An Honest Approach to the Mystery of Suffering

Topical Scripture: Psalm 3

It’s been a hard week in the news. From a three-year-old boy attacked with acid to flooding victims on the East Coast to shootings in Canada to wildfires in Greece and bombings in Pakistan, the headlines have been painful.

When we learn of such unfairness, we want to ask how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow this world to be the way it is. If I were God, infants would never be attacked; shootings and bombings would never occur; fires and floods would not happen. I’m sure you’d say the same thing.

Before we study this week’s psalm, let’s explore the issue we need it to address.

Hard answers to a hard question

I know the traditional theological responses: One, we live in a fallen world. In the Garden of Eden, storms didn’t rage, and wildfires didn’t kill people. Two, Satan is alive and well. As the Bible says, he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Three, people can misuse their freedom. It’s not God’s fault if people choose to attack children and adults. Four, God suffers as we suffer and promises to give us all we need for the hard days. Five, he redeems for greater good all that he allows.

However, if you’re like me, there’s a “but” in the back of your mind. I understand all of that, but still—if I were God, it wouldn’t be like this. If God can still work miracles, why didn’t he on the East Coast and in Greece? If he’s more powerful than Satan, why does he let the devil steal, kill, and destroy?

I understand the importance of free will, but the Lord sometimes prevents the consequences of misused freedom, as when he freed Peter from Herod’s prison and Paul from his Philippian jail. He will help us through hard days, but we’d rather not face them at all. He will redeem what he allows, but we’d rather he not allow it.

Now consider another factor: It’s illogical for God to make a world in which there is human free will but no evil and suffering. If we don’t have evil as an option, how are we free to choose? If there are no consequences to wrong choices, did we really have a choice?

But that’s just what he will do for us in heaven. We will still be ourselves—even more fully ourselves than on earth. But in heaven, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

If there, why not here?

Here’s the bottom line: I don’t know. I don’t know why we can have free will in a perfect paradise in heaven but not on earth. I don’t know why God sometimes intervenes miraculously but not always. I don’t know why three-year-olds get attacked and families die in fires and bystanders get shot.

I can choose to let the mystery of suffering drive me to atheism, concluding that there cannot be a biblical God in a universe like ours. But then I must account for all the good that makes no sense in such a godless world.

I must account for the astounding beauty and complexity of creation that so surpasses supposed evolutionary purposes. I must account for the goodness of people who sacrifice so unselfishly for each other. I must account for the basic human drive for morality that makes no sense apart from a Creator who bestowed this impulse.

And if there is no God, I must account for the overwhelming evidence for the truthfulness of Scripture, the existence of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and the transformed lives of his followers. I must account for the billions of lives changed by his saving grace.

And I must admit that by definition, my finite, fallen mind cannot comprehend the nature and purposes of an infinite, perfect Deity. Just as a mathematician could not explain calculus to my four-year-old granddaughter (brilliant though she is!), a God as described in the Bible could not fully explain his ways to me.

I am left with a binary decision. Either choice requires a commitment that transcends the evidence. The universe is not so evil that its depravity proves God does not exist. It is not so good that its virtues prove he does.

So, it seems to me that our decision when facing the mystery of suffering is practical rather than theoretical. We can let suffering drive us further from God, or we can use it to draw us closer to him. Neither decision can be proven before it is chosen. It is as though we’re facing two roads and cannot know their destination until we travel on them.

Here’s why we should choose the road of faith.

Three steps to the grace of God

Psalm 3 is one of fourteen psalms linked to actual events in David’s life. As we will see, the setting of this psalm makes it especially relevant to this message.

Note the presence of three “Selah”s. This is a musical term instructing the worship leader and congregation to pause, reflect on what has just been said, and praise God as a result. We will use them to divide the psalm into three sections.

Tell God about your suffering

David begins: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me” (v. 1). The setting explains his suffering.

Psalm 3 was composed by King David after his son Absalom staged a successful revolt against him. This was the greatest crisis of his life. The king was forced to flee Jerusalem, with no guarantee that he would return to his throne or even survive the night.

Things were so bad that Absalom’s armies were taunting David: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’. Selah” (v. 2). Note the three-fold repetition of “many” in these two verses, emphasizing the danger of his situation.

Rather than allow this crisis to drive David from God, he used it to seek God. He turned to his Lord in honesty, describing the peril and grief of the moment.

Unless your son has rebelled against you and sought to kill you, you have not met circumstances like these. But Psalm 3 is in the Bible for all who face suffering and tragedy of any kind. Its beginning is God’s invitation to turn to him with our suffering in honesty and pain.

Not because we’re telling God what he doesn’t know, but because we’re admitting our need of his provision and power.

Turn to God in faith

In spite of his peril, David did not give up on his Lord: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (v. 3). “But you” is emphatic in the Hebrew.

Note the present tense. Despite all appearances, despite the dangers he faces and the peril of the moment, David chose to believe that God is a “shield about me” who bestows glory on him and lifts his head when it falls in discouragement.

How can this be so? “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah” (v. 4). “His holy hill” refers to God’s presence prior to the building of the Jerusalem temple. It was from his high and holy presence that God heard his suffering child and answered him.

Our circumstances change nothing about God. Whatever he was before Absalom rebelled, our Lord is after his rebellion. If he was our shield yesterday, he is our shield today.

Because David prayed, God could answer. A doctor cannot serve a patient who will not seek her help.

Act in trust and courage

As a result, David testified, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). Sleep was the most dangerous and vulnerable time in war, but after David prayed to God and claimed the fact that the Lord was his shield and protector, he “lay down and slept.” When he woke again the next morning, he discovered that the Lord had sustained him.

His experience of God’s provision in the present encouraged him to trust God with the future: “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (v. 6). Now he could pray specifically, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!” (v. 7a).

He could claim his Lord’s omnipotence: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v. 7b). God can do what David cannot do. But he can act only if David will ask.

David concluded: “Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah” (v. 8). Salvation “belongs” to God and thus comes only from him. If we will not turn to him, we cannot have what he alone possesses. But if we will use our suffering as a bridge of faith, we will find his “blessing” on the other side.


Who is your Absalom? What suffering are you facing today? Choose with David to turn to God in honesty and faith, and you will be able to act in faith and courage.

There are some lessons that can be learned only the hard way. One of them is that God provides in the depths of life’s greatest challenges.

And there are some decisions that can only be made in hard times. One of them is the choice to turn to God in honesty and faith. When we do, we discover that we can act in trust and courage.

An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

So can we be. This is the promise and the invitation of God.

Dealing With Doubts

Topical Scripture: Mark 9:14-29

There is so much we don’t know about the COVID-19 pandemic.

We don’t know when cases in the US will peak or how long they will last afterwards. We don’t know if surviving a COVID-19 infection means we gain long-lasting immunity or if we can become re-infected. We don’t know if the virus will be affected by warmer temperatures in the spring and summer or, if it is, whether we will see a second onslaught of infections in the fall. We don’t know if measures to keep us from infecting each other will work. We don’t know if vaccine and therapy trials now underway will work.

At a time like this, it’s easy to wonder if prayer does much good. We pray for our leaders, for our healthcare providers, for our friends and families and ourselves. But if you’re like most of us, there’s an unstated, perhaps unadmitted doubt in the back of your mind—will my prayers really make any difference? They can fall into the “why not?” category: something that doesn’t cost us anything but a little time and might make a difference. But who really knows?

In my spring sermon series, we are following Jesus to Easter and watching him change lives along the way. Last week, we saw him save Peter from drowning on the stormy Sea of Galilee in response to the fisherman’s prayer, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30). The Greek is really just two words: “Lord, save!”

It’s the shortest prayer in the Bible, and one we can pray any time in any storm.

Today we’ll shift from the shortest prayer in Scripture to my favorite prayer in Scripture. It’s one that I’ve prayed many times over the years. It’s one that you may need to learn to pray in these hard days.

Before we learn it, let me ask you: What questions or doubts or struggles are most on your heart today? They may be about the coronavirus pandemic, but they may be about something else. One tragedy about disease epidemics is that other diseases don’t stop being diseases. People don’t stop having heart attacks and cancer and strokes. People don’t stop having car accidents and marital problems and financial fears.

So, name your fear, your doubt, your worry. Now, let’s learn how to pray my favorite prayer in response.

The plight of a desperate father

Our story follows Jesus’ transfiguration, when he, Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain to the people below. Here, “when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them” (Mark 9:14). These “scribes” were religious leaders, the authorities of the day.

When the crowd saw Jesus, they “were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him” (v. 15). With his usual compassion, he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” (v. 16).

A man in the crowd explained, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able” (vv. 17–18).

Imagine this man in our context, with a son with coronavirus. He has brought him to the doctors, but they cannot help him. His son is getting sicker, and he is getting more desperate.

Jesus said to this grieving father, “Bring him to me” (v. 19). The spirit then convulsed the boy, so that he fell on the ground, foaming at the mouth (v. 20). Jesus asked his father how long this had been happening; the father said, “From childhood” (v. 21). He added, “It has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him” (v. 22a).

Now comes the part we will focus upon today. The father added, “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (v. 22b). Jesus replied, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23). Notice that he did not say, “All things are guaranteed,” but “all things are possible.” Our faith does not obligate God, as we will see shortly.

Here is the prayer I am recommending to us today: “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!'” (v. 24).

Why doubts are normal

Doubts are a normal and expected part of the human experience. It is natural to doubt anything we cannot know with certainty. And the more urgently we need to know what we do not, the more deeply we will feel our doubts.

I can doubt that the universe is ninety-three billion light years in size as scientists currently estimate, but my doubts don’t affect my life unless I’m an astrophysicist. I can doubt that Brexit will move forward as planned in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but my doubts don’t affect me unless I live in the UK or Europe or work in a field directly affected by them.

But if I doubt that God can protect me and my family from coronavirus or heal us if we are infected, my doubts become very real and very personal.

Faith in God is like faith in anyone else in that it is a relationship rather than a scientific experiment. All relationships require a commitment that transcends the evidence and becomes self-validating.

I cannot prove to you that I love my wife or that she loves me. You would have to experience our relationship to know its reality. You cannot prove you should take a job before you take it. You examine the evidence, of course, but then you step beyond the evidence into a commitment that validates itself.

It is the same with our Lord. There will always be dimensions of our relationship with him that transcend certainty and require faith. At such times, doubts are natural and normal.

What should we do with such doubts today?

One: Remember what we know about God.

This father said to Jesus, “I believe” (v. 24a). The Greek word is pisteuo, meaning to trust in, to have confidence in, to rely upon. His faith was not merely intellectual but personal. He had enough faith to bring his suffering son to Jesus’ disciples in the hope that they could help. Even though they had been unable to heal his son, he had enough faith to turn to their master now.

When we face what we don’t know, let’s remember what we do.

Nothing about this boy’s suffering or the coronavirus pandemic changes anything about the nature of God. He is as powerful today as when he created the universe. He is as omniscient today as when he led his people into the Promised Land.

He hears our prayers as fully today as when he heard the Christians praying for Peter in prison and freed the apostle from Herod. He loves us as much today as when he sent his Son to die for us at Calvary.

What have you experienced about God in the past that is relevant today? What prayers has he answered? What needs has he met? What sins has he forgiven? In what way can you say, “I believe”?

Two: Trust God with what we don’t know.

The second part of the father’s prayer is one that may surprise many believers: “Help my unbelief!” (v. 24b). “Unbelief” translates apistia, the opposite of pisteuo. Just as an “atheist” is one who denies theism, so this man’s “unbelief” contradicted his belief.

When we have such doubts, we may think God won’t hear us or help us. But the opposite is true.

Remember Thomas, the disciple who did not meet the risen Christ along with the other apostles and said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). When the risen Christ met with them again the next week, Thomas was in their midst.

Did Jesus criticize Thomas for his doubts? Did he condemn or judge him? “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (v. 27). Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28). And according to early tradition, he took the gospel as far east as India.

Thomas was not the only apostle to harbor doubts about the resurrection. In Matthew 28, we read that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted” (vv. 16–17).

Did Jesus reject them? Did he expel them from his movement? To the contrary, he commissioned them to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (v. 19). And they did.

The preeminent example of doubting faith is that of our Lord who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22:1). Of course, we know that Jesus was “without sin” in every dimension of his life (Hebrews 4:15). And we know that his Father met him in his doubts, so that Jesus would soon say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Like Thomas and the other apostles and our Savior, we can bring our doubts to God. We can tell him where we are struggling and ask for his help. If we don’t have faith, we can ask for faith. We can pray, “Lord, give me the faith to have faith.”

And we can know that he hears us in grace. In our text, Jesus then cast out the demon and healed the boy (Mark 8:25–27). He answered his father’s doubts with a demonstration of his power and love.

He will do the same for us in whatever way is best for us.


This text does not promise that when we bring God our doubts, he will always meet them as we want him to. Our Lord healed this boy on this day, but he did not heal Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” as the apostle prayed he would (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). To the contrary, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9a).

And Paul could say as a result, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (v. 9b). And he could add, “When I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

It’s been said that God sometimes calms the storm, but he sometimes lets the storm rage and calms his child.

What’s important today is that we know we can bring God our doubts in these days and know that he hears us and loves us. We can trust that he will give us what we ask or whatever is best. We may not understand his answer on this side of heaven, but we will one day (1 Corinthians 13:12).

And we can know that we are loved.

One of my favorite movie lines of all time is in The Count of Monte Cristo. Edmond Dontes has been unfairly imprisoned. He meets a priest who is suffering the same. At one point the priest says to him, “Here is your final lesson—do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God said, ‘Vengeance is mine.'”

Edmond responds, “I don’t believe in God.”

The priest replies, “It doesn’t matter. He believes in you.”

God’s Peace in Our Pain

Topical Scripture: Matthew 8:1-17

It has been a stressful week in the news, to say the least.

I flew back from Israel last Saturday night, the day after a US drone killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. We were all a bit relieved when we landed safely in the US. Airstrikes against our troops on Tuesday were followed by news of the Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 tragedy. No one knows what comes next in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, the wildfires in Australia has killed more than a billion animals and destroyed an area more than eight times larger than the region that burned in California in 2018. A million people are without power in Puerto Rico after a magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the country on Tuesday. Thousands of people slept outside their homes due to concerns that further tremors could cause other buildings to collapse.

And, of course, Harry and Meghan are stepping down from their role as “senior” royal family. One headline said, “First Brexit, now Megxit.”

When war threatens and airplanes are shot down and fires rage and the earth quakes, it’s normal to wonder where God is. Or why we should trust him with our problems and pain.

What do you wish God would do in your life today? This morning, we’ll meet three people whose stories can be our stories. The choice is ours.

Three wrong answers

Where is God when life hurts? In our text we find three wrong answers to our question, followed by three right answers.

One: Limit God’s power. The first character in today’s story is a leper. There were several skin diseases classified as “leprosy” in the ancient world. The most common was Hansen’s disease, a disorder that affects the skin and nervous system. Over time the person loses the ability to feel his fingers or toes. He wears them off, bloodies them, infects them, and they rot and die.

The disease was incurable until the late 1940s and was an impossible disease to treat in the first century. At least, for everyone but Jesus. He touched this untouchable man and healed him. If he could heal leprosy, he can heal any disease, any body, any problem. The wrong answer is to limit God’s power.

Two: Limit God’s love. Our second character in the story is an even more unlikely candidate for a miracle from a Jewish rabbi. He was a Gentile, considered by the Jews to exist only so there would be firewood in hell. And he was a “centurion,” a Roman military officer in charge of one hundred soldiers. Part of the force occupying and enslaving their land. Part of the army which forced them to pay exorbitant taxes to Rome and subjected them to pagan, idolatrous oppression.

Imagine an impoverished Jewish rabbi helping a Gestapo officer, and you’ll have the picture. But Jesus answered his prayer and heals his servant, to the shock of the incredulous crowd of hostile Jews. The wrong answer is to limit God’s love.

Three: Blame the person who suffers. Now a third person enters the story. Peter’s mother-in-law is so sick that she cannot get out of bed. But Jesus heals her so fully that her strength is instantly restored and she makes them all a meal.

There is no indication of any sin on her part, anything wrong that she has done. We live in a fallen world, where disease and disaster are inevitable. Some suffering is our fault, as with an alcoholic with liver disease. But the wrong answer is always to assume that the person who suffers is at fault. We often make their pain worse.

Three right approaches

What are we to do when it doesn’t seem that God has answered the prayer we prayed, that he didn’t heal when we asked his help, when our leprosy did not get better, the servant did not recover, the mother-in-law died?

One: Judge the dark by the light. The leper and the centurion both called Jesus “Lord,” as they should. The word translates kurios and was used of Caesar, kings, owners, those in control. Jesus is Lord. And he didn’t change when my father died, or my high school friend committed suicide, or my hero in seminary was fired. He is still on his throne. He is still Lord.

What do we know about God? He is love; he is the creator of the universe; he does not want any of us to perish; he gave his Son to die for us. Remember what Jesus has already done for you. Think about the ways he has already proven his love for you. His Son endured crucifixion, a form of execution so horrific it is outlawed all over the world today, just for you. He has forgiven every failure you have ever confessed to him and will continue to do so. He knows every sin you’ve ever committed, and what’s more, he sees every sin you will ever commit in the future. But he loves you anyway. He likes you. He finds joy in you even as you read these words.

Think of all the ways he has already blessed you. Does your family love you? So many are trapped in loveless, abusive homes. Has he provided for your material needs through physical abilities and vocational opportunities? So many are trapped in endless poverty. Has he given you the privilege of life in America’s freedom? Who of us earned the right to be born in this country and not in North Korea?

Remember his grace in your life and judge the dark by the light. I’ll never forget a seminary student of mine named Walter. The year his wife and several children died, his pastor called every day to say, “Walter, God is still on his throne.” Then Walter told our class, “God is still on his throne.” Judge the dark by the light.

Two: Understand that his ways are higher than ours. The leper has it right: “If you will, you can make me clean.” But God’s will and ways are not always clear to us: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8–9).

At the time, Joseph didn’t understand why he was enslaved in Egypt. Moses didn’t understand why he had to spend forty years in the desert. Joshua didn’t understand the flooded Jordan River and fortified city of Jericho. Daniel didn’t understand the lion’s den, or Paul his thorn in the flesh, or John his Patmos prison. But we do.

Three: Trust God to give you what you ask or something better. Here we come to one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. When we prayed for something God did not grant, we can know that it was best that he acted as he did. Even when we do not understand why. The person did not get well. The house burned down; the divorce became final; the car wreck happened. And we do not understand why God did not grant us our prayer.

Dr. E. K. Bailey was the Senior Pastor of Concord Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas and one of the finest ministers of the gospel I have ever known. Our friendship was priceless to my soul. Several times, God healed my dear friend of cancer. Then he did not. I still don’t understand why.

I must assume that it was not best for him to be healed. Dr. Bailey is with the Father in glory, in a paradise we cannot begin to imagine. One second on the other side of death, he was glad he was in heaven. In the providence of God, his contribution to God’s kingdom on earth must have been completed, his reward prepared, his eternity made ready. Even though I don’t understand it or like it.

That’s the faith assumption I must make when God does not grant what I ask: he is doing something even better. Though my finite, fallen mind cannot begin to imagine how that could be so, I must trust his love and compassion enough to accept it by faith.

Not until I became a father did I understand some of the things my father said and did. Not until we are in glory will we understand completely our Father’s will and ways (1 Corinthians 13:12). When we cannot see his hand, we can trust his heart.


Sometimes Jesus heals us physically. But sometimes he works an even greater miracle—he heals us spiritually. He gives us the strength and spirit and courage to bear up under life’s sufferings. Sometimes he removes the pain, and sometimes he does the even greater work of giving us the strength to endure it. Either is a miracle of the Lord.

In such times, God’s greater miracle is to enable us to withstand such horrific pain and loss. He can heal our bodies, and what’s more, he can heal our souls. Which do you need him to do for you today?

Redeeming the Coronavirus Epidemic

Topical Scripture: Mark 1:29-31

I spoke yesterday in Little Rock to 1,400 college students from all over Arkansas. Early that morning, as I was praying for the event, I sensed the Lord giving me a message I had not considered before. Not just for the students, but for you today and for our nation as well. I amended my talk to include this word and made its message my theme for today as well.

As you know, the coronavirus is dominating global news. It is called the “coronavirus” because of the crown-like spikes on its surface. As of this morning, 88,375 people have contracted the disease; 2,996 have died.

As I will explain today, this is an unprecedented challenge to our nation and world. And it is therefore an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel.

The challenge on three levels

This virus presents a global challenge unprecedented in my lifetime, because it shows the following three facts to be true.

Financial: The stock market just finished its worst week since the Great Recession of 2008, losing $3.6 trillion in value. According to one analyst, this crash “may have created a once in a lifetime buying opportunity.” By contrast, a CDC official warned that “disruption to everyday life may be severe” as the virus spreads in the US. Think of the impact on offices, manufacturing, and retail if people are afraid to see other people.

Medical: A Harvard professor warns that “if a pandemic happens, 40 percent to 70 percent of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year.” On the other hand, some think it will burn itself out in the summer heat. A middle position is that it becomes like the seasonal flu, only with a much higher mortality rate. More than 52 percent of Chinese males ages fifteen and older are regular smokers, which may be contributing to the morbidity of the virus as it attacks their compromised lungs.

Political: The coronavirus epidemic knows no borders. It is currently in sixty-three countries; the World Health Organization warns that it could soon reach every country in the world. Countries with communist governments, Muslim leaders, and democratic republics alike are susceptible. China’s leaders are facing increased unrest over their response to the virus; if it leads to a significant economic downturn in the US, it could affect the fall election.

The opportunity for the gospel

Not in my lifetime have we seen a threat like this.

Hurricanes, tornadoes, and earthquakes affect specific cities and regions. Ebola was localized as well. Even the 9/11 attacks, as devastating as they were, directly affected only those on the planes, those in the buildings they struck, and the responders in the areas attacked.

So far as we know at present, this is a disease anyone can get. And it is therefore a disease everyone can get. We cannot depend on the stock market, or current medical knowledge, or political structures to protect us.

As a result, the coronavirus is showing us what we should have admitted all along: we are mortals in desperate need of God. The virus is not changing the mortality rate—it is making it more real. We need God’s protection in the present and his saving grace for eternity.

One way God wants to redeem this pandemic is by using it to turn us to himself. After 9/11, churches were filled as Americans realized our need of God’s help and hope. We can look for ways to redeem the present crisis in the same way.


Four ways to model Jesus’ compassion

Our text relates the shortest miracle story in the Gospels. Mark 1 finds Jesus in Capernaum, a town on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. He lived here for three years in the home of Simon Peter and his family.

On one particular Sabbath, he taught in the local synagogue, where he healed a demon-possessed man (Mark 1:21–27). When the service was over, “immediately he left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John” (v. 29). In our context, he went home after Sunday services.

But there was a problem: “Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her” (v. 30). Luke the physician tells us that it was a “great fever,” distinguishing it from the milder kind that was known to their day.

I picked this story for today specifically because of this illness. It is the closest thing to the coronavirus I could find in the Gospels.

Jesus’ response was so typical of him: “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up” (v. 31a). The Greek says that he “stood over her” and took her hand, helping her out of the bed. As a result, “the fever left her, and she began to serve them” (v. 31b).

From this event we observe four relevant facts:

One: Anyone can get sick. Peter was the leader of their apostolic band following the Son of God. His family would seem to be immune from illness if anyone is. Furthermore, her service to Jesus (which he accepted) reveals her spiritual depth and servant heart.

Her illness is a reminder for these days that suffering is often not our fault. Think of Joseph in Potiphar’s prison, or Daniel in the lions’ den, or Paul in the Philippian jail, or John imprisoned on Patmos. Can you think of four more godly men? Let’s be sure not to blame those who suffer for their suffering.

Two: We need to pray for the sick. Our text tells us that “immediately they told him about her.” We do not pray for the sick so as to tell God something he doesn’t know. Rather, we pray for them so as to stand with them in solidarity and to become an answer to our prayers whenever appropriate. The coming days and weeks will constitute an urgent call to intercession.

Three: Jesus cares for every hurting person. His response here risked rejection from those who associated sickness with sin and would consider him contaminated by touching her. He touched lepers, spoke to a Samaritan woman, and loved Gentiles. There are no stigmas with him, as there should be none with us.

Four: Those whom God serves should serve others. Her immediate response was that “she began to serve them.” Not just Jesus, but all in the house. She used her restored capacities to serve God and others.

Henri Nouwen popularized the concept of the “wounded healer,” the person who helps others as he or she has been helped. God serves us so we can serve others.


You may not get the coronavirus and may not know anyone who does. But you have a “fever” of some kind. And you know someone who is ill as well.

This unprecedented threat is an unprecedented opportunity for the gospel. Let’s answer the call to the glory of God, out of gratitude for his grace.

The Key to True Courage

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:10

The world celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the lunar landing yesterday. What most people didn’t understand at the time was that Apollo 11 was far more dangerous than we knew.

As Eagle neared its landing site on the moon, Neil Armstrong realized that the onboard computer would land the module in a boulder-strewn area, so he took control of the vehicle. He found a clear patch of ground and maneuvered the spacecraft towards it. However, as he approached the area, he saw that it had a crater in it.

Armstrong found another patch of level ground. By this time, Eagle had only ninety seconds of propellant remaining. Lunar dust kicked up by the module’s engine impaired his ability to determine the spacecraft’s motion, so he navigated by large rocks jutting out of the dust cloud.

Finally, on July 20, 1969, at 3:17 p.m. EST, Eagle landed on the moon.

The narrowly-averted landing crisis was not the only challenge Apollo 11 faced. Mission Control in Houston repeatedly lost radio communication with Eagle on its approach to the moon. An intermittent alarm code nearly caused the landing to be aborted.

After Eagle landed, a plug of ice blocked a fuel line, leading flight controllers to consider aborting the moon walk (heat from the module’s engine then melted the ice). As Armstrong descended from Eagle to the moon’s surface, his spacesuit broke an arming switch which he repaired with a ballpoint pen.

If Armstrong or Aldrin had fallen during their moon walk, a tear in their spacesuit would have caused the suit to deflate instantly. The astronaut would then die, on television, in front of the world.

Astronaut Michael Collins, who stayed in the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, privately estimated the trio’s chance of surviving the mission to be fifty-fifty.

But as Flight Director Gene Kranz said later, “What America will dare, America will do.”

A call to courage

Our text today is the eighth beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10). In other words, it takes courage to change the world for Christ.

Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world, according to a recent report. While 30 percent of the world’s population identifies as Christian, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination around the world are directed at Christians. One scholar estimates that 90 percent of all people killed on the basis of their religious beliefs are Christians.

According to Jesus, we should not be surprised when we face opposition for our faith. Those who hate our Father will hate his children.

This is just as true in America as it is anywhere else in the world. When atheist Sam Harris claims that “science must destroy religion,” he speaks for many who claim that religion is not just irrelevant but dangerous.

How should we respond when we are attacked for our faith? How can God redeem such attacks by using them to help us change the culture today?

Expect persecution

Jesus’ beatitude can be literally translated, “Blessed are the ones who have been and now are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” He knew his followers would suffer for their commitment to him. And they did.

Before he was crucified upside down, the apostle Peter wrote: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12–13).

Jesus warned his disciples, “When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next” (Matthew 10:23).

Persecution has remained a fact accompanying the Christian faith across all the centuries from their day to ours.

Seventy million believers have been murdered across Christian history for no reason except that they would not renounce their faith in Jesus. More believers were martyred in the twentieth century than the previous nineteen combined.

Six centuries ago, Thomas a Kempis observed, “The devil sleepeth not, neither is the flesh as yet dead, therefore cease not to prepare thyself for the battle, for on thy right hand and on thy left are enemies who never rest.” He is still right.

Choose to be courageous

So, here’s the relevant question today: why be courageous for Christ? Why do what we know the culture will oppose, whether it’s telling skeptics that we love our Lord or standing for biblical truth in a post-Christian culture?

First, suffering believers experience great joy.

According to Jesus, those who suffer for their faith will be “blessed”—the word refers to joy transcending our circumstances. Jesus told risk-taking Christians to “rejoice.” There is joy in facing persecution for Jesus.

He also told us to “be glad,” words which translate a Greek term which means to leap much with irrepressible joy.

He was right. There is great joy in suffering for Christ. The apostles felt it: “When [the authorities] had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:40–41).

Early martyrs felt it. There is an ancient tradition which states that Nero would walk at night on the Coliseum floor, examining the bodies of slain Christians left there. And wherever a body had a face, the face was smiling.

Justin, one of the earliest martyrs, wrote to his accusers: “You can kill us, but you cannot hurt us.”

Second, suffering believers receive great reward.

Paul was sure of it: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18). Martyr Jim Elliott wrote in his journal: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

Revelation promises those who suffer for Christ: “They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:16–17).

Third, suffering believers join a great fraternity.

“In the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The book of Hebrews described those who suffered for serving the one true God:

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy (Hebrews 11:35–38).

Every disciple but John was martyred, and John was exiled and imprisoned. Seventy million Christians have died since for following Jesus. When we suffer for Christ, we join a great fraternity in the faith.

Last, suffering believers inherit a great kingdom.

“Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The first beatitude made this promise; the last repeats it. When we suffer for Christ, we prove that he is our king. And then we join him in his kingdom.

2 Timothy 2:12 promises: “If we endure, we will also reign with him.” Revelation 20 describes those who stood faithful to Christ in the face of extreme persecution: “They came to life and reigned with Christ” (v. 4).

We will suffer for a short while and then reign with Jesus in his kingdom forever.


Sadhu Sundar Singh was one of India’s most famous Christians. He lived from 1889 to 1929, enduring extreme persecution for his courageous faith.

His own family tried to poison him when he became a Christian. He was stoned and arrested numerous times, roped to a tree as bait for wild animals, and sewn into a wet animal skin and left to be crushed to death as it shrank in the hot sun. He disappeared while on a missionary journey. Indian Christians consider him their Francis of Assisi.

Here’s the statement by Sandu Sundar Singh which drew me to him: “From my many years’ experience I can unhesitatingly say that the cross bears those who bear the cross.”

Will you bear yours?

The Keys to True Comfort

Topical Scripture: Matthew 5:4

Memorial Day may be the most confusing holiday of the year. It began in 1864 in response to the Battle of Gettysburg when women from Pennsylvania put flowers on the graves of their fallen soldiers. The next year, a group of women decorated the graves of soldiers buried in Vicksburg, Mississippi.

The year after the Civil War ended, communities began organizing events to honor their fallen soldiers. The holiday became known as Decoration Day and wasn’t officially changed to Memorial Day until 1967.

As the son and grandson of military veterans, I know something of the sacrifices so many men and women have made to preserve our freedom. On this day we remember with gratitude the 1.1 million soldiers from all our wars who died so we could live.

At the same time, Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer. Barbeques and parties mark the holiday. Americans will consume 818 hot dogs every second from Memorial Day to Labor Day (seven billion in total). We will purchase $1.5 billion in meat and seafood for the holiday. More than forty-two million of us will travel over the weekend.

We’re celebrating at the same time we’re remembering.

Last week we began a summer series in the Beatitudes, the eight statements of Jesus that serve as the foundation for the Sermon on the Mount. Today we come to his second beatitude. In light of our text, it seems entirely appropriate on this weekend that we learn how to hold mourning and celebrating together.

The beatitude is simple: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And yet its complexities are deeper than our finite minds can fully understand.

Today we’ll claim God’s promise to us: we will mourn, but we will be comforted. Where is his statement relevant to you?

Seek to be “blessed”

Let’s begin with some background.

Jesus has launched his public ministry. Scripture says that “his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, those having seizures, and paralytics, and he healed them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:24–25).

In response, “Seeing the crowds, he went up on a mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he opened his mouth and taught them” (Matthew 5:1–2). This is the area marked by the Church of the Beatitudes, a Franciscan chapel completed in 1938. Somewhere in this area, Jesus preached the most famous sermon of all time.

His first beatitude laid the foundation for all the others: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (v. 3). To be “poor in spirit” is to know how desperately we need God. When we admit that fact, we make God our king and advance the “kingdom of heaven.” Then we are “blessed” with God’s best.

The second beatitude begins in the same way: “Blessed.” This is a translation of the Greek word, Makarios, meaning “a sense of wellbeing that transcends circumstances.” Our culture offers happiness based on happenings, but Jesus offers blessedness based on his grace. Our culture offers us what our circumstances can give but Jesus offers us what no circumstance can give or take.

Don’t settle for happiness. Don’t settle for what the world can steal. Don’t settle for anything but God’s best.

How do we experience it? Admit how much we need God, how much he could do with our lives if he were fully our king. Envision what it would be like to be led by his omniscience and empowered by his omnipotence. Then make him king of every dimension of our lives.

Expect to mourn

But such blessedness does not insulate us from suffering. The opposite, in fact. The second beatitude does not say, “Blessed are those who might mourn” or “who happen to mourn,” but “who mourn.” The implication is that everyone will mourn. And this is a fact.

“Mourn” translates penthountes, which describes a kind of grief so deep that it takes possession of the entire person and cannot be hidden. Genesis 37 uses it to describe Jacob’s grief upon learning of the supposed death of his son, Joseph (verse 34).

What causes such mourning?

We mourn our losses. The death of my father at the age of fifty-five is still the great loss of my life. He died ten days before Christmas in 1979. He never saw me married or heard me preach. He never met my sons (he would have been a wonderful grandfather).

The survivors of our war dead are mourning on this Memorial Day, and we mourn with them. What other losses are you mourning today?

We mourn our failures. We all have mistakes in our past that we would pay a high price to correct. Things we did but should not have done; things we did not do but should have done. People we hurt; opportunities we missed. I had a friend in high school who took his own life. I will wonder for the rest of my life what I could have done to help him.

What failures are you mourning today?

We mourn our sins. These are moral failures, things we thought, said, and did that violated the word and will of God. After David committed adultery with Bathsheba then arranged for the death of her husband, he said to God, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). We all know the feeling.

Expect to be comforted

So we’ve seen the mourning side of our Memorial Day study; now let’s move to the celebrating side: “for they shall be comforted.” The Greek means literally, “they shall be encouraged” or “they shall be invited in.”

Note that this is unconditional: not, “they may be comforted” but “they shall be comforted.” This is a future indicative, the promise of an absolute fact.

And yet, so many in our world mourn but are not comforted. How can God make this promise?

The first beatitude empowers the second. When I admit how much I need God, I bring my grief to him. I don’t try to handle it myself. I don’t ask other people to do what only God can do. I bring it directly and unconditionally to God. I make him the king of it.

I give him my grief over my father’s death. I trust him with my failures and mistakes. I ask him to forgive my sins and transgressions.

And when I do, I “shall be comforted.”

The challenge is, we must give our mourning to God to receive his comfort. His word teaches: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).

Have you done this? Have you named your grief, your failure, your sin, and made him the King of it? Have you put it in his hands and left it there?

If you will, God will comfort you. His Spirit will speak to your spirit, giving you the “peace of God.” He will work through circumstances to bring you strength and help. His word will give you guidance and hope. He will lead people to bring you his wisdom and presence.

I don’t know all the ways God will comfort you when you give him your mourning, but I promise you that he will:

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

“Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted” (Isaiah 49:13).

“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29).

Dwight Moody was right: “God never made a promise that was too good to be true.”

Look for ways to comfort others

Expect to mourn, and when you trust your mourning to God, expect to be comforted. One last principle: look for ways to comfort others. One of the most significant ways God comforts us is by using us to help others.

I believe that God redeems all he allows. One way he redeems our suffering is by using it to help us help other people who are suffering.

His word is clear: “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 may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

When my son, Ryan, was diagnosed with cancer, people who had dealt with cancer could help us as others could not. When you have faced tragedy and struggles, people who have been where you are were God’s instruments of healing.

Now we are called to pay it forward, to help others as we were helped, to be wounded healers.

Ask God to guide you to someone who is going through what you’ve been through. Ask him to open your eyes and heart to people he wants you to serve. Ask him to redeem your mourning by using it to comfort someone who is mourning. And know that he will.


The day after my father died, a friend from college named Ricky Wilcox drove across Houston to stay with me. I don’t remember that he said anything at all. He was just there. And I’ll never forget his kindness and the presence of Jesus I sensed in him.

I didn’t see him again that semester, then I graduated from school, got married, and moved on to seminary. I have not seen him since. I don’t know where Ricky is today.

But I know this: he was God’s gift to me that day. I want to pay that gift forward to you today.

Now it’s your turn.