Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman
Christian Standard Bible (c) copyright 2000
by Holman Bible Publishers. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holman
Our text this morning is from Psalm 62. I will be reading from the Holman Christian Standard Bible. The text has to do with confidence, confidence in God. In the United States, we tend to place our confidence in other things. Many are counting on our defense system. Others rely on our financial system and on the safeguards designed to prevent another 1930s-style depression. Some find security in friends and family. Many depend on their health and on their careful management of personal finances.
But David had a different source of confidence. His confidence was in God alone. In Psalm 62:1-2 David said, "I am at rest in God alone; my salvation comes from Him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold; I will never be shaken."
It has been almost three years since the World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon, and four passenger jets were destroyed by terrorists. On that day, the confidence of many was shaken. Never again would our national security be taken for granted. Never again would our social institutions seem secure. On that day, people became painfully aware that a few terrorists could, in a few hours, change our very way of life.
Nevertheless, in spite of the shock and devastation, many victims and their families stood firm and became God-exalting testimonies of faith. Though their suffering was great, their underlying confidence in God was not shaken. However, others became bitter and hateful. Angrily, they went about looking for people to sue and people to blame.
Recently, the 911 Commission published its report, and many are reading it with great interest. Some are reading it for political reasons--looking for opportunities to criticize their opponents and vindicate themselves. Others are reading it to better understand how to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
The surviving victims are also interested in this report. Under the collective label of "911" they continue to suffer as a group, as communities, as families, and as individuals. Their historical context is unique.
But suffering was not unique to the victims of 911. Indeed, every single day since September 11, 2001, people have suffered.
We have seen this in the news every night, and we have seen it so often that we are used to it. Innocent people have died. Homes have been demolished. Natural disasters of wind, fire, and flood have destroyed livelihoods. And people have been robbed, raped, and vandalized.
Furthermore, all kinds of people have suffered. All kinds of people have been visited by tragedy: the rich and the poor, the old and the young. Suffering has visited the wicked, but it has also visited those who fear God. All over the world, people who love God have suffered.
Now, what recommendations do we have for these people? How can Christian people be better prepared to face tragedy? If we were to write a 911 Commission report for the American Christian, what recommendations would it contain?
Well, I want to make some recommendations, but I want to do this with appropriate humility. Many of you know that on February 8, 2001, my son died suddenly and unexpectedly from injuries he sustained while doing a trick on his bicycle. However, losing my son did not automatically make me an expert on the Christian preparation for tragedy. Even as I was preparing this sermon, I glanced at a newsletter from Open Doors, a ministry that reaches out to the persecuted church. There on the front page was a little boy with bandaged arms and burn marks on his chest. Militant Muslims had destroyed Christian villages. Whole families had been burned alive in their homes. Others had barely escaped with second and third degree burns. I cannot comprehend this kind of suffering.
Nevertheless, I have studied the Christian response to suffering more than any other theological topic. I have spent hours pouring over the scriptures, books, web articles, and old Puritan documents, trying to understand what it means to grieve biblically and what Christians can do to be better prepared for tragedy. I have also talked with individuals as God has brought suffering people into my life. What I would like to do now is share some of the things that I have learned. I want to mention several things that people can do now--biblical things--which will make them better prepared to face tragedy.
One of the things that I learned is that when tragedy strikes, nothing is more important than your relationship with God. Nothing is more important than what you know and believe about God. A right understanding of God will secure you against despair when you face the winds of adversity. But a wrong understanding of God will provide nothing but conflict, confusion, and disillusionment.
We are going to look at just ten things, ten things that will help the Christian survive the journey through grief, things that will make the Christian better prepared to face tragedy.
To make these things easier to remember, we will use an acrostic. The acrostic consists of the phrase "safely home." Safely home is one of the songs that Steve Green sings on his album, The Faithful. This song touched me deeply during my own time of bereavement. The letters to the title of this song supply our outline.
- S stands for sovereignty, the sovereignty of God.
- A stands for assurance, the assurance of personal salvation.
- F stands for faith, confidence in the character of God.
- E stands for expectations, realistic, biblical expectations about the Christian life.
- L stands for love, the importance of showing love, compassion, and forgiveness to everyone, especially your children, not knowing when God might take them home.
- Y stands for yearn, yearn after Christ more than the things of this world.
- H stands for heaven, our eternal home.
- O stands for observe, observe the Lord's Day.
- M stands for meditate, carefully examine how the word of God and related instruction applies to your life.
- E stands for encourage; God will encourage his people when trouble comes.
Again, the letter "S" stands for sovereignty: the sovereignty of God. When we say that God is sovereign, we are saying several things:
- That God ordains all that comes to pass. God has control over everything that happens.
- That God is the first cause in all that comes to pass. Man and nature are mere second causes. There are first causes and there are second causes: the first cause is always God.
- That God never directly does evil; rather he uses the evil designs of others for good. We see this, for example, when Joseph is sold into slavery. He tells his brothers, "You meant this for evil but God meant it for good."
- That those who do evil, though they are mere second causes, are responsible to God and will be punished by God for their actions.
- That no plan of God can be thwarted by man. God never has a plan B. God's plans always succeed. Your actions cannot undo the plans of God.
This understanding of the sovereignty of God has several implications when tragedy strikes. One of these is the timing of death. Does anyone ever die before his or her time? Is there really such a thing as an untimely death?
God predetermines the time of a person's death. Even if humans are responsible, they are mere second causes. No one dies until his or her time is up. This is supported by Job 14:5-6 when Job says to God, "Man's days are determined and the number of his months depends on You."
Not only is the time of death predetermined by God, but also every event in life is caused or permitted by God. This is supported by Psalm 139:16, "Your eyes saw me when I was formless; all [my] days were written in Your book and planned before a single one of them began."
Do not miss what this verse is saying. Not only was the number of your days planned by God before you were born, but he planned even the individual events that would make up those days.
It should comfort the grieving person to know that even if he served as a second cause in a tragedy, no plan of God was undermined. He did not thwart the plans of God.
Another benefit of knowing the sovereignty of God is it helps the bereaved to deal with that irrational guilt which pursues the grieving. A few years ago a child died in his bed from an aneurysm. He was in his bed, the safest place that he could possibly be, yet the parent was still tormented by guilt. On another occasion, a young man was unable to accompany his friend who wanted to go deer hunting. When he heard that his friend had gone hunting alone and that he had accidentally shot and killed himself while climbing a tree, he was overwhelmed with guilt. He felt responsible.
Guilt gravitates to the grieving, but those who understand the sovereignty of God can overcome it.
Now on to the next letter. Letter "A" has to do with assurance, assurance of salvation. Assurance of salvation is the confidence that if you die you will go to heaven; you will be with Christ.
However, salvation and assurance of salvation are not the same thing. One might be truly saved and lack assurance.
Some lack assurance because they doubt whether their faith is good enough to save them. Certainly, the Bible says that you are saved by grace through faith. But it is the grace of God that saves you. Faith is just the instrument for receiving grace. Saving grace flows from God to you through faith: God's saving grace flows to you through faith in the same way that water flows through a pipe. So you can think of faith as being like a pipe. To be useful, faith must always point to God and his promises.
So the first and primary pillar of your assurance must always be the promises found in scripture. Learn them. Memorize them. Here is one. "For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Rom 10:13). Another one. "Everyone the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will never cast out" (John 6:37).
The second pillar of assurance is growth in godliness. Those who are truly born again will grow to be more like Christ. 1 Peter 1:10 says, "Make every effort to confirm your calling and election." Some scratch their heads over this verse and say, "Why, I cannot change my calling and election." But that is not the point. The point is assurance of salvation. Those who see the fingerprint of God in their own growth in godliness have grounds for assurance.
The third pillar of assurance comes through the spirit of God interacting with your spirit. In Romans 8:16 we read, "The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God's children." It is an assurance that is spiritually discerned. Like the sun breaking through the clouds on a dreary day, God warms your very heart with reassurance that he is your father and that you are his child.
However, we have to be very careful. Demonic forces can also give you peace and assurance. Many people--to their detriment--make this the primary pillar of their assurance. They have a dream or an experience that makes them feel good, and they conclude that they are safe with God. This is dangerous. Don't make these kinds of spiritual experiences the primary grounds for your assurance of salvation.
Others go to the opposite extreme and deny that the Holy Spirit touches people at an emotional level. They get scared whenever theology gets emotional. Yet, we are the bride of Christ. We are told to love God with whole hearts. How could God's special overtures of love to us not touch our emotions?
Nevertheless, these kinds of emotional experiences are temporary. The primary pillar of assurance must be the promises of God. The second pillar must be the evidence of the work of God in your life.
Cling to the promises, look for evidence of God's work in your life, and treasure those precious moments when God draws near in special ways. Those who know that they belong to Christ will be well armed to face the season of adversity; they will have a sure foundation in the hour of testing.
The next letter is "F" which stands for faith. The word faith is used in different ways in the Bible. This use of faith is confidence in the character of God. Our faith in the character of God must be unconditional. We must learn to say with Job, "Even if He kills me, I will hope in Him" (Job 13:15) We must privately resolve, before trials come, before our mental faculties are compromised by the shock and dissonance of grief, that we will trust in our God no matter what!
During the darker days after Steve died I kept asking myself, "How can I trust a God who lets bad things happen?" I had read enough in the book of Job to know that I would be foolish to accuse God. God is right in everything he does. He is wise and loving. He is perfect in all aspects of his character. But still I cried out, "So what! My son is gone. Yes, God is right and God is justified; but I am miserable. How am I supposed to find comfort in a God who does not always protect my family from tragedy?"
There was something I had to learn. I had to learn that it is better to walk arm in arm with Christ through the storm than to walk alone through the sunshine. It is better to be carried by Christ than to walk in my own strength. And it is better to be lead by Christ than to follow my own desires.
Sometimes I actually miss those days when sorrow so magnified and adorned the nearness of Christ. As the Lord drew near, I did not get my questions answered. But I did learn this: that I did not have to understand God in order to trust him.
Learn to lean upon the Lord now, while the days are gentle.
The next letter is "E" which stands for expectations. We need to have expectations about the Christian life that are realistic. They must be based on the Bible.
Many have unrealistic expectations. Instead of having a faith that is focused on Christ, they have faith in their faith: that if they believe enough, confess enough, and pray enough against every imaginable demon, they can be spared from the afflictions of this world. They have misunderstood the atonement, thinking that it supplies a pool of physical healing available to all who lay hold of it with sufficient faith. They have misunderstood what it means to live the abundant life: thinking that it means health and wealth in this world, not realizing that the abundant life is found in Christ.
Many expect prayer to protect them. Job prayed and sacrificed for his children, but this did not protect them when the hour of trial came. Yes, it is true that God has ordained that our prayers be used to protect and strengthen his people. Prayer is a means by which common human beings can seek and find the power of God to change the world. But our prayers never change the plans of God. God's plans must prevail. When we pray, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," we must recognize that this means that when our desires conflict with God's plans, we treasure the will of God over our own.
Some expect God to quickly relieve suffering; they expect God to answer their prayers quickly. But this is not always going to happen. Paul wrote concerning one of his ordeals, "I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.' Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christís power may reside in me" (2 Cor 12:7-9).
Some expect to avoid suffering by trying to live a godly life. It is written of Job that, "He was a man of perfect integrity, who feared God and turned away from evil" (Job: 1:1). Yet, look how much he suffered. Some would say that Job gave Satan an open door when he feared for the safety of his children. Job feared God; was that sinful? What kind of sloppy theology is this? It is God who opens and closes the doorway to suffering. In 1 Peter 4:12 we read, "Dear friends, when the fiery ordeal arises among you to test you, don't be surprised by it, as if something unusual were happening to you."
In other words, do not be surprised when suffering comes. God's people will have trials, but God's people have and will have God. And somehow, God will be enough.
The next letter "L" stands for love. If you wish to be prepared for tragedy, then you must always show love to the people around you. Sometimes when God takes home the ones we love, he does it suddenly. There is no time to make things right. There is no time to clear up misunderstandings.
Foolish is the parent who sternly rebukes his child without also affirming his love. Foolish is the spouse who lets the sun go down on his anger. Foolish is the parent who frustrates his child without also encouraging him. Foolish is the teenager who yells at his parents, storms out of the house, and never says, "I'm sorry, will you forgive me."
When death swiftly removes the ones you love, and when your last words to them were harsh, guilt consumes you. There is so much you want to say, but they cannot hear you anymore. You cannot pray to them; that would be idolatry. There is none to hear but God.
Maybe it is too late for you. Too late, you have learned this bitter lesson. Go ahead and tell God. Tell God what you want to tell them. He will know what to do with your confession. In the end, it is God's forgiveness that you need, and it is God's forgiveness that will give you peace.
Choose your words lovingly and carefully. Choose your words as if they were your last. Someday they will be.
The next letter "Y" stands for yearning. Those who yearn to be satisfied by the things of this world will be ill prepared for tragedy. Those who have learned to lean upon the things of this world will fall when the props are removed.
The things of this world include much that is good. Your job, your spouse, your family, your home, your health, your friends--these are all good things.
But sometimes we yearn after these things so much that Christ is almost ignored. We are like a young child who has been promised a delicious hamburger, hot off the grill, but while he is waiting, he fills up on potato chips.
Some fill up on the satisfaction that they find in their jobs. Many seek fulfillment through sports and entertainment. Others find their identity in their children. The most precious title I ever wore was not a professional title. No, my most precious title was this: Stephen's Father, Stephen's Dad.
On the night of Stephen's death, I walked the halls of Vanderbilt hospital and thought about my new title: Bereaved Father, Bereaved Dad. The very thought of it made me sick. I wanted to send my fist through the wall. Not only was Steve gone, but our very way of life was gone. In one hour, we had changed from being a home schooling family to being a grieving couple.
The props had been taken away, and there was nothing to keep me from despair but the arms of Jesus, the Jesus who had always been there, the Jesus who I had ignored in so many ways.
From then on, my heart would yearn for Jesus. Sometimes he seemed distant. I had to endure a season when God seemed far away. But never again would I take my Lord for granted. The one who yearns after Christ yearns after true riches, riches that remain when all else is shaken, riches that sustain us when all worldly props are taken away.
Learn what it means to yearn after Christ. Learn what it means to find your joy in him now before the dark days come.
The next letter is "H" which stands for heaven. Heaven has been the hope and comfort of God's people throughout the ages. Steadfast in their hope of heaven, the saints of God endured the flames, and they faced the teeth of wild animals. Sometimes they were tortured and mutilated beyond recognition. Yet, they stood their ground. In the midst of weakness, they were strong. Though the air might have been punctuated with their screams, groans, and cries of agony, the hope of heaven was their confident expectation.
Others, even in gentler circumstances, were sustained by the hope of heaven. Heaven was their stay as they faced declining health: the wasting of cancer, the pain of a failing heart, and the nausea of disease.
Heaven was their stay as they faced the wickedness of men: the murderer's bullet, the thief's invasion, and the drunkard's carelessness.
Heaven is a return to shalom: the way things ought to be. Heaven is a place--a real place--prepared by God for his people.
But in many ways, we seek to have heaven on earth. When things are going well for us, we might even imagine that we have recreated a kind of Garden of Eden. Thereby we reveal that we do not fully comprehend the joy that awaits us.
In the early days after Steve died, the hope of heaven did not seem like enough. I said something like this: "Yes, I know that Steve is in heaven, and I know that his mother and I will join him someday. But heaven will not replace what we had here. Nothing can replace that unbroken circle of love that we shared as a family. Our relationships will be so different. That lighthearted laughter and joy that we shared, just in being together, is forever gone."
What I did not realize at the time is that we are going to be different. And that is the good news. This is not bad news. All of our relationships will be different. Can you imagine living in a society where no one has anything to hide: all love is perfect love; all motives are pure. No more reading between the lines in conversations. No more stumbling for words. Our affection and love will be perfectly expressed, without inhibition, without shyness, without cultural constraints, and most precious of all, without sin.
Sin, that great enemy of all joy, will finally be removed, never to return. We will have a clear conscience with each another, and we will have what we have longed for all our lives, a clear conscience before God. We will enjoy communion with God with pure hearts.
We have never known anything like this! Do not measure heaven by your life experience. Do not measure heaven by the things of this world. Do not long after the passing shadows. Long for that which is real and lasting.
As it is written, "What no eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into a man's heart, is what God has prepared for those who love Him" (1 Cor 2:9).
The next letter is "O" which stands for observe: observe the Lord's Day. To observe the Lord's Day is to hallow it; to treat it as holy; to use it for the worship of God, for the encouragement of people, and for the refreshing of the soul. We should soberly consider the way we make use of the Lord's Day. We should be serious about how we use it.
By analogy, a college classroom might contain serious students and those who merely take up space. The serious students listen, they take careful notes, they read their textbooks, and they study after class. The rest fritter away their time with daydreaming, watching television, and partying. Then the day of testing comes.
We do something similar in the spiritual classroom: the worship service. People might be at church physically, but often their minds and hearts are far away. Then when tragedy finds them unprepared, sometimes they rail at God. One man complains, "Lord, I was having trouble with my marriage. Now my wife is gone. I pleaded with your for wisdom, but you never answered. Why?"
Although in reality we never put God on the witness stand, God could condescend to answer in this way. God could say, "I did answer your prayer. I gave you the wisdom you needed. It was through a certain sermon on a certain day. Oh, but you decided to stay home that day. You were a little tired from staying up too late the night before."
To a similar question God might reply, "I addressed your needs also. It was in a different sermon. It happened while you were sleeping."
To another he might respond, "I gave you the instructions you needed through your Sunday School Teacher. But you were distracted with planning your afternoon activities."
So it is that the gracious instruction that we receive on the Lord's Day often goes unheeded. Because it is ignored, it does not help us during the hour of trial.
But sometimes, even when instruction is heard, it eventually becomes useless because it is so quickly forgotten. Many consider the Lord's Day to be over after the last amen. Once they get out of church, the day is theirs. But this is like the student who goes to class but never studies. He never looks back over his class notes or his textbook. He never seeks to resolve points of confusion. He does not examine the practical implications of what he has learned.
He becomes like the one who drives his car with the gas gauge close to empty. He knows just how much gas he needs to get from one place to another. But one day he gets stuck in a traffic jam. The slow motion and the constant stopping and restarting use more gas than he planned for, and he has to pull over on the side of the road, unable to complete his journey.
God has a journey for each one of us. There will be smooth roads, bumpy roads, straight roads, and dangerous curves. There will be easy traveling, and there will be times when the traffic stops. The instruction that you receive on the Lord's Day is part of God's plan for preparing you for your journey. Do not take it lightly. Take it seriously.
The next letter, the letter "M" stands for meditation. The Unchristian world meditates by emptying the brain, but the Christian meditates by using his brain. He meditates by thinking, by carefully considering the word of God.
The Lord's Day provides a wonderful opportunity for longer seasons of meditation. You can look at all the things you need to do for your employer, all the chores that await your attention at home, and you can ignore them for the glory of God. You can walk away from them with a clear conscience. He is no sloth who treasures and protects his personal time with God on the Lord's Day. You have time to think about God, and you have time for self-examination. Use it while you are able to think clearly.
Be warned that if God is foreign to your thoughts now, he will seem like a stranger during the time of testing. But those who have learned to meditate on the Lord and on his word will be well fortified against despair when the hour of trial comes. As it is written, "You will keep in perfect peace the mind [that is] dependent [on You], for it is trusting in You" (Isaiah 26:3).
The last letter is "E" which stands for encouragement, God's encouragement of his suffering people. God encourages his people by taking action to make sure that their faith is sustained and that their hope never dies. This touches on the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints: the God who gives the faith to believe strengthens the faith he gives. God keeps the elect from falling by keeping their faith alive.
Sometimes God does things before tragedy strikes to shore up your faith. He might wake some one up in the middle of the night to pray for you. He might give them a strong impression that you are under some great stress. Or he might wake them up with a dream that points to your coming trial. If God wakes you up to pray for someone, your duty is clear--pray! Get on your knees before the Lord and lift up this person in prayer. Do not get sidetracked with the novelty of dreams and impressions. Do not get distracted with trying to fit these things into your understanding of how the Holy Spirit interacts with the mind. You can figure that out later. Just pray. Surely, we can all agree on this one point--it is always good to pray. It is always good to support the people of God in prayer.
After you have prayed, if you have the stamina, write down when this happened. It may help you to encourage others later.
The second way that God encourages you is through his people. It is at this point that I feel most incompetent to write. When I consider how God's people encouraged us during our time of trial, I am still amazed. Sometimes I wake up in the morning thinking about it, reliving those special moments when you became the very hands of God for sustaining our hearts.
The third way that God encourages his people is more direct--through spiritual interaction with their hearts. God causes certain parts of scripture to jump out at you, revealing hidden gems of comfort and consolation. The same thing happens with old hymns. Songs that used to seem dry and dusty now take on a new life as you see the sorrows of your own soul carefully penned in the words of the writers. You see their struggles, but you also see the encouragement they found in God.
However, this kind of encouragement might not come at once. While God always moves to comfort his people, he is not always speedy. You may go through a season where the word of God seems dry and when your prayers seem to bounce off the wall. Such was the case with David when he wrote the thirteenth Psalm. He began with a sense of desertion, "LORD, how long will You continually forget me" How long will You hide Your face from me?" But David did not despair: he continued to hope in the Lord.
Sometimes God chooses to make us hungry. He makes us hungry and thirsty so that we can learn to be satisfied in him. If you know that this is often the case with God's people, it should help you to continue to hope in the Lord during times when God seems aloof and far away.
There is a fourth aspect of encouragement that has more to do with the victim of tragedy. The victim has a solemn duty to stand firm in his faith. He might not speak and he might not write, but stand firm he must do.
He must stand firm for the sake of the young, that they might know that God is enough. He must stand firm for the sake of the ungodly, that they might see evidence that Christianity is real faith in a real God. He must stand firm for the sake of believers, that they might be strengthened in their faith and better prepared to face their own day of trial. And finally, he must stand firm for the glory of God, for God is worthy of our unconditional trust.
So there you are: these are my recommendations. This is my 911 report. This report emphasizes a right understanding of God. A right understanding of God will help to keep your faith from being shipwrecked during times of severe testing. Realistically, it will not take away the pain, and it will not remove the sense of loss. However, it will help you to keep a Godward focus and to prevent despair. Grief is a journey, and you must trust God to lead you through it. God determines the length and the course of this journey. A right understanding of God will help you to trust him when grief is at its worst, and it will help you to continue to trust him years later, as you learn to accept a new way of life, a new kind of normal. There may be remaining grief: some wounds never completely heal. But those who have a right understanding of God will find reason for joy and patience, even in the midst of suffering.
Let's review the things we need to remember about God:
S. Sovereignty, be confident of the sovereignty of God.
- God's plans always succeed.
- No one dies before their time.
A. Assurance, be sure of your salvation.
- Cling to the promises in the Bible.
- Grow by walking in humble and daily repentance before God.
F. Faith, have confidence in the character of God.
- Resolve in advance to trust God unconditionally.
- Resolve to trust God, no matter what happens.
E. Expectations, have realistic and biblical expectations about the Christian life.
- Christians suffer.
- A godly life does not prevent suffering.
L. Love, maintain gracious and forgiving relationships with people.
- Do not exasperate your children.
- Forgive them before you discipline them.
- Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Y. Yearn, yearn after Christ.
- Do not let worldly things be your main source of joy.
- Learn to find joy in Christ and all that he is for you.
H. Heaven, heaven is the hope and stay of God's people.
- Earthly joys are passing shadows; heaven is the reality.
- Earth's sweetest relationships will be even better in heaven.
O. Observe, seriously observe the Lord's Day.
- Use its lessons to strengthen faith and prepare for the future.
- Be diligent to pay attention during preaching and teaching.
- Review and study when you get home.
M. Meditate, practice self-examination.
- Examine your life under the magnifying glass of scripture.
- Do not just read the Bible; consider how to apply it to your life.
E. Encourage, God will encourage his people during testing.
Let us pray. Heavenly father, please use these words to encourage and strengthen your people.
- God prepares you in advance.
- God encourages you through others.
- God encourages you through the Bible.
- You must stand firm for the encouragement of others.
- You must stand firm for the glory of God.