Surviving Sorrow

I Married Up

How’s Nancy?

How are you?

I get these two questions a lot these days. I’m grateful. Caring by others adds greatly to comfort in trial and the soul sorrow it can bring.

As for question one . . .

My wife amazes me. Her devotion to a natural cancer-beating protocol nearly defies description. She has embraced this season’s demanded vocation – getting well – with whatever-it-takes zeal. By way of update, she continues to recover nicely from surgery. Last week the surgeon gave her a good report. Just a couple more weeks to go and she will be back to lifting those boxes of supplements all by herself again. Good thing. My back hurts.

Another blood test revealed slightly elevated CA-125 markers. The doc said “No surprise. Common after surgery.” Now we have a baseline for measuring effectiveness of the treatment regimen. We expect her to check these about monthly from this point on. That way we will have some idea of whether we are gaining, losing, or holding ground in the war against, as I prefer to call it, “this stupid disease.” As always, we would ask for prayer for God’s healing power to rid her body of every renegade cell.

As for question two . . .

How much time do you have? I fight daily on a number of fronts. Among them, sadness. Though January, gratefully, came and went, the sting of Josh’s death lingers. I don’t expect it ever to go away, though the burden does lessen with time. But fear of greater loss can compound my weight of sorrow. I feel it every day.

And yet, every day, it seems the Lord brings something to help me fight better to outlast my sorrow. This morning was no exception, as my daily Bible reading brought me to Matthew 26:36-46 (ESV).

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful
and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this Gethsemanecup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Not just “sorrowful” but “troubled.” “Even to death.” The cross loomed on the horizon. The tempter lurked in a different garden hunting the Last Adam as he did the first (Genesis 3:1-7). More than ample reason for extreme distress.

How then does Jesus fight? What cues can we take from Him for surviving sorrow, whatever form it takes in our gardens of suffering? Four things: surrounding, seeking, serving, submitting.

One, surrounding ourselves with support. Jesus did not head for that garden alone. He took the disciples with him. The closest of the close he staged a stone’s throw away. He needed them. “Watch WITH me,” was His plea.

Two, seeking God’s help. Falling on His face He prayed. Let those words sink in. Some things only God can fix. Some hurts only the Lord can manage. Some pains only the Father can ease. Some challenges only I AM can handle. The two most important words out of our mouths when struggling to survive sorrow are “My Father,” because they mean we’ve turned heavenward, the only hope of avoiding collapse. And we must persist in this pattern. Three times Jesus went before the Father to voice His prayer. As long as the sorrow hangs around, take it to the Lord in prayer.

Three, serving others in love. The disciples favored a strategy often turned to in sorrow. Sleep. Jesus does not berate them. Even though subject to the temptation of temptations Himself, His best friends no comforters at all, He does not lash out. Rather He teaches and warns. Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. First the example, next the instruction. You’ve got to watch and pray to survive your sorrows. I’m grateful for the stewardship of pastoral ministry. The call to serve others helps pull me out of sorrow’s tractor beam grip that so often leads to self-pity and despair.

Fourth, submitting to God’s will. If the two most important words out of the gate in sorrow are “My Father,” then the four most strategic words at the finish line are “Your will be done.” Who prays this way? Only those who believe Psalm 115:3. Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. The Son of God treasured the Father’s sovereignty in all things. He submitted Himself perfectly to His will. He delighted to do that will, even to the point of death, death on a cross (Phil. 2:6-8).

So when I don’t fare so well on any given day in my fight to survive my sorrow, or perhaps my comforters fall asleep on me, I try to remember the One who fought His sorrows and won for me what I cannot do for myself. I commend the same strategy to you as you go through your valley of the shadow whenever and wherever it may come.

A Sure Cure for Evil Boasting & Temporal Arrogance

On Saturday, as we dressed for our third funeral in as many weeks, Nancy, my wife, said to me, “We’re dressing in back a little too often lately.” Indeed. Three funerals in three weeks even for a couple hovering around sixty years of age seems a bit much. It has me thinking a lot lately of those words in James 4:13-17 where that concept of life as a vapor appears in the writer’s plea for a certain kind of attitude shaping all of life.

Essentially James warns us about the folly of a certain kind of talk – “Come now you who say” (v. 13, emphasis added) – that talks big about the future, immediate and distant. He describes it in terms of saying things like “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit” (v. 13). It’s not the planning James objects to; it’s the arrogance that presumes certain outcomes he has a problem with (v. 16). He probably has Proverbs 27:1 in the back of his mind: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

He objects for three reasons. First, boasting ignores the uncertainty of life (v. 14). Life is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. The word for vapor in Greek is atmis from where we get the English atmosphere. What figure could better communicate the uncertainty of life? Nobody has any gilt edge guarantees about what tomorrow may bring. We number our lives in terms of years each birthday celebration, but God tells us in Psalm 90:12 “Lord, teach us to number our days aright” (emphasis added).

Second, boasting denies the sovereignty of God (v. 15). Here James describes how we ought to talk in all our planning, personal or business: “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” Perhaps James has another proverb in view: “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel – that will stand” (19:21). A well-placed, meaningful “If the Lord wills” that prefaces all our dreams for the future communicates intentional dependence upon God for the outcome in anything we endeavor and confidence that His purposes shall prevail.

Third, boasting constitutes the epitome of evil (vv. 16-17). James minces no words here: “All such boasting is evil” (v.16). The word evil is pornea from where we get pornographic. In other words it is obscene in God’s eyes when we make grandiose plans probably born of greed (notice the emphasis on buy and sell and make a profit in v. 13) that take no account of God in the process. That he calls plainly “sin” in v. 14.

Tomorrow I mark the seventh anniversary of my surgery on my tongue and neck and the joy of that many years cancer-free. On April 29 we hope to dedicate a new church building to the glory of God. That God would give me any additional years of service and that He would be pleased to let us have decades of prosperous ministry to come in our facility at 872 Maitland Avenue, and everything else we presume upon Him for the future, must come with the qualifier if the Lord wills, so that we might avoid evil boasting and temporal arrogance, sins that greatly offend Him.