A couple of months ago, CNN put out an article titled “Outlaw pastor Rob Bell shakes up the Bible Belt.” In it the author details Rob Bell’s tour in which he is traveling through the Bible Belt giving something similar to a TED talk. This particular night he was in Atlanta and faced a very sobering and difficult question from a member of the audience who was informed that his baby would not survive labor: “Is he wrong for being angry with God?”
Instead of offering any kind of hope and comfort to a man whose faith is on the ropes, Bell instead opts to warn the man of the people who would attempt to quote Romans 8:28 in their attempt to offer solace. The author ends the story with a very telling and frightening line; “Maybe a certain type of heresy was just what the couple needed.”
Suffering is not an easy subject. Especially suffering that involves losing a loved one. There is never a quick fix to pain and often our words can do more harm than good. Nonetheless, Bell should have taken notes when reading of Job’s three friends who were of comfort to him…until they opened their mouths. Unfortunately, this is all too common of us as well, and often our words can do real damage—even when our words are true. We certainly don’t want to offer empty words or try to immediately find a way to place the blame on someone (like Job’s friends) in the midst of their pain, but is heresy really what the poor couple needed to hear? Absolutely not. Doesn’t the Bible not offer some type of comfort for those who have suffered great loss?
The answer is a resounding YES. The Bible reveals to us the story that the creator, sustainer, and judge of all things has so loved his people that he left his heavenly estate and entered into a broken and sinful world that was full of hostility and suffering. On this earth, Jesus experienced grief, homelessness, betrayal, the death of a friend, a severe beating, and a gruesome death at the hands of the Roman executioners for crimes he did not commit. This God-Man experienced the full gamut of human experience. And for what? So that he could save sinners and then abandon them until they die? No, he experienced suffering (at least in part) to fulfill his duties as our Great High Priest. Hebrews 4:15 says “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
This is one of the reasons Peter can exhort the elect exiles (1 Peter 1:1) to cast all of their anxieties on him—because he cares for them (5:7) and can empathize with them. We can confidently go to God with our sufferings because he cares for us and he has experienced it before. He sympathizes with us and knows our pain (empathizes).
Now, the question that remains for some is “but does God have a purpose for this suffering?” Do you remember the story of the death of Lazarus? In John chapter 11, Mary and Martha come to Jesus because Mary’s brother has become gravely ill. Jesus’ response to their concern is rather astonishing. He says “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4). Then, instead of hurrying to Lazarus to help he waits an extra two days. Why did he wait? The text tells us because he loved Mary and Martha (11:5-6).
Here we have a perfect example of how God’s plan to be glorified and his love for his people come together. Once they get to Lazarus he has already died. The women are understandably upset and their response to death is the same as ours. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). Then come some of the most powerful words in all of scripture. Jesus proclaims “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (11:25,26). Physical death is not the end of the story.
Everyone knows what happens next. Jesus weeps (11:35). The God-Man sees his friends and loved ones in sorrow and is deeply moved to tears, yet he knows that it will work out for his glory and their good. God has allowed their pain and loss so that in raising Lazarus, Jesus would be glorified and others would believe (11:42). Their pain had purpose. God wasn’t absent. In fact he truly was working all things together for their good which is exactly what Romans 8:28 talks about.
But what happens when Lazarus isn’t raised? What happens when your child doesn’t make it through labor? Christian, we will experience grief and death in this life. It’s a horrible consequence of the fall, and it is not easy to deal with. But this does not mean that you should be without hope. Quite the contrary actually. We can have hope that they are with Christ and we will see them again, just as David knew he would see his son again (2 Sam 12:23). And we have the hope that to be with Christ is far better than to be here in the world.
In 1629, Lady Kenmure lost a child (she ended up losing all of her children and two husbands) and received a letter from Samuel Rutherford. His words are beautifully pastoral and hope filled; “Ye have lost a child: nay she is not lost to you who is found in Christ. She is not sent away, but only sent before, like unto a star, which going out of our sight doth not die…but shineth in another hemisphere.”
Rutherford is right. Your loved one is not lost. They are not sent away but are burning brightly with the glory of Christ Jesus. This doesn’t make death easy, but it gives it purpose. It gives us hope. That’s good news—something I wish that couple could have received that night from Rob Bell. Perhaps it was not heresy but a little orthodoxy that they truly needed.