I will never forget my first death notification in the Air Force. Chaplains are a part of the modern United States military death notification team. My beeper (it was a device used in the “old days” to alert people to call their office) went off that morning before the sun came up telling us to gather in the command post. I found out that we had a pilot down off the coast of North Korea. We knew he was deceased because of the amount of time he was down and the winter weather in that part of the world. We climbed into a command staff car and drove into town as the sun peaked over the Sierra Nevada mountains. We knocked on an apartment door, three men in their Air Force blues. A cute little blue-eyed girl came to the door all out of breath with her little brother right behind her. The senior officer asked the little girl if her mommy was home. The little girl screamed as little ones will do, “Mommy, three men in blue uniforms are at the door for you.” The next sound was the most horrible scream I’ve ever heard. Every U-2 pilot’s wife knew what it meant when three men in blue uniforms were at the door.
It’s been 26 years since I heard that scream and it echoes in my ears right now as I type, it brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye, again. The pain in that home and many other homes I’ve entered through thirty years of ministry is often unspeakable and nearly unbearable.
One watches a couple, who promised to love each other, devolve into hatred, sexual betrayal, and anger. The pain is palatable. You see the pain in the children’s eyes, their fear for their future, and hurt as they see the two people they love unable to put aside their own perceived “good” for the benefit of their children.
One holds the hands of a couple as they say, “goodbye” to their very young child because of the cancer that has wracked the body of the precious little one.
One cries with the couple who struggles to conceive, and when they finally do, they miscarry. They look around at so many aborting their children and the pain worsens as they would do anything to hold a child of their own.
One listens as the victim of a sexual attack recounts the horror, the humiliation, the hurt, the pain, both physically and spiritually. Tears flow and hurt is shared.
One is betrayed by a close friend in ministry or business who received repeated aid and help, yet still with malice, the one granted grace attacks the one who gave so much. The pain is overwhelming and remains, even when forgiveness is given as often the offender never even acknowledges the betrayal and slander.
One prays with the elderly woman whose godly husband has gone to be with Christ years before. She is wracked with hurt and pain in her aged body as well as the loneliness that has engulfed her for the past few years for her husband of 55 years.
These are but a small sample of the pain I’ve encountered in my ministry life. I could add many, many more examples of hurt and pain. Emotional pain, spiritual pain, physical pain as Job said, “Yet man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7).”
These examples are really all “first world” problems. I’ve not talked about the mother in South Sudan who has rocked a dead child because of malnutrition or the father among the Yazidis who has a daughter kidnapped by ISIS knowing that she has lived, if still alive, as a sex slave. These and many other examples of pain are prevalent all over the developing world. One can’t help but be moved by such stories.
Those who love as Christ loved will endure pain. We are not immune. Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:38), “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful…” He was about to take my sin; He was about to be betrayed; He was about to be crucified by His creatures. If our Master experienced pain, no servant is above his Lord. No matter what certain modern theologies teach, Christians aren’t above pain because we have faith, but rather our faith carries us through our pain.
Greater minds than mine have struggled with the concept of a good God and a humanity with pain. It seems incongruous. How could a God who says He is love allow discomfort to His creatures? Where is God in the middle of my pain? These questions are so difficult to answer, if I only rely on my feelings and not my faith.
We know many truths. We are sinners (Romans 3:23). We are living in a fallen world NOT of God’s design. For all that He created was good (Genesis 1:31). All we see groans in sin (Romans 8:20-22). We sin against each other; we take advantage of one another; we manipulate one another. One day we are causing others pain, and then next they are causing us pain (Romans 3:10). We know in some cases that when we humans forget God, He steps away from His creatures to allow them to go the way they wish and in doing so allows the consequences of their behavior to alert them to their broken fellowship with Him (Romans 1:24-32).
But while we know all these facts about pain, does that automatically alleviate our pain as believers? No, it really doesn’t. We still hurt. We still feel abandonment, just as the God-man on the cross felt that (Matthew 27:46).
Maybe, for a believer no more poignant passage exists on this topic than David’s lament in Psalm 77. David is very transparent with his struggle, with his pain. He teaches us how to deal with hurt that seemingly overwhelms us.
David knew who ultimately held the answer to his pain and he went to Him, confident that he would be heard. David cries to God in distress. During my journey of faith, I often skip this step and try to strategize my own way out of the difficulty. Certainly, every believer should be a planner as many passages teach us to plan, but often I find myself planning before praying. It’s a faith journey to stop and seek God, first.
David preached to himself instead of listening to himself. What a great truth when in pain. David reminded himself that God had done great works and he put those truths on the tip of his tongue. He meditated on them. He literally takes himself back 900+ and then 1500 years into Israel’s past. In those historical truths, he preaches to himself the goodness of God. Too often I listen to myself, rather than preaching God’s goodness to myself, even in pain.
David is very aware that God, Himself, is in control. This pain is not outside of His sovereignty. I just read of Nabeel Qureshi’s passing into the arms of his Savior. He was reared as a devout Muslim. He was an American citizen born in America to Pakistani immigrants. His parents loved him and taught him Arabic and Urdu before teaching him English. He had read the entire Koran, in Arabic, by the time he was five. As he grew older, his parents trained him to be an apologist for Islam in America. He encountered a Christian who challenged him and then other Christians who loved him. Finally, by the weight of the Spirit and the Word of God, he forsook his family and the religion of his ancestors and embraced Christ. He loved his parents and wept at their hurt as they wept at his conversion to Christianity. But he confessed Jesus before men so Jesus would confess him before His Father.
Nabeel went on to receive several advanced degrees and began speaking with Ravi Zacharias. He wrote multiple books about his faith journey. Then in August of 2016 at the age of 33, he wrote on social media that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and on September 16, 2017, he passed away at the young age of 34 leaving a wife and small child. My heart aches to hear this, first for a widow and orphan without a husband and father. Secondly, for such a potentially powerful ministry, as his testimony and words during a normal life span would seemingly have brought tremendous glory and honor to Christ.
But we know, in the middle of this tremendous pain, that none of this pain is outside of God’s sovereignty. We can assert with confidence that Satan is a liar when he tells us that God doesn’t care about human pain. Just as God was glorified in the way Peter died (John 21:18-19), He was also glorified in how Nabeel Qureshi lived and died as well.
When in I am in pain, it is so easy to react as if I was an unbeliever, and not as I am, a servant of an all-powerful God. Reflecting on David’s example in Psalm 77 is a tremendous comfort and all-encompassing reminder that God’s greatest servants experienced deep pain and extreme disappointment; but by constantly reminding themselves of their great God, they became listed in the “Hall of Fame of Faith” in Hebrews 11. But reflecting on a modern Christian hero, like Nabeel Qureshi, born and trained into Islam, but saved by the grace of Jesus, brings a modern understanding to the biblical example.
My journey of faith is to acknowledge and enter into the pain around me (I Thessalonians 5:14), ask forgiveness when I cause pain (Ephesians 4:32), and rely on God’s grace when I experience hurt (II Corinthians 12:7-10).