We are talking about misery that seems to toss faith to the wind while we cannot shake off feelings of abandonment. It is one of the hazards of being human and the question does beg for an answer. Perhaps I am speaking for our sister in Christ, afflicted with COVID-19 and rectal cancer, who posted a gut-wrenching cry of despair in our public community forum. I envied her for her courage, having just suffered through sleepless nights with the excruciating pain of an ulcerated ankle wound that resists healing.
Incurable wordsmith that I am, I looked up the Latin root for despair, and found that de sperare means “without hope.” Good! That confirms the validity of my long-held belief that neither dictionary, gnawing feelings, nor still growing faith, should answer tough questions that God alone can answer to my satisfaction. I know He happily does so with time-tested, hope-filled Scriptures and the personal illumination of the Holy Spirit.
When I pondered the misery of my recent sleepless nights, I loved that all four Gospel accounts popped into my mind that recorded the panic of the disciples in the storm-tossed boat. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus sleeping soundly while the tough guys are falling apart. Mark notes that He is sleeping on a pillow in the stern, making me think that He regularly napped between teaching and preaching destinations. John vividly records the terror of the freaked-out disciples, notching it up a bit by having Jesus walk on the water and making them think a ghost is coming for them. In every instance the immediacy and intimacy of His presence makes for restoration and the revelation of His divinity, causing waves and wind to obey Him. Having looked at those instead of keeping his focus on Jesus, Peter had started to “sink in the drink,” but His loving Lord stretched out His hand immediately to save him.
This same Jesus, who has vowed not to fail or forsake us, is clearly very present in our sufferings, and knows exactly when and how to pull the plug on the “whelming flood.” My fierce stabbing pains cannot prevent these firm words from forming on my lips, “His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood; when all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay” (third stanza of Christ, the Solid Rock). In 1996 I recorded next to Psalm 29:1-2 a quote from Spurgeon’s Faith’s Checkbook that read, “That same God who rides upon the storm in days of tempest will also rule the hurricane of our tribulation and send us before long days of peace. We shall have strength for the storms and songs for fair weather…” In 2013 the ulcerated ankle wound on my left leg required months of daily and weekly trips to the Wound Center at Kaiser, the pain getting worse and worse until vascular surgery restored blood flow. While the wound healed, I developed a blood clot and had to give myself two shots a day in the belly for two weeks. Then breast cancer showed up for the second time, but Jesus ruled the hurricane of that season and I emerged with many more joys than scars.
Steering toward Inauguration Day, our Ship of State (Plato) is in turbulent waters and bracing for storms perhaps not yet encountered. If Christ’s own keep their eyes on the Captain of their Salvation, He will take on the “whelming flood,” and speak His peace into the lives of those who trust and worship Him. As for the members of His beloved household of faith at G.H. Pres, who knows how many may be suffering privately from sharp pains and perplexing sorrows? If we look at the astonishing outpouring of love and genuine concern that our suffering sister in Christ experienced shortly after going public with her despair, we can only conclude that it reflects His very personal “ministry of presence.” It is to be prized, celebrated, and practiced in ever increasing measure as the Spirit directs. We are to bless, not to blame; offer comfort, but not become a crutch; confidently model expectant faith, but NEVER say, “If you had more faith, you wouldn’t be in such a fix!” That pain would really perk me up enough at night to sing this stanza from the Swedish hymn Children of the Heavenly Father, “Praise the Lord in joyful numbers / Your Protector never slumbers / At the will of your Defender / Ev’ry foe man must surrender.”