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Dane Skelton is the Pastor of Faith Community Church and the author of Jungle Flight: Spiritual Adventures at the Ends of the Earth, a book of true stories from the ministry of JAARS (formerly Jungle Aviation and Radio Service). His second book, Papua Pilot: Flying the Bible to the Last Lost Peoples, co-authored with the late Paul Westlund, is now available on Amazon.com and Christianbook.com.
Recent events bring to light how unexpectedly, how quickly disaster can strike. I’ve watched with sadness as happenings related to Ferguson, Missouri and the Garner case amplified the bitterness and strife between races. The tragedy that is Syria also comes to mind, along with the Ebola epidemic in Africa. As Phillip Yancey poignantly asked: Where is God when it Hurts? (That book is worth your while by the way).
The Bible is clear about the ultimate source of suffering – (See Genesis 3: 17-19; Romans. 8:18, 22-25). We live in cursed bodies, with cursed psyches (souls) and cursed spirits, on a cursed planet under a cursed system in a cursed time. Men will commit crimes against one another. Accidents will burn houses down. Even the earth will oppose us and challenge us at every turn until we return to dust.
The Bible is clear about all of that. We should therefore adjust our expectations accordingly. We may not like the answer. But the question is not whether we like it. Rather, does it make sense of reality, as we know it? I believe that it does.
But all of that is abstract. Suffering is very personal stuff. I want to spend the rest of this article being personal.
God’s ultimate answer to suffering is the Cross of Christ.
Thirty-eight years ago we lost my dad in a plane crash. I was not quite sixteen, and traumatized by it. Almost thirteen years ago I accompanied my friend Phil Ramsey to the spot where his eighteen-year-old son Joseph had just died in a totally inexplicable car wreck. My heart wrenched as I watched my friend implode in grief. I spent the next three months so angry with God that I could not speak to him except on a professional basis. How could he let that happen?! Two years later I buried one of my best friends, Steve Kotter, victim of a car hitting his bicycle. Two years after that I answered the phone late one night to the wails of a grieving friend. I then buried her twenty-year old son, a drowning victim. In August 2010 I buried my brother, dead of a sudden heart attack. In 2011 I lost my mission aviation friend, Paul Westlund in a crash. There was no explanation for any of these losses that made any sense to me. And now, this week, we all grieve the sudden loss of Hank Bruining, a pillar of FCC.
What is God’s answer to that? Where is God when that kind of stuff happens to us? Philosophers offer two basic answers: Either there is no all powerful all loving God. Or there is an all powerful God but he just doesn’t care.
But the Bible offers a third alternative. We hear it in one of the most important, yet overlooked things Jesus ever said, one of the last things he said before he died. Theologians call it “the cry of dereliction,” something Jesus wailed aloud from the cross: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me!?” (Matthew 27:46).
This is God’s answer to our suffering. He is not ‘up there’, distant, aloof, impassive while we suffer. He is ‘down here’ suffering with us. He has taken every single pain, every ounce of tragedy, every shred of injustice, each moment of mindless terror, “rolled it into a ball and eaten it, tasted it, fully digested it, eternally.” God is in Christ, suffering with and reconciling the world to him self. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Where is God when we suffer? Suffering with us.
The Cross is the most stunning proof that God cares about our pain. It is the universal image of Christianity. But we are so familiar with it that we forget how violent, how brutal it was. The Cross is one of the vilest, tormenting, and barbaric forms of cruelty and death the world has ever known. Our word ‘excruciating’ comes from the Latin for crucifixion. Yet we wear it around the neck like a trophy. “Modern day executions are quick and sterile things. This one stretched on for hours in front of a jeering crowd.” In his death Jesus, God in the flesh, fully identified with our suffering and humility in the face of death. He didn’t have to do that. He chose it. He chose full identification with suffering humanity.
When tragedy strikes the promises of God often seem empty. Words on a page, or even from a friend, can’t fill the breach in our souls. Surely the words of Jesus to his friends must have seemed like empty promises as he hung there and died. They hung back in the crowd and slowly dispersed. It was after all, an empty hope they had clung to.
But that was Friday. Easter Sunday was yet to come. When it came, the world, suffering, life and death itself was turned on its head. The Cross tells us that God fully identifies with all the suffering of the world. The resurrection tells us that one day he will turn suffering on its head.
This has had a profound effect on me. God, our heavenly father, is not holding us at arm’s length. He is not a careless cosmic thug. He is embracing us. He is beside us holding us up. He is weeping with us. He knows the emptiness of our grief the hollowness in our souls. He knows these things and shares these things with the whole world of suffering. On the cross he absorbed it and through us he absorbs it still.
This knowledge restored my hope in God. It did something else too. It renewed my understanding of the uniqueness of Christianity. If you take the Cross out of the center of Christianity you remove that which makes it peerless among religions. It becomes just another system of morals and principles. But if you embrace the Cross you find a God there who is unlike any other, a God who will go to unimaginable lengths to commune with his creatures. He will commune with us to the death on Friday so that we can conquer death with him on Sunday.