by little an image emerges from the marble. On and on he works, never stopping until the sculpture is complete. What was once ugly is now a thing of breathtaking beauty.
Even so the Lord God takes the hammer and chisel of human suffering to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. And in those moments when we feel that God has simply hammered us into the ground, we discover later that nothing was done in anger, nothing in haste, but everything according to his plan so that in the end, we might be beautiful–like Jesus himself.
I can testify that the most beautiful Christians I know are not the young, the rich, the educated, the successful, or the influential. They may be happy but their lives are shallow because the sculptor has not yet picked up the hammer and the chisel.
No, the most beautiful Christians I know are those who have been through suffering and come through it with their faith in God intact. They may not laugh as much as others and their faces may be lined with care, but the beauty of Christ is in their eyes and their voices testify to God’s amazing grace.
If this morning you feel the heavy weight of God hammering down on you, rest assured that nothing is being wasted. Everything has a purpose. In the end, God will be glorified and you will be more beautiful than you ever dreamed possible.
Because God is love, he will not leave you alone in your pain.
Fourth, because God is love, he will not leave you alone in your pain. This is the promise of the Second Beatitude. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” He will come to you. You may not feel it or believe it, but it is true because God has promised it. If it were necessary, I could produce a long line of witnesses who would stand this morning and testify to God’s comfort in the midst of great suffering.
But it is not necessary to do that. I know God will come to you, because he came for you 2000 years ago. There’s an old gospel song that contains the whole truth in just a few words:
Out of the ivory palaces, into a world of woe,
Only his great eternal love made my Savior go.
God proved his love when he sent his Son Jesus into this sin-cursed world. He didn’t have to do it. He chose to do it. He did what we would never do–he voluntarily sacrificed his only Son. He not only sent him to earth, he stood by and watched him die a terrible, bloody death.
After Calvary, God has nothing left to prove to anyone. How can you doubt his love after you look at the bleeding form of Jesus hanging on the cross?
See from his hand, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e’er such love or sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
I realize that this may not answer every question, but it does answer the most important question: Does God care for me in the midst of my suffering? The answer is yes, God cares for you and if you doubt his love, look to the cross and be comforted.
We understand these strange words a bit better when we see them refracted through the bloody haze of Good Friday. See him on the cross, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He knows what you are going through, he will personally comfort you, and in the end, you will be blessed.