The Struggling Times: Facing Illness, Loss, and Grief

Psalm 31:1-5

Psalm 31

For the music leader. A psalm of David.

31 I take refuge in you, Lord.
    Please never let me be put to shame.
        Rescue me by your righteousness!
2 Listen closely to me!
    Deliver me quickly;
        be a rock that protects me;
        be a strong fortress that saves me!
3 You are definitely my rock and my fortress.
    Guide me and lead me for the sake of your good name!
4 Get me out of this net that’s been set for me
    because you are my protective fortress.
5 I entrust my spirit into your hands;
    you, Lord, God of faithfulness—
    you have saved me.

Psalm 31:21-24

21 Bless the Lord,
    because he has wondrously revealed
    his faithful love to me
    when I was like a city under siege!
22 When I was panicked, I said,
    “I’m cut off from your eyes!”
But you heard my request for mercy
    when I cried out to you for help.

23 All you who are faithful, love the Lord!
    The Lord protects those who are loyal,
        but he pays the proud back to the fullest degree.
24 All you who wait for the Lord,
be strong and let your heart take courage.

 

2 Corinthians 4:7-18

Physical bodies and eternal glory

7 But we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. 8 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. 9 We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.

10 We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. 11 We who are alive are always being handed over to death for Jesus’ sake so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies that are dying. 12 So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

13 We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: I had faith, and so I spoke. We also have faith, and so we also speak. 14 We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. 15 All these things are for your benefit. As grace increases to benefit more and more people, it will cause gratitude to increase, which results in God’s glory.

16 So we aren’t depressed. But even if our bodies are breaking down on the outside, the person that we are on the inside is being renewed every day. 17 Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. 18 We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.

 

Thoughts on the passage:

Theodicy is the fancy theological term for attempts to reconcile an all-powerful, loving God and the existence of evil and suffering in the world. If God loves us and cares for us, then why is it that we suffer. This question gets asked over and over again and is one that we all must struggle with. It is asked by almost anyone who has dealt with a serious illness like cancer. It is asked by almost anyone who has had to deal with a tragic death in their family. It was asked by most of the world when we learned about the horror of the Holocaust. How is God blessing us and how is God with us in the face of so much pain, and grief, and death?

I wish I could promise you that I would have all the answers for you in one short easy sermon. The reality is that my sermons are not often that short (sorry) nor is it really something that is easy to answer. Theodicy, is a quest to find meaning to something that might feel very meaningless. Even knowing the reason for something does not necessarily help us deal with it. I can know the cause of cancer or a heart attack, but that does not lesson the sense of tragedy I would feel if it was one of my parents who had died. Reason may help us deal with suffering, but in the end, these feelings are real and stem from the care and compassion we have for those around us. We cannot limit our sense of loss without limiting our sense of compassion.

One solution to suffering, and it is a case that I feel Paul is making in his letter to the Corinthians, is to put that suffering in perspective. For him, physical pain, illness, and even death are not nearly as big a problem because he believes that our true value comes in our relationship to God. When we have a new life in Christ then what occurs in this life does not matter nearly as much. If we are able to recognize that our worth comes not from our physical bodies but from our immortal spirits and we know that those spirits are promised a new life in Christ, then what happens to our physical bodies diminishes in value.

Ultimately, Paul is reminding us to think about what is really at stake. Many of you know that I am a runner. I have run in several marathons as well as a growing number of local races. I have never come close to winning a race. If I place value on my abilities as a runner this might be devasting. Instead it does not bother me at all. Running for me is a vain effort to stay healthy and lose weight, not a measure of my worth. By contrast, I do take some pride in my abilities as a fencer and have staked some of my worth on it. For example, I would be really sad if my sister ever beat me in fencing. What Paul would remind me, is that my worth is not really measured by who is a better fencer, but that both my sister and I are beloved children of God, regardless of who is better at poking the other person with a sword.

A few years ago, there was a TV show called House, which told the story of a doctor who suffered from severe pain caused by muscle damage to one of his legs. In one episode we learn that when the problem initially presented itself they talked about amputating the leg. His doctors and friends tried to convince him that it was just a leg, but he kept saying “but it’s my leg.” Even if we intellectually know it is just a leg, and losing it is not nearly as bad as losing your whole life, we are attached to things and that attachment makes such a loss hard.

Not placing too much worth on ourselves sounds easy enough, but in practice it gets a lot harder. We can remind ourselves about our faith in a resurrection, but when faced with pain, illness, or tragedy, that faith can seem less substantial compared with the certainty of what we are feeling in the moment. Grief is real and is not something we should try and get rid of.

One of the most compelling answers I have heard to the question of God and suffering is that God does not protect us from suffering but rather God choses to suffer along side us. God is present with us in the pain, the grief and the loss. Through Christ’s life and death, God knows what it means to be human and understands our pain. Tragedy is not a sign that God has abandoned us. Rather, tragedy is a chance for us to be reminded that God is with us.

Every month when we celebrate communion we are reminded of the suffering that God has experienced. In the broken bread and the cup that is offered we are given a chance to know the extent that God loves us and how willing God is to be with us. Rather than avoid the pain of death, Christ takes it on out of love for us. When we tell the story again and we share in the elements, we are connected again to a God who lives, suffers, and dies for love of us.

When we confront our own sense of tragedy and loss, we can be reminded that rather than being far from us, these are the moments that God is closest to us. Those times of illness, grief and loss are chances for us to be reminded of what really matters. What we are meant to treasure is not the physical which will perish, but the spirit that is eternal. It is tempting to hold on to the physical because it is what we know, but instead we should remember that our physical bodies are just the beginning of something much greater.

We have all probably heard the story of the person who sees their life as a series of footsteps in the sand. When they look back on their life they see mostly two sets of footprints, one for them and one for God, but in the hard times there is only one set. It is in those hard times that God has carried them. In our times of grief, suffering, and loss, God is carrying us too. God is there to help us to get through the pain and bring us to what is next. We are an Easter people, we believe in a God of resurrection and new life. Amen

Questions to Ponder:

When is a time you have faced great suffering or tragedy?

How have you experienced God’s presence in the midst of grief?

Who is someone you know who is struggling to experience God in the midst of their suffering?

Prayer:

God, be with us in the midst of our pain and our loss. Comfort us in our sorrow and help us to know that you are with us even in the worst of times. Give us a sense of peace in our times of need. Help us to find a hope in the resurrection that is promised to us through Jesus Christ. Amen