Just two days ago we sold a piece of furniture in the local newspaper. A man called Per came to collect it. We had a nice chat and, as is my custom, I handed Per a Gospel tract that I have designed with a powerful checkerboard illusion on the front page. I asked him which square was darker - A or B? "A" definitely appears darker in the picture but things are not always as they seem. The next picture reveals the truth that both "A" and "B" are the same color. I told Per that even though many people don't believe in God because they cannot see Him, they cannot even trust their own eyes. In fact, the Bible warns us that we can even be deceived by our own hearts (Jeremiah 17:9). But the day is coming when that heart will stop beating and the deception will be over. Because the God Who made us will judge us and He is not deceived about anything. He knows everything we do, everything we say, and even every thought that passes through our head. I told Per as he was leaving that I had written something on the tract that I wanted him to read and consider because his eternal future depended on it.
Just then, Per turned around and told me that he had just been diagnosed with a very serious illness and he did not know what to think about God and eternity. Moments like these are very sobering, humbling, and demand very tender sensitivity. But they are also God ordained moments where the God of the universe arranges an appointment between fallen dying men and a messenger of the Way, the Truth, and the Life! It is a very fair criticism to say that I cannot adequately empathize or sympathize with a man like Per at such a vulnerable moment. But I do know Someone Who can:
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)
The fact of the matter is that God has dealt ever so graciously with myself and my family. I cannot explain why - I certainly don't deserve such blessings at all. But when I looked into Per's eyes and saw the fear and helplessness I knew that I could point him to the One Who has tasted the full spectrum of human suffering and knows what he is going through. When Per asked me why he had been struck with such terrible affliction I could point him to the One Who:
Has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4).
I told Per that I could not answer him the specific reason why he was struck with such devastating illness. But I told him that we should ask another question instead. Why does God allow us to live in spite of our sin? Why does He delay His wrath? CJ Mahaney says that "we will never see the cross as something done for us until we understand the cross as something done by us". Though Per was a victim and I was in no position to lecture him on suffering, I could appeal to the Savior Who was treated as if He lived the life of the vilest sinner ever in order that God could treat the vilest of sinners as if they had the righteousness of Jesus Christ. When people are hurting and vulnerable we still need to gently show them their guilt before God so that they can understand why Jesus died on the cross. I showed Per that it is not just how bad our sin is but also how holy God is. God cannot demonstrate His great love to us if He violates His righteousness. And to forgive sinners would violate His justice and righteousness unless . . . a substitute Who was fully God and fully man came and fulfilled the law that we had broken and taken the punishment that we deserve - thereby satisfying God's wrath against the sinner and crediting the sinner with Christ's righteousness. God had grabbed Per's attention and had brought him to someone who could give him the message he needed to hear (Per left our house with openness and thankfulness for our conversation - please pray for him, wouldn't it be great to enter into eternal life together with him?).
Once upon a time I would have focussed my conversation on praying for physical healing. And I told Per that I would pray for him and I have prayed for his healing - because nothing is impossible for God. But at the end of the day, we are all terminally ill and our days are numbered. Physical healing still prolongs the inevitable. The far more important issue is whether we are reconciled to God. If we love hurting people and long to see them reconciled to God, then we can find ways to sensitively show them their true need for Christ - in sickness and in health. That they may hunger for the righteousness of Christ more than their physical healing. It is easy for me to say, but regardless of this, these words remain true in spite of my inability to identify with those whose days are short. Rather may it remind me of my own fragile mortality, the uncertainty of tomorrow, and the precious gift of eternal life for those who repent of their sinful ways and put all their trust in Christ. May it remind us all that suffering can be a blessing in disguise:
Laura Story has her own true story of suffering and grief that lies behind this wonderful song: