suffering in the hands of a sovereign God

Pain and suffering are not things that are foreign to Christians. Indeed, sometimes it seems as if we have more of it.

Following Christ doesn’t mean life gets easier. Loved ones will still die. Disease will steal health. Life will not be kind. People will talk negatively about you. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words may break your spirit.

Following Jesus isn’t a ticket to health and wealth, but a surrendering of your life and taking up your cross, because that’s what Jesus did. We follow the leader who fell to the ground while carrying His instrument of torture. He was bruised and crushed and spit upon and reviled; the King of kings suffered to the very point of death on a cross. He, who could call angels to strike down His persecutors, who did not deserve to hang like a criminal, submitted Himself to suffering because He knew that the Father was still in charge. God still sat on His throne.

Following Jesus means that sometimes, we don’t get to come down from our cross.

This song reminds us that whether it be cancer or criticism, death or disability, our suffering is not just random bad luck or the universe out to get us. It does something in us. Our suffering has purpose in the hands of a sovereign God.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering

Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship
Sing a song to the one who’s all I need

For the stories behind the song, click here and here.

“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” – Job 1:21

hurt and hope

I was never the reckless, perpetually bloody-nosed kid. I didn’t climb trees or jump off rooftops or get into fights. Well, fist-fights with people other than my little brother at least. Most of the time I had my nose stuck far into the pages of just about any book I could get my hands on. Well, if someone slammed the book shut, I suppose I would probably have a bloody nose.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I was a bit of a nerd. But I’ve also had my fair share of scraped  knees (with the scars to prove it!), torn ligaments (including my ACL), and a few trips to the ER.

Pain is one of those things that we just intrinsically push away from. We avoid it at all costs and go out of our ways to ensure that our suffering is at a minimum. But this is not some deep truth I’m unraveling; it’s common sense. No one likes to get hurt. No one likes bruises, sickness, a broken heart, or death. I would argue that even the self-inflicting sadists out there cringe at every painful blow. There is just something so disturbing and yucky about pain. It makes sense that we avoid it.

But maybe… Maybe pain and suffering is one of the gifts of the grace of God.

“What? Did he really just say that?”

Pain and suffering and sorrow remind us that something isn’t right. Surely this isn’t what we were made for! Is there joy and satisfaction in sickness or loss, heartbreak or death?

So then, what were we made for?

If you believe in the God of the Christian worldview, hopefully you understand that He made everything, and made it perfect. Sunshine and love, community and purpose, lollipops and unicorns. I’m still looking for the last two in Genesis, but I’m sure I’ll find it in the Hebrew. He made it all, and he made it good.

So what happened?

If you haven’t noticed from the last several millennia, we humans are a rebellious lot. Someone tells us not to do something and we want to do it. We’re not always the smartest. In Genesis, Adam and Eve ate a piece of fruit and changed the course of how things should be. Now there’s pain in childbirth and work has become hateful. Creation which was meant to be subjugated under man strives constantly with man, man strives with man, and man ultimately dies.

And this is where pain steps in and does his work. Through it all, we’re inadvertently pointed to the fact that we were not created for pain and brokenness but for peace and wholeness. Something isn’t right and we know it. Pain and suffering and heartbreak cause us to long for the good news that it doesn’t have to be so. Living in hurt doesn’t have to be a reality!

There is a place of healing and shalom, of rightness and justice. Jesus came into a tumultuous world and brought the solution to the longing, anguish, and trouble the world groaned under. He was unjustly afflicted, scorned, and murdered. And in all this, He brought an everlasting Kingdom of peace, love, and life. Our pain cries out for this Kingdom. Through it, God reminds us that such a Kingdom exists, and we were meant for it.

Bring on the pain!

It is Well with Her Soul

Today marks the anniversary of the day my friend Esther Boyalapalli passed away after fighting medulloblastoma for two years. To learn more about Esther’s story, please click here. The following is adapted from something I shared with my InterVarsity fellowship a few years ago.

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Esther BoyalapalliIf you have been around OneWay in the last few years or so, you have inevitably heard about Esther Boyalapalli, accompanied by an assortment of adjectives: loving, caring, strong, unwavering, faith, beautiful, perfect, godly, prayerful, and the list goes on and on. All these can accurately be used to describe Esther, but my goal is not to talk about how amazing she was, but how I saw God work in her, and what I learned from knowing her.
Esther and I both came into UT in the Fall of 2005 and became plugged into OneWay. A couple of my earliest and clearest memories of her are from RISC 2005 and a memorable trip to Kerbey Lane that a couple of us freshmen went to. And when I think about Esther at that time, the first thing that comes to my mind is her smile that stretched from one side of her face to the other, a smile that really was infectious and contagious and hardly left her face. She spoke so demurely and with a grace that I know left an impression on those who came across her. I had the privilege of serving with her on Outreach team my sophomore year and really get to talk to her and see where her heart was.

In the summer of 2007, I received the news that they had found a tumor, and it was definitely a reeling hit. She had mentioned to me about her headaches, but a tumor? My initial response was, seriously, God? Of all people, You had to let Esther go through this?? Couldn’t You find someone else?

And there I revealed a huge misconception that I had, and indeed, I think a lot of people have: that because someone is “good” and does “good things,” they do not deserve to have bad things happen to them. Because Esther was such a “good” and “godly” woman, then it was unfair that she had to go through cancer. It is a sinful idea that one person is inherently above or better than someone else, and pulls us away from what the Gospel teaches us about grace and suffering.

The next year or so, Esther went through chemo and treatment, and it seemed like she was on the right road to recovery. She started driving and was going to start school again. The huge weight behind her eyes began to lift, and you saw the joy and cheer there. Then, in the Spring of last year, the tumor resurfaced.

On July 3, 2009, Esther walked from earth into eternity.

I had the opportunity to talk to her parents, and Esther’s mom told me that Esther had some of the same worries and frustrations that everyone else had, this “why me?” frustration. Just because she was Esther, didn’t mean that she was exempt from doubt and fear. In that fear, she held onto God, and she learned what it meant to truly trust her God. But when the second round came, her mom said that it was as if a transformation happened in Esther. She was no longer scared or bothered by what was going around her, it seemed like a peace just enveloped her. And it was something that God did in her, not a peace she mustered up on her own.

Right there, in Esther, in her story, I saw the transformative power of faith in Jesus! Here was a girl that you thought had it all, down to her walk with Jesus. If I have ever known a Proverbs 31 woman, a woman who’s heart is after God, it seemed Esther was her. But through this ordeal, she learned to really hold onto Christ, and His promise, that He will never leave you nor forsake you. And she clung to it, because that’s all she could cling to. And God took her heart of fear and doubt and misgivings and gave her a heart of trust, of faith in something larger than her and larger than medulloblastoma. You could literally see how God was shaping and changing her.

I believe, and I believe the Bible attests to this everywhere, in the absolute and complete sovereignty of God. The last couple of years, but especially the last few months for me, I see how there is no such thing as “chance” or accidents. Esther’s cancer wasn’t an accident. But it was something that God gave her to shape her into the woman that God wanted her to be. For us, when suffering and trials and hard times come about, and the Bible is clear that they will, we will have fear and doubt and worry and feel pain.

But in those moments, we don’t stay in that fear and doubt and worry and pain, we look at the hope and promise of Jesus, that He works all things for the good of those who love Him, that He had a plan for us that He wrote out before we were even formed in our mother’s bellies. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us. We put our faith in that promise and glorify God with our lives. We have a hope and assurance that death is not the end of the story, that death has no victory over us because our victory was won on the cross in the person of Jesus.

Easier said than done, right? As I was writing this, I thought about what this looked like in my own life, and I was convicted in realizing it’s the same thing: clinging to faith, clinging to Jesus. Our strength and hope is not in anything we can find or create in this world, and it is certainly not in ourselves. We run to Jesus.

There was a guy named Horatio Spafford that lived in the 1800s who was a prominent lawyer in Chicago. This guy ran into a sea of bad luck. First, he lost his only son, and then shortly after that, the great Chicago Fire swept through the city in 1871, which ruined him financially. He had invested in a lot of real estate and the fire destroyed pretty much everything. Soon thereafter, he decided his family needed a vacation, and chose England because his friend D. L. Moody would be preaching there. Delayed because of business, Horatio sent his wife and 4 daughters ahead of him. While crossing the Atlantic, their ship was struck by an iron sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all 4 of Horatio’s daughters. He received a telegram from his wife when she reached England that had only 2 words on it: “Saved alone.” He then sailed over to England, and the captain of the ship showed Horatio the spot where the previous ship had sunk and his 4 daughters had died. Horatio Spafford then went to his room and penned these lines:

When peace like a river attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roar, whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, ‘it is well, it is well with my soul’

How’s that for suffering well?

We rejoice because death did not win over Esther. Because of Christ’s work, we will see her again, with a renewed body, having fellowship with her and all who have been redeemed by Christ!

Esther’s story is not ultimately about how great of a person she was, but how great our God is. It is about clinging to the the only true solid rock. I don’t know why He chose her of all people to suffer through and die with cancer, but I know that God formed the universe and trees and animals and humans and protons and neutrons, and He’s been doing this a lot longer than I have. He knows what He’s doing, and looking at Esther, I know that He loves us.