One summer Stuart and I had a ministry experience that took us literally around God's world. I learned many significant lessons. First, I learned that this is my Father's world. It's incredible. I've seen his fingerprints. I could almost hear him say to me as he said to Job, "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation? … Who marked off its dimensions? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?" (Job 38:6-7).
And I understand a little better why my Father's world broke my Father's heart. I understand in a new way why it says in Genesis 6:5-6, "The Lord God saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain."
I met with young prisoners in Taiwan, stood in the "killing fields" of Cambodia, heard a bomb blast too close at hand in Croatia, and watched SWAT teams in Northern Ireland. I listened to a dear Christian friend who had been married for 35 years tell me her husband had just left her for another woman. I understood a little of the reason God wished we had never been born, and his heart is filled with pain.
But this is God's world, and he wants it back. John 3:16 says, "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." So on this tour around the world that broke my Father's heart, I met my Father's family—widows, orphans, soldiers, missionaries raising kids in houses where they catch twenty big rats a week, refugees, the poorest of the poor, displaced people, and squatter dwellers—God's forever family.
Not only have I seen God's fingerprints in his creation, I have seen his footprints all over their lives: Job and his daughters, people who have responded rightly to suffering, and the people with golden faith who can say as Job said, "He knows the way I take. When he has tried me, I will come forth as gold." But there's no gold without the fires of affliction.
I think of my bridesmaid, Ann, who married a Belfast policeman. The first seven young men killed in those troubles long ago were brother Christians of Ann's husband. I met one of their widows on this trip, and I wanted to say to her, "Well, where was God? Was he standing in the comer with his hands in his pockets? Why didn't he look after his own?" She testified, "What a blessing that our boys were killed. They knew the Lord. Just imagine if it had been young policemen who didn't know Christ."
I think of Ann as a 15-year-old, an only child just losing her mother. She came into my youth group in Liverpool straight from the funeral. I said to her, "You all right, Ann?" "Uh huh. Wrote a poem." And she handed me this: "I'm leading my child to the heavenly land and guiding her day by day. And I ask her now as I take her hand to come home by a rugged way. 'Tis not a way she herself would choose, for its beauty she cannot see. But she knows not what her soul would lose if she trod not that path with me."
Ann is one of Job's daughters. Bad things do happen to good people as life goes on.
We must insist on God's goodness, knowing that he is good
Not too long ago I was babysitting one of our three, 3-year-old grandchildren. In our family, we had twins and a single birth all within 24 hours. We call them Search, Destroy, and Demolition. I was to babysit Demolition. As I waved good bye to his parents, he looked perfectly all right. We had a little story out of his favorite book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I put him to bed and went to sleep. In the middle of the night, I felt a little hand, and I turned on the light.
I looked at Drew: chicken pox from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. "Nana," he said, "Me's having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Why should some things like this happen to I?" I thought how like Drew we all are. Why should something like this happen to me? We cannot believe it. As Miss Piggy says, "Moi? Not moi." We cannot believe that God would allow something to happen to such nice people like us.
I gave Drew a bath in porridge—oatmeal. It's a wonderful remedy. It takes away the itch. He swam around in this porridge bath, and then I took him out and wrapped his bumpy little body in a great, big, white towel. As I held him against my heart, he just kept saying, "Hold me, Nana. Hold me, Nana. Hold me, Nana." I thought of Job as I held my little Job to my heart.
Job had no one to hold him. He had his wife. Yes, she was the only thing Satan didn't keep and for good reason. Took his cattle and his sheep and everything else, but he didn't take his wife. She came up to Job and—as we have read—she wouldn't come near him. She said, "Why don't you curse God and commit suicide." She was a regular Mrs. Kevorkian, I think.
Job said to his wife: Shall we receive good from the hands of God and not evil? You're speaking like an unbelieving woman. You're speaking like a blasphemer. You're speaking like a heathen, and you're not. You're a believer.
I have to say that I so often react as Job's wife rather than Job when trouble comes. Job was saying he had practiced receiving God's good gifts. Therefore, he is more able to receive trouble from the hands of God. Remember: Job did not know what was going on in heaven—that Satan was the author of evil. He said: If God is giving me this trouble ….
He thought God was the author of evil. Yet he said: I determine to believe that the hands that are giving me this trouble are good hands. And I will trust him even if he kills me.
I remember years ago, David, our eldest son, being told by my husband, "Don't go to school on Monday. You're going to go for an x-ray." "All right," said David. This was Friday. Monday came. David gets in the car. His face is as white as a sheet. His eyes are out like stalks. Stuart said, "David, you're not frightened, are you?" "Of course I'm frightened, Dad." "Why?" "I know what an execution is." He'd been thinking about that from Friday till Monday. The amazing thing is he turned up. But only because he trusted his dad—his father.
"Though he slays me, here will I trust him," said my little David, and he got in the car. Can we trust God like that? Can we refuse, as Job did, to construe suffering that God has allowed to come to us as a flaw in God's impeccable nature? God is good, Job insisted.
We must accept our suffering, knowing that God will redeem it
Job's friends didn't help: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They didn't ask what sort of a God is he, as Job's wife had said. They said: What sort of a man are you? Seeing God punishes sinners by suffering, you must be a pretty big sinner.
In Job 42, God says to these men, "You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has." What were they saying that was wrong? That God sends suffering to punish us for our sin. The wages of sin is not suffering. The wages of sin is death. That's what we deserve. If we got what we deserved for our sin, we'd all be crucified tomorrow.
Obviously, we can bring some suffering on ourselves by breaking God's laws. We can cause suffering for other people because we have a sinful nature. Life lived in a fallen environment means that some suffering will come to all of us: the suffering of the innocent, incoherent suffering, suffering that makes no sense, suffering like I observed standing in the "killing fields" of Cambodia looking at a great, glass monument containing 90,000 skulls—one whole section was just 15-year-old girls. Innocent suffering. It's a mystery. But Job said: I will accept it as from a good God.
Resignation and acceptance are two different things. As we have traveled the world, we have been among religions who handle suffering a lot better than Christians do. We have been among people who are resigned to fate. The Christian accepts suffering and uses it as a springboard, a platform. "Resignation is surrender to fate; acceptance is surrender to God," says Elisabeth Elliot. "Resignation lies down quietly in an empty universe. Acceptance rises up to meet the God who fills that universe with purpose and destiny. Resignation says, 'I can't,' and God says, 'I can.' Resignation says, 'It's all over for me.' Acceptance asks, 'Now that I'm here, Lord, what's next?' Resignation says, 'What a waste.' Acceptance says, 'In what redemptive way can you use this mess, Lord?' "
Who is Elisabeth Elliot? A woman whose husband lay flat on his face, dead in a river with an arrow out of his back—martyred for Jesus Christ. What did Elisabeth Elliot do? She said, "In what redemptive way can you use this mess, Lord? I know that my Redeemer lives. He died to make me fit for heaven; he lives to make me fit for earth. Now, what are you going to redeem, buy back, out of this situation?" Elisabeth Elliot took the hand of her 6-year-old daughter, and Marge Saint, the wife of another martyred missionary, took her daughter's hand, and they all walked back into that tribe. They weren't killed; they were accepted. They translated the Bible, and the whole tribe came to Christ.
At the age of 17, Marge Saint's little girl came to live with us at the Bible school where Stuart and I lived and worked. By the fire one day, Kathy Saint told me that story and more. She said, "I remember at 15, I stood in the river where my father had died, and I was baptized by the man who killed him. That man is now the pastor of that tribe." In what redemptive way can you use this mess, Lord?
We must act rightly before people, knowing God will act
Job thought and spoke rightly about God. He acted rightly before people. It's awfully important, because people are watching. And they're asking if God makes any difference.
I think of Joni Eareckson Tada, who says, "My paralysis has drawn me close to God and given a spiritual healing I wouldn't trade for a thousand active years on my feet." She's more complete than many of us. She can't move anything because she's paralyzed from the neck down.
One day we brought Joni to Milwaukee, and I stayed overnight with her at the Marriott. We were trying to get her into the lift to go down to the arena to speak. The place was full of business people. They were trying not to look at this beautiful girl because it's hard to confront suffering in such a way. However, when we got into the elevator, they couldn't do much else. As we were going down, I said to Joni, "What are you going to do when we get to the arena?" She said, "I'm going to sing." And she started to practice. "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now I'm found, / was blind, but now I see. / Through many dangers, toils, and snares / I have already come. / 'Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, / and grace will lead me home."
I looked around at the men behind their newspapers trying not to look. There were tears coming down their faces. Joni responds rightly to suffering.
Job was in God's world, and Job was in God's waiting room. Richard Hendricks says that second only to suffering, waiting may be the greatest teacher and trainer of godliness, maturity, and genuine spirituality most of us will ever encounter.
Are you in God's waiting room? You may be waiting for a baby to be born, a prodigal to return, a spouse to reconcile. Are you waiting for a cure? Are you waiting for someone to share your life? Are you waiting for a bad situation to get better? Are you in God's waiting room? It's hard to wait, isn't it? And, yet, that's the only place "gold faith" can be produced in our lives.
I remember when I was waiting for a suffering situation to take its course. I kept looking in my Bible asking God when it would be over. I felt I was on a journey to "Soon" because I kept finding that little word soon, soon, soon. And I kept saying to God, "I don't want it to be soon. I want it to be now. When will soon be now?" Just at that time, somebody wrote and asked me to write an article on waiting. I thought, Why do they do that to me? However, I tried my best.
God's knowledge is not withheld to tease but to test. Waiting for closure always exposes the fiber of my faith, the intensity of my patience, the shape of my character. But when I'm waiting for some particularly painful thing to be over, there's bound to be some bright, well-meaning saint who lovingly and often with ill-conceived satisfaction comes around to tell my how much deeper I'll be when it's finished. And I want to scream, "I don't want to be deeper; I want to stay shallow and have the pain go away." It's hard on the journey to Soon. What do you do on the way to Soon? But God will supply.
We must choose to believe God is there, knowing even when we cannot feel him
What will he supply? Well, he won't supply feelings. Job felt awful. Read Job 3. Job cursed the day he was born. Job did very well until his health went. But when your health goes, what do you think you're going to feel like? You're going to feel awful. And God does not supply feelings for us at that time. Listen to Job: Oh, that I might know where I might find him, that I might come to his feet. I go forward, he isn't there. I go backward, but I can't perceive him. When he works on the left hand, I cannot behold him. When he turns to the right hand, I cannot see him.
Job learned that the pursuit of God must be independent of the material comfort of our senses. Folks, when you can't feel him with your feelings, feel him with your faith. That feels different. The Holy Spirit does not come into our lives to do his deepest work in the shallowest part of us, which is our emotions. He comes into our lives to do his deepest work in our knowings, our doings. "I know that my Redeemer lives." Not "I feel." He didn't feel him near.
A dear friend of mine who is battling cancer said to me the other day, "I've always felt him near, and now I can't feel him anymore—just when I need him most." You'll feel awful. It's what you know: he is there.
I remember a time when I was waiting for soon to become now. I went down in Oconomowoc to a little lake where we live, and I sat there very early in the morning, praying, pleading with God that my soon would become now. "God, I cannot see you working. What about all these prayers that people are praying? This is a terrible situation. What are you doing about it?" God said to me, "Any fish in that lake?" I looked at the lake, which was like glass, and I said, "Sure. Of course there are fish there." "How do you know? Do you have to see fish jump to believe they're there, Jill?"
I remember sitting there for a long time until I could say to God, "If I never see a fish jump, I will believe they're there and active. If I never see you answer a prayer, I will believe."
We all have a choice when trouble comes knocking at our door. "We can curse God and die, or we can trust God and grow." That's what Warren Wiersbe said, and that's what God says. He wants us to grow.
But God's will is that he will deliver us in it, and he will deliver us out of it. At the end of the book, Job gives us a marvelous picture of prosperity and blessing. Seventy years Job lived, they say, until trouble came. We don't know how long he waited for Soon to become Now. But we do know that there were 140 years after it. And that is a picture of what God has in store for us. He said: Oh, I've heard about you from the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. What did we hear in the reading? "In my flesh I will see God."
I think about a man I met in Croatia named Bosada. He was a man whose Serbian neighbor gave him the keys of his house one day and said, "Would you look after my house for me and my pigs and my cattle and sheep?" Bosada said, "Sure; you're my neighbor. You're my friend. Our families have lived together here for 500 years." What he didn't know was that every Serb in that Croatian village was doing the same thing. They had been told by the army to get out; the army was coming to blast them to kingdom come the next day.
What happened? The tanks came in and blasted all the houses, leaving just shells. Only two houses out of 39 were left standing: half of his house and a house across the street (which was then used as a prison to torture people). Then a peace accord was signed—an uneasy peace. When the United Nations came, this little enclave with Serb houses sitting up on the hillside began to be repopulated by Croatians headed by Bosada.
Bosada is a Christian and was acting pastor of the local church. He said, "We must show the way. We must go back and rebuild the church." And so, he did. He took his 17-year-old daughter with him. Even though the UN was there, the soldiers came out of the forest and took him and his daughter up among the trees. They took his 17-year-old daughter away and raped and tortured her. They took a bayonet and thrust it through him seven times, but he just wouldn't die. "Well, old man," they said. 'We're fed up beating you. I think what we'll do is let your own people kill you." So they brought the daughter back and said, "Now off you go home through the mine field. If you make it, your own militia people will kill you at the other end because it's after curfew."
Bosada told us how he took his daughter's hand and they set off through the minefield. While he was being tortured, he had said to his torturers, "You can kill our bodies, but you cannot kill our souls. This is the wrong thing you're doing. I will go to heaven, but where will you go? I know that my Redeemer lives. Why don't you turn to my Redeemer?"
God delivered him that night; the angel of his presence saved them. As the prophet Isaiah says, "In all their distress, he, too, was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them" (Isaiah 63:9). For Bosada, God saved them out of it in this life. God could have saved them out of it into the next life, where he will take us in his arms, and all tears will be wiped away, and all hurts healed.
God will do his will. He is working his purpose out. God called to Job and invited his damaged, battered, beaten, and bleeding child to climb into his arms and rest his head on his strong, eternal shoulder. And Job did, and he found himself held. It was a grand place to be.
Though I was barely six years of age, I well remember sitting by a roaring fire on a Sunday during World War II. Our family had fled the bombs that rained down on us one night, chasing us hundreds of miles away to the beautiful English Lake District—William Wordsworth country. The mists were gone, and a storm had broken over our heads. The rain, like giant tears, slashed against the window pane, and the thunder grumbled away as if it were angry it had to hang around all day. I didn't like storms, and I was old enough to understand that a bigger storm was raging, a war involving the entire world.
But at the moment, it seemed far away. The fire was warm, and my father was relaxed, reading the paper, sitting in his big chair. Suddenly, as if he were aware I needed a bit of reassurance, he put down his paper and smiled at me. "Come here, little girl," he said in his quiet but commanding voice. And then I was safe in his arms, lying against his shoulder and feeling the beat of his heart. What a grand place to be. Here I could watch the rain and listen to the thunder all day.
I've realized how my heavenly Father shelters me from the storms of life. When times of sorrow swamped me at my mother's funeral, I sought the reassurance of my Father's presence. When winds of worry whipped away my confidence as I faced gangs of young people in street evangelism, I glanced up to see my Father's face. When floods of fear rose in my spirit as I waited in a hospital room for the results of frightening tests, I sensed my heavenly Father saying, "Come here, little girl." I climbed into his arms, leaned against his shoulder, and murmured, "Ah, this is a grand place to be."
And as I rest in that safe place knowing that my Father is bigger than any storm that beats against the windowpane of my life, I can watch the rains and listen to the thunder, knowing that everything is all right. Here I can feel the beat of my Father's heart.
For Your Reflection
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Exegesis and exposition:
Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
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Jill Briscoe is executive editor of Just Between Us, serves on the boards of World Relief and Christianity Today International, and is a minister-at-large with her husband at Elmbrook Church in Wisconsin.