In the late 1800s, Horatio Spafford lost just about everything as a result of the Great Fire of Chicago. Shortly thereafter, Spafford decided to take his family on a vacation to England. He was delayed on business at the last moment, but Spafford sent his wife and four daughters (ages 2–11) ahead on the ship, the * Ville du Havre*. There was a collision at sea with another vessel, and Spafford’s daughters perished. Only his wife, Anna, survived and sent a two-word telegram back to her husband that read, “Survived alone.” The tragedy of this event motivated Spafford to pen the song It Is Well With My Soul, wherein he wrote:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
For people who suffer great pain and loss, non-Christian worldviews provide little, if any, true comfort. Oddly, and tragically, the human default seems to be to use pain, loss and suffering as proof that God doesn’t exist. Not only do many use tragic and dire circumstances to emphatically deny God’s existence, but as the Apostle Paul notes in Romans 1:25, it is used to finalize an exchange of the knowledge of God for abhorrent lies.
Could that be because, in the depths of suffering, it is easier to reconcile tragedy and pain in a random, pointless, mindless, heartless, aimless system than in one governed by a supposedly omnipotent and omni-benevolent Sovereign? We frequently, and incorrectly, deduce that if God has the ability to fix things right now, but doesn’t, then he’s incompetent, maniacal or fictitious. In the minds of many unbelievers, this kind of god is not worthy of worship, faith or further consideration of any kind.
In the Bible, King David suffered alienation and rejection by his own father. He was neglected and ridiculed by his own brothers. He was the target of King Saul’s anger, wrath and assassination attempts. David lost his best friends, was betrayed by his closest counselors, was scorned and mocked by his wife for his public demonstrations of faith, betrayed by one of his sons, driven into the wilderness, and the list goes on.
Despite all this, David wrote:
It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.
— Psalm 119:71
Notice the uncanny resemblance to Spafford’s lyrics. David is not saying that suffering is awesome because it gave him the opportunity to memorize the Ten Commandments or participate in an elaborate religious system. Rather, David is saying that, through suffering and affliction, he gained intimate awareness about God and his custom.
David learned of God’s custom (as an expression of God’s eternal and unchanging character) of joyfully welcoming humanity’s rejects, misfits, outsiders, aliens and orphans, as well as those marginalized through personal rejection. David never would have learned the amplitude of God’s compassion had it not been for the ridicule and neglect from his own family. David would have never witnessed the profundity of God’s faithfulness had it not been for the treachery and betrayal of his own family, friends and counselors. David would have never experienced the intensity of God’s mercy had it not been for his own sin and failures, including idolatry, lust, adultery and murder.
As David looked back over all of the events of his life, he did not dwell on the pain of betrayal, but on the joy of God’s faithfulness. He was not paralyzed by the agony of loss, but the joy of God’s extravagant allotment. He was not defined by some imagined boundaries of God’s forbidden fruit, but by the abundant life, joy, purpose and victory available in God. All of this was gained through the crystal-clear lens of rejection, tragedy, loss and suffering, all from the outside. All this led David to write in all sincerity and veracity, “It was good (emphasis mine) for me to be afflicted, so that I might learn your customs.”
Like David, Job suffered tremendously. Job lost virtually everything — all his children, flocks, homes and servants. And then, to top it off, Job was afflicted with a horrific skin disease that probably would have made poison ivy feel like a soothing spa soak. After Job vehemently demanded that God appear and explain himself for these apparent injustices, God did in fact appear and speak extensively (Job 38–41). In light of God’s staggering revelation, Job said, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). Job also learned of God’s customs from the outside.
I am wholeheartedly convinced that when the grace of Christ comes upon us, the weight of God’s glory demolishes all of our foolish arguments and carefully constructed opposition. When God’s grace rushes in amid tragedy, pain, suffering and affliction, we — like Job, who formerly and confidently shook his verbal fist at what he believed to be an incompetent, vindictive and unjust God — are forever silenced in the awesome presence of the Almighty inviting us home.
Pain, loss and suffering hurt for a reason. Joy, happiness and peace wax and wane for the same reason this side of eternity. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
…they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
— C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Outside was our choice, not some imagined display of God’s vindictive cruelty. Despite our sinful rebellion and subsequent expulsion, God still demonstrated his custom of faithfulness and grace!
Tragedy is our tutor, treachery our teacher, and betrayal our counselor, all pointing not to the absurdity of synthetic evolutionary and naturalistic theories, but to the reality of our Creator inviting us back inside, back into his presence. God doesn’t promise that our walk this side of heaven will be comfortable, painless, easy or lavish. In fact, he promises the exact opposite for the brief moment we remain.
But on the other side of eternity, in the blink of an eye, mourning turns to dancing (Psalm 30:11), grief turns to joy (John 16:20), and every wrong is made right because Jesus, the Lamb of God, is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5)! When God’s grace comes, we — like the Apostle Paul — will “consider our sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory revealed in us” (Romans 8:17) because those past “light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
It truly is good for us to experience the affliction and justice of rebellion’s consequence in this broken world. From outside of God’s presence, outside of Eden, outside of privilege, safety, security, acceptance, fulfillment, satisfaction, the bliss of consensus, and by the sweat of our brow, everyone eventually discerns and appreciates the vast discrepancy between the way things are and the way that God designed them to be.
Outside teaches us about the custom of God’s character — eternally overflowing with grace, mercy, kindness and love — expressed perfectly to us in Christ Jesus. Outside teaches us all, like Horatio Spafford, King David, Job and the Apostle Paul, about a homecoming made possible in Christ and then living out, “whatever my lot, it is well with my soul."