- 2 Cor. 1: 3-4 3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
- Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
Gracious Lord, thank you for love and grace. Please keep us under the shadow of your mercy. Sustain and support the anxious. Be with all who care for the sick and lift up all who have been brought low. Make us the agents of your grace and help us find comfort in your words. Teach us that nothing can separate us from you love. May the meditation of my heart and words from my mouth are pleased in your sight. We pray in Christ’s name, Amen! [Timestamp 00:46]
Professor John Lennox, the Oxford mathematician and a Christian apologist who has debated the top atheists and religious skeptics of our time, such as Richard Dawkins, recently published his new book Where is God in a Coronavirus World? As a scientist, he is offering a Christian response to the current crisis. His main point of view is: We should never try to offer an easy and simple answer to this question, instead, we should “convey some comfort, support and hope” to people who feel disoriented, concerned, even fearful because of the coronavirus pandemic and all of its consequences and disruption in our lives. [Timestamp 01:41]
Indeed, whenever there is a disaster, we hear two extreme answers to this question.
- The extreme atheist would say “there is no God because there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
- The extreme theist would say “this is the punishment of God, and the end of world is coming.” [Timestamp 02:08]
These answers are indeed indifferent and arrogant for those who have suffered great loss in the pandemic, offering no comfort or support. In the past months, like many of you, I have been looking for spiritual guidelines and heard many lectures and sermons. This message touched me most: When facing tribulation, affliction and chaos, Christians should bring to world words of comfort instead of words of confusion. Christians should be comforters instead of judges. The extreme points of view cannot bring comfort to our current situation. So what are the words of comfort that we can bring to the world when globally people are struggling with the pandemic threat? [Timestamp 03:10]
Firstly, we may tell people this: Although life is full of affliction and suffering, affliction is not permanent. Affliction is not the absolute reality. In John 16, Jesus promised to His own disciples that in this world you will have affliction/tribulation (John 16:33). But affliction is temporary, and something good definitely can come out of it. Our generation is not the first generation to face some kind of severe problem that can threaten our lives and well-being, but, we cannot simply say tribulation is God’s intentional punishment. Biblically speaking, it is because the broken relationship between God and humanity that the created world became a broken world, and suffering becomes part of our daily life. God created this world with good intentions and God created the human beings in God’ own image. However, God also granted the humanity the capacity to choose. This decision contains a lot of uncertainties.
- If human beings choose to work with God, to follow God’s will, they may be good stewards of God’s creation;
- if human beings choose to disobey and go astray, the created world would be filled with sufferings. [Timestamp 04:50]
That is why no matter how advanced our technology has been and how prosperous our civilization has developed, we are repeatedly making same stupid mistakes, killing each other ruthlessly. When we are so proud of being able to cure so many fatal diseases, this invisible virus evolved and mutated in such a cunning and fast way that our normal life was destroyed in a minute. The pandemic forced us to see our vulnerability and limitedness and once again tell us that we cannot get away from tribulation and suffering in this broken world. But the word of comfort also lies here: Our God in the Bible is not an alien God, who is staying far away above us, watching us suffer indifferently. No! This God came to our world, living among us and being part of the suffering. Our God does not make tribulation and suffering the last word but brings us new possibilities. Our God offered himself to us, conquered death, rose up and came back with holy spirit. [Timestamp 06:21]
In 2 Corinthians, Paul mentioned repeatedly his sufferings and afflictions. You may have noticed the repetition of the word “affliction” in 2 Corinthians 1:4-9. Later in this same letter, he mentioned specifically imprisonments, beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, and many seasons of sleepless nights filled with hunger and thirst and exposure to the cold (2 Corinthians 11:23-27). A lot of tribulation or affliction he suffered. But every time when he talked about his affliction, the word “comfort” followed it. The Greek word “comfort” appeared as verb 18 times and as noun 11 times. Paul kept telling Corinthians this message: Yes, being a follower of Christ does not exempt us from pain, affliction or sufferings but we are not dismayed because we also have the comfort from Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit help us obtain the power to fight against affliction. There is God’s comfort in affliction. Being a mature Christian means that we do not pray for being exempted from affliction but will pray for the power to endure and bear the pain. We do not ask “where is God or why this happens” but will ask “what good can come out of this suffering.” [Timestamp 08:12]
Secondly, we can tell people this: Cry to God when you feel that you are overwhelmed by the pain. God is the God of all comfort and father of mercy. God is listening. We know clearly that when one is overwhelmed by affliction, he/she is not able to believe in the goodness of God or to find the good out of the bad things. [Timestamp 08:47]
C. S. Lewis has two books on pain and suffering, The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed, because Lewis suffered a lot of pain and grief. He lost his mother at the age of 9 and experienced the darkness of WWI. When he published The Problem of Pain in 1940, he was in his 40s and at the peak time of his career. He offered a rational intellectual thinking on suffering at that time. He explained why we have pain, why God allows pain in the world and what is the mystery of pain. This book comforted many people and loved by many. But twenty years later, he suffered a greater pain. He lost his beloved wife. After seeing her suffer the pain of cancer and passed away, he fell into the darkest valley. The grief was so huge that he could not sleep at night so he wrote down his thinking. This little book genuinely recorded his grief, his question to God and his love to his wife. He opened his bleeding heart, exposing to God all his sad, painful, outrageous emotions. But at the end of the book, he reconciled with God and regained his faith in Christ. Some people think this little book is too emotional but the words, even sad and heartbroken, comforted so many others. Exposing to God his pain and complains helped him walk out of the darkness. You may find it hard to understand. [Timestamp 10:45]
Pastor Timothy Keller’s sermon “How to Deal with Dark Times” may further help us. This sermon focuses on Psalm 88, one of the two songs out of 150 in the Book of Psalm that ends with a hopeless cry. The composer of Psalm 88 is Heman, the grandson of Prophet Samuel. According to 1 Chronicles, “Heman and Jeduthun were responsible for the sounding of the trumpets and cymbals and for the playing of the other instruments for sacred song.” (16: 42) He and his children were serving the Lord with music at the temple, and “God gave Heman fourteen sons and three daughters.” (25:5) He was a successful leader but when he was writing Psalm 88, he must be suffering great loss and pain.
- In verses 1-9 he told God his miserable situation: he was abandoned by all and frustrated. He felt he was left behind by God.
- In verses 10-12 he mocked God; in verse 13 he wanted to pray to God but in verse 14 he questioned God again.
- In verse 15 he complained that he suffered when he was little,
- and in verses 16-18 he kept complaining for being scolded by God, and then he ended with a claim “darkness is my closest friend.” [Timestamp 12:16]
Pastor Keller points out that the fact that Psalm 39 and Psalm 88 can be included in the Bible is telling us that God understands our pain and allows us to complain, to expose our cry to God. It is OK that you cry to God when you are desperate. We may pray like this:
- “God, I do not understand this but you are God, I am not.”
- “God, I do not know why there is affliction, and I do not know where you are, but I will still go to church, I will keep praying and keep loving my neighbor as myself.” [Timestamp 13:14]
By exposing our pain and suffering to God, we are keeping our heart open to God so that Satan will not be able to take over our mind. Heman and Psalm 88 tell us that pain is not permanent, and we can cry to God in our suffering. [Timestamp 13:30]
Thirdly, we can tell people this: There is surely God’s grace and the agents of grace in affliction. Grace is the unmerited, undeserved and unearned kindness and favor of God. God’s love to the world is grace. Jesus coming to the world and helped us gain the way to be reconciled with God is grace. Grace comes from God, and grace is something we cannot earn or exchange with God by our deeds. God’s grace is amazing and free for all. People who have accepted grace freely are called to be agents of God. To bring words of comfort is to live out our faith and being the agents of grace. As agents of grace, we need to point out grace and then offer grace. When the pandemic is threatening the world, in every country, doctors and nurses are running in the front lines, sacrificing their own lives for others, even when there is no qualified equipment to protect them, they are risking their own lives without hesitation. This is grace! In every country, there are volunteers, young and old, taking care of the aged and needy, extending their hands to help each other and strangers. This is grace. Touching stories of compassion and love may be found on newspapers in every country. This is grace. Grace runs like water, coming from God and going down to the lower part. So being the agents of grace means that we need to help those who are lower and poorer than us. Since the epidemic, I have been following a Christian architect’s Wechat blog “小万工”. At the beginning she helped the Christian Volunteers Coalition in Wuhan to collect the information of those who were desperately looking for hospitals. Later when all patients were sent to mobile hospitals, she started to help people who were not local but miserably detained at Wuhan. On March 15, she posted one article telling us the story of Italian missionary and Wuhan Central Hospital, and at the end of this article she posted an advertisement for “Agent of Grace,” collecting medical supplies for hospitals. Such platform and writings are indeed agents of grace, directing people to God through actions of love. [Timestamp 16:45]
Today I tried to share with you the message that touched me most in the past months. As Christians, we should bring to the world words of comfort when the world is facing big challenges. We should not bring any confusion but only comfort and grace. We should be the agents of grace, the comforter, but not the judges. We can at least bring these three messages as the words of comfort:
- Although life is full of affliction, affliction is not permanent or absolute reality. Heman wrote Psalm 88 when he was suffering but his life as a whole was blessed and prosperous.
- We can expose our pain and cry to God when we suffer because God accepts us as who we are and God is listening to our cries. Book of Job, Psalm 88 and C. S. Lewis’ book are good examples.
- There is always Grace and agents of Grace in affliction as far as we trust in the salvific power of God. We need to tell the stories of the agents of grace, and we need to be the agents of grace. [Timestamp 18:15]
As Psalm 23 said, “Even though I walk through the dark valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod, your staff, they comfort me.” God is the God of mercy and compassion. God comforts us in affliction, and God wants us to comfort others in the way God has comforted us. Back to Prof. Lennox, the scientist I mentioned at the beginning. His statement can be a great comfort for us when we suffer the affliction. He said: “God is too good to be unkind, and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust his heart.” When we end this gathering I hope to quote Philip Yancey’s prayer as our ending prayer for today. [Timestamp 19:11]
Let us pray:
“Gracious God, you are the God of comfort. You are the father of compassion. I pray that we who bear your name will show the same comfort and compassion, that we will not be judgmental, nor divisive, but that we will be the people to whom others will come when they need a word of encouragement, a word of hope. You have given us the tools we need. You came in person to show us that no matter what happens on earth, somehow it can be redeemed, somehow good can come from that. May we be part of that pattern of redemption you started on the cross. We love you and thank you for your love for us which is undeserved, but that is what Grace is all about. Be with us all in this time of crisis as we need grace, we need your comfort. In your name, Amen.” – Philip Yancey
Jesus Calling by Sarah Young
AS YOU SIT QUIETLY in My Presence, remember that I am a God of abundance. I will never run out of resources; My capacity to bless you is unlimited. You live in a world of supply and demand, where necessary things are often scarce. Even if you personally have enough, you see poverty in the world around you. It is impossible for you to comprehend the lavishness of My provisions: the fullness of My glorious riches.
Through spending time in My Presence, you gain glimpses of My overflowing vastness. These glimpses are tiny foretastes of what you will experience eternally in heaven. Even now you have access to as much of Me as you have faith to receive. Rejoice in My abundance—living by faith, not by sight.
And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
PHILIPPIANS 4 : 19
We live by faith, not by sight.
2 CORINTHIANS 5 : 7