Some excerpts from this book of the same name, by Roger Carswell (2nd edition, 2020)
How can God be all-loving and all-powerful?
The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, outlined the dilemma facing the thinking mind: God either wishes to take away evils and is unable; or He is able and is unwilling; or He is neither willing nor able; or He is both willing and able. If He is willing but unable, He is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If He is able and unwilling, He is envious, which is equally at variance with God. If He is neither willing nor able, He is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God. If He is both willing and able, which alone is suitable for God, from what source then are evils? Or why does He not remove them?
Contentment – based on delusion
The autobiography of Sir Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise, tells about an incident when he was playing Father Brown on location in Burgundy. Walking back to his lodgings one evening, still wearing his priest’s costume, it grew dark: I hadn’t gone far when I heard scampering footsteps and a piping voice calling, ‘Mon Père!’ My hand was seized by a boy of seven or eight, who clutched it tightly, swung it and kept up a non-stop prattle … Although I was a total stranger he obviously took me for a priest and so to be trusted. Suddenly, with a ‘Bonsoir Mon Père’, and a hurried sideways sort of bow, he disappeared through a hole in the hedge. He had a happy, reassuring walk home, and I was left with an odd calm sense of elation … There were two happy individuals, but their contentment was based on delusion.
“Can I thank God that He trusts me with this suffering even if He never tells me why?”
Helen Roseveare, a missionary doctor, faced this same tension between mystery and certainty, between the secret things and the revealed things. She studied medicine at Cambridge University, where she became a Christian, through friends in the Christian Union. Eventually she went to the Belgian Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo) to work as a missionary doctor. She personally supervised the building of several hospitals, and did a remarkable work not only in caring for patients but in training doctors and nurses. During the Belgian Congo uprising in 1964, she was captured by Zimba rebels. Brutalised, raped and imprisoned, she was taken out of prison to be shot. She was miraculously granted a reprieve, and eventually escaped the Congo and returned to her home in Northern Ireland. When the uprising came to an end, despite all her ordeals, she went back to continue her work in the Congo. Naturally, there were huge physical and emotional scars, but reflecting on what had happened, she said, ‘I came to the conclusion that I could ask myself the question: “Can I thank God that He trusts me with this suffering even if He never tells me why?”’
God’s inscrutable wisdom
1700 years ago Augustine expressed what Christians believe today: ‘God judged it better to bring good out of evil than to suffer no evil to exist.’
Tears of a tyrant
Leslie Davis – a North American journalist and Foreign Service officer who worked in Turkey and Armenia at the beginning of the twentieth century – recognised this ability to follow Lord Nelson’s example in raising a telescope to a blind eye. At first Davis wrote about ‘how peacefully the Armenians and Turks were getting along’. But not long after he would write about the genocide of the Armenian people, ‘Who could have then foreseen, amid these peaceful surroundings, that the following year there was to be in this region what is probably the most terrible tragedy that has befallen any people in the history of the world?’ He described one of the perpetrators of the genocide, Sabit Bey, as having something sociopathic about his behaviour: I have seen tears roll down the cheeks of him at the imaginary sufferings of a young man who was playing the part of a wounded soldier in an amateur theatrical performance given for the benefit of the Turkish Red Crescent Society. Yet a hundred thousand people were made homeless and most of them perished from violence as a result of his orders.
The danger within
On 20 April 1999, in the small, suburban town of Littleon, Colorado in the USA, two intelligent teenage boys from solid homes entered their school in the middle of the day with knives, guns and bombs. They planned to kill hundreds of their peers. By the end of the day, twelve students, one teacher and two murderers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, were dead. In trying to understand how such a massacre could have happened, many pointed the finger of blame at Dylan’s and Eric’s parents for failing to bring them up well. Ten years after the event, Dylan’s mother, Susan, said in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, ‘In raising Dylan, I taught him how to protect himself from a host of dangers: lightening, snake bites, head injuries, skin cancer, smoking, drinking, sexually transmitted diseases, drug addiction, reckless driving, even carbon monoxide poisoning. It never occurred to me that the gravest danger – to him and, as it turned out, to many others – might come from within.’
“I think evil comes into it”
Dr Richard Badcock, a psychiatrist at Rampton Special Hospital near Retford, spent more than a hundred hours with Dr Harold Shipman, Britain’s worst serial murderer. Shipman had worked as a family doctor in communities where he was trusted. Yet this seemingly inoffensive doctor was repeatedly murdering his patients. Badcock argued that Shipman was a ‘classic necrophiliac’, but added, ‘Equally you make a case for it being a spiritual disorder. It is a disorder that transcends the conventional disciplines of medicine, psychology and religion. It is something that presumably many could get into but don’t. I think evil comes into it.’
“I was only obeying orders”
When we are proved to be failing in some way, it is tempting to argue that the root cause is somebody else’s fault. It is an old ploy; as some wag has said, ‘Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and the serpent hadn’t a leg to stand on.’ In more recent times, the classic demonstration of this was at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945–46 where the Nazi war criminals were indicted for their crimes against humanity. Josef Seuss, an administrative assistant, whimpered, ‘A soldier can only carry out his orders.’ Walter Langlesit, a battalion commander, declared, ‘I was just a little man. Those things were done on orders from the big shots.’ Colonel Hoess, commandant of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp, who personally supervised the extermination of two and a half million Jews, explained, ‘In Germany it was understood that if something went wrong, the man who gave the orders was responsible. So I didn’t think I would ever have to answer for it myself.’ Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo and Luftwaffe, and formerly the second-ranking man in Germany, blustered, ‘We had to obey orders.’
“You are evil”
In August 2002, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman – two ten-year-old girls from Soham, Cambridgeshire – were murdered. The crime seemed all the more horrific because the killer was actually a trusted friend known to the girls through school, and living within walking distance of their home. Newspaper columnists wrote articles horrified at what had happened, but assuring their readers that we are not really bad, although once in a while there may be an outburst of wickedness. That is not how the Bible views us. Jesus, speaking about prayer, said, ‘If you then, though you are evil …’ As a result of what theologians call ‘the Fall’, when the first human beings rebelled against the authority and will of God, we have inherited a nature which is inherently bad. That does not mean that we can do nothing commendable. We still find joy in being involved in good works, but even they can be spoiled by wrong motives and pride. However, it does mean that we are each capable of disobeying God in ways that may hit the headlines or simply harden our hearts.
A monster? No, an ‘ordinary man’!
Mike Wallace, a North American television interviewer, introduced a programme about the Nazi Adolf Eichmann, a principal architect of the Holocaust. At the outset he posed a central question, ‘How is it possible … for a man to act as Eichmann acted? Was he a monster? A madman? Or was he perhaps something more terrifying: was he normal?’ The most startling answer to Wallace’s shocking question came in an interview with Yehiel Dinur, a concentration camp survivor who testified against Eichmann at his trial in 1961. A film clip shows Dinur walking into the courtroom, then stopping short after seeing Eichmann for the first time since the Nazi had sent him to Auschwitz eighteen years earlier. Dinur began to sob uncontrollably, then fainted, collapsing in a heap on the floor as the presiding judicial official pounded his gavel for order in the crowded courtroom. Was Dinur overcome by hatred? Fear? Horrid memories? No, it was none of these. Rather, as Dinur explained to Wallace, all at once he realised that Eichmann was not the godlike officer who had sent so many to their deaths. This Eichmann was an ordinary man. ‘I was afraid about myself,’ said Dinur. ‘… I saw that I am capable to do this. I am … exactly like he.’
Something worse than suffering
‘There is something worse than suffering, and that is sin. Don’t pity Jesus on the cross. Instead, pity Caiaphas, the scheming religious liar; or Pilate, the spineless Roman politician; or Judas, the money-grabbing thief who wasted the opportunity of a lifetime. We shed tears, and rightly so, for a loved one killed in an accident; but too often we don’t weep for the drunken driver who caused the accident. We permit our suffering to blind us to the real cause of suffering in this world – human rebellion against God.’ (Wiersbe)
Bereavement: not an illness; more like an amputation
Less than a year later, someone said to Lisa, ‘Haven’t you got over it yet?’ John later explained, ‘The loss of someone who you love very much isn’t like an illness you get over. It is more like an amputation which you learn to live with. We will feel the loss for the rest of our lives but, with God’s help, we might just become better people for it.’
Forgiveness extended to all
Whatever our sins, there is forgiveness to all who genuinely and sincerely turn from them to God, who is infinitely merciful. Guilt creates its own suffering. Albert Speer was a confidante of Hitler and whose technological genius was credited with keeping Nazi factories humming throughout World War II. He was the only one of the twenty-four criminals tried in Nuremberg to admit his guilt. Speer spent twenty years in Spandau prison. He later said, ‘I served a sentence of twenty years, and I could say, “I’m a free man, my conscience has been cleared by serving the whole time as punishment.” But I can’t do that. I still carry the burden of what happened to millions of people during Hitler’s lifetime, and I can’t get rid of it.’ His writings are filled with contrition and warnings to others to avoid his moral sin.
The death of Polycarp
In AD 155, the city of Smyrna was the scene of religious amusement. Statius Quadratus, the Roman proconsul, was the guest of honour. As part of the entertainment, eleven Christians were brought in from Philadelphia to be thrown to the lions. The excitement of the people reached its peak. ‘Polycarp! Polycarp!’ they yelled. They searched for the greatly loved Christian leader. When he was found, he was brought to the stadium. The proconsul tried in vain to persuade Polycarp to deny the lordship of Jesus Christ, but only received the reply: ‘Eighty-six years I have served Him, and He never did me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?’ He was tied to a stake, flaming wood was placed on his aged body, and there he was martyred. His remains were buried on Mount Pagus.
The death of John Bradford
John Bradford, prebendary of St Paul’s, was imprisoned in the Tower of London because of his Protestant faith in Christ. On 1 July 1555, he was martyred. He was chained to the stake at Smithfield with a young man, John Leaf. Before the fire was lit, he begged forgiveness of any he had wronged, and offered forgiveness to those who had wronged him. He then turned to Leaf and said, ‘Be of good comfort brother; for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord this night!’ Christians have the certainty of heaven for heaven is not a reward for doing good, but a gift purchased by Jesus and offered to all.
You are safe
To crowds of students at Cambridge University, about ten months before she died, Laura said, ‘When you face death, I want you to know there is something good to go on to. You can die with confidence in the arms of a loving Father, knowing you are safe and that you are His child. It has been great living out my life as a child of God. It has been wonderful – the best part of my life! I want you to know, like I do, that whatever happens to you tomorrow, you are secure. You can know that God loves you; that nothing can happen that He can’t protect you from and keep you safe throughout.’
God is there for me
Todd Beamer, who was on United Airlines Flight bound for San Francisco on 11 September 2001, had such a relationship with God. When the plane was hijacked, he is the one who spoke those unforgettable words, ‘Let’s roll!’ as they set about taking on the hijackers. Shortly afterwards, the plane crashed in a remote area of Pennsylvania. In his wife’s account of losing her husband in a terrorist attack, she shares how she found on their computer her husband’s description of his relationship with God: I have had stops and starts in building my relationship with God … I screw up, I let Him down, and I do not always spend time with God the way I should. This is because I am trying to force the relationship and steer it in the direction I want it to go. That doesn’t work, and only leads to frustration. However, each time I come to God to ask for forgiveness, He is there for me. Each time I ask God for help, He is there for me. Each time I cry out in frustration and pain, He is there for me. While my relationship with God is far from perfect … God has been there for me time and again, and has expressed His love and grace for me. Although at times I have taken God for granted … my experience has been that God is patient and waiting for us to come to Him. Once we come to Him and give more of our lives to Him, He will give more of Himself to us.
‘Too wise to make mistakes; too good to be unkind’
A friend of mine, Peter Frost, was a committed Christian. He worked in business and was married to Kathy, with whom he had a young son, Jonah. There was always something a little mischievous about this constantly cheerful man. When he was in his early thirties, however, he was diagnosed with leukaemia. The medical upheavals he would face were a most unenviable period in his life, but during this painful time he developed a most intimate knowledge of God. A few months before he died, he wrote a short note to me: Dear Roger, Just a quick note to say that I was admitted for a bone marrow transplant. I am at the Heath Hospital in Cardiff and expect to be here for a month or so (in isolation). It is a miracle that we have come this far – especially since my total relapse last November. At that stage this ‘window of opportunity’ was not open to us, but graciously God has brought us to this place. We don’t know what the short- or medium-term outcome will hold for us, but we do hope – not in an outcome, but in a Person. I was reading in Hebrews 6:16-20 – Jesus promises this to us ‘in His own name and He cannot lie’. ‘We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure …’ I was reading an old Welsh hymn the other day and the last two lines of each verse read: ‘too wise to make mistakes; too good to be unkind’ … Peter
‘I will cast myself upon the mercy of the court’
Lord Hailsham, twice Lord Chancellor, and therefore the highest judge in Great Britain, expressed this well when he said, ‘When I die and stand before God in judgement, I will plead guilty and cast myself upon the mercy of the court.’ The assurance of heaven – freed from God’s judgement – is the incentive that gives hope, the comfort that gives strength, and the confidence that gives calm.
‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you’
Three months before he died, I received a letter from Professor David Short, the retired Professor of Medicine at Aberdeen University, who had been the Queen’s physician in Scotland. After some pleasantries, he wrote: A few days before setting out on our winter holiday in Spain, my wife and I got a health shock. We haven’t time to tell all our friends the news but we would like you to hear it direct from us. A routine blood test showed that I have acute myeloid leukaemia. The consultant haematologist discussed treatment and felt that current radical therapy is more trouble than it is worth. Whatever is done, the prognosis is measured in weeks or months. The holiday in Spain was perfect and at present I remain as well as ever. He then quoted first the Bible and then the Victorian preacher and author C.H. Spurgeon, who saw death like crossing a river: Isaiah 43, verses 1–2 come to me with great comfort at this time. ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you … you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.’ And Spurgeon’s comment: ‘There is no bridge and no ferry-boat. We must go through the waters and feel the rush of the river. The presence of God in the flood is better than a ferry-boat. The sorrows of life may rise to an extraordinary height, but the Lord is equal to every occasion. We are precious to God. He paid an incalculable price for our salvation. We belong to Him. Since He paid so much for us, He is never going to part with us. Whatever happens, He will be with us.’ Changing the metaphor, David then closed by saying: We would both value your prayers: that I may be enabled to run the last lap well and that Joan may have special help from God.
Grief is normal
Grief is both natural and right provided it doesn’t become self-pitying or vengeful. The need to grieve and express profound sorrow is entrenched deep within the human psyche. The pain caused by loss can be overwhelming, numbing and relentless.
‘Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope’
Grief is such a nasty pain, it is hard to imagine any palliative to cure the hurt. However, without appearing to be at all glib, even in such a time of trouble there is help in the person of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul, who penned so much of our New Testament, wrote to the fledgling church in Thessalonica reminding them that ‘we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.’ He then explained that the death and rising again of Jesus, coupled with the certainty that one day Jesus will return as Lord and ruler of all, gives cause for great comfort when one would naturally sorrow.
‘It is well with my soul’
A favourite old, traditional hymn of Christendom is ‘It Is Well with My Soul’. It was written by Horatio Spafford, a successful Chicago lawyer. In 1873, the Spafford’s family doctor recommended a holiday for Mrs Spafford, so the couple made plans to travel to Europe by ship. Just before leaving, Horatio Spafford had to change his plans, and quickly arranged for his wife and four daughters to go ahead, promising to join them some days later. So she and the girls set sail without him. On 22 November, in a tragic, freak accident, the ship was rammed and sank in less than half an hour. Mrs Spafford was rescued, but all four daughters were drowned. Later, Mrs Spafford was able to cable her husband with the stark two-word message: ‘Saved alone.’ Horatio Spafford bought passage on the first ship he could find that was sailing to England. At sea, as the ship crossed the Atlantic where his daughters’ bodies lay, with tears in his eyes, he penned: When peace like a river attends my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, you have taught me to say, ‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’ There is real comfort to be found when we trust that God is in control and we have put things right with Him. It is possible to have absolute confidence in Jesus, who said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’
‘No matter how deep the pit, God is deeper still’
In 1944, Corrie ten Boom was taken with her family to Ravensbruck concentration camp. They had been found hiding Jews in their home in Haarlem in Holland. Most of her family died very quickly, but she and her sister Betsie survived longer. Eventually, though, Betsie was to die after being brutalised and cruelly treated. Before she died, she said to Corrie, ‘If ever you get out of this place, go and tell the world that no matter how deep the pit, God is deeper still.’ For forty years that is exactly what Corrie did. Her autobiography, The Hiding Place, honestly recalls how God met with her and blessed her in the traumas of Ravensbruck. This by no way means that Christians can gloss over such terrors and dismiss the injustice of them, simply because somebody had a spiritual experience; nevertheless, God is able to take the worst situations here on earth and bring out of them something good and beautiful. Elie Wiesel, mentioned in chapter two, said, ‘Memory is a passion no less powerful or pervasive than love.’ Indeed, memories should serve to recall the past and change the future.
Let us forgive, because God has forgiven us
Jesus was asked by His disciple Peter how many times a person should forgive another. Peter then suggested that the answer was seven. Jesus replied that seven was not sufficient; seventy times seven was more like it. While Jesus quoted a certain and definite number, ‘seventy times seven’ is symbolic, meaning an uncertain and indefinite number – we are to forgive infinitely. He then told a parable to explain both the basis for our beliefs and behaviour. The story was of a servant who owed his master a fortune, but when he couldn’t pay, he begged for and received mercy. The master cancelled his debt. This forgiven man then tracked down a fellow-servant who owed him a tiny amount in comparison with the debt he had just had cancelled. Instead of listening to the pleas for mercy from his fellow-servant, the forgiven servant had his debtor thrown in prison. When the master heard the story of such callous treatment, he went to the servant, rebuked him, revoked the clearing of the debt, and had him thrown in prison until he could pay. The lessons are clear: all that every Christian has – namely forgiveness, peace with God and an eternal relationship with Him – is entirely due to the grace and goodness of God. In turn, gratitude should be the basis of the Christian’s behaviour. Because God has forgiven us so much, we in turn should forgive others. Whatever they have done to us is no match to the way we have disregarded and rebelled against God. God has shown to the Christian mercy (not getting what we do deserve) and grace (getting what we do not deserve). If a person does not know God as a forgiving God, they will never know Him as the Father God. The responsibility for those who have been forgiven is that they will forgive others.
‘Freely you have received; freely give’
Demonstrating to others what she herself had received from God was what motivated Jo Pollard, whose husband, Michael, was murdered in Hungary. For thirty years, Michael and Jo, with their family, had taken humanitarian aid, medication, Bibles and Christian books into Communist Europe. They had experienced amazing answers to prayer, both in crossing the borders into the Communist bloc and travelling throughout those ‘closed’ countries. Eight years after the ‘Iron Curtain’ had collapsed, and on their way to Ukraine with desperately needed provisions, they were robbed in a lay-by. Michael was bludgeoned to death and an attempt was made on Jo’s life. Three teenagers were later found guilty of murder, but, from a hospital bed in Hungary to the ITV News in the UK, Jo said she bore no malice. At Michael’s funeral, she even sang as a solo the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art’. She regularly prayed for the three men who had killed her husband. Later, she visited the jail in Hungary where the men were held. Two of the three prisoners were willing to meet her, where she told them that she forgave them, and presented them with small gifts. One of them has subsequently asked Christ for forgiveness. To forgive was no mean task as Jo had not only lost her husband and the father of her three children, but has also suffered serious ill health since the attack. Jo was not minimising what had happened, but recognised that she too had received forgiveness, and now she could show it to these men.
‘Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each another, just as in Christ God forgave you.’
A new view of the world
One of the great transformations to take place when someone truly comes to know Jesus Christ personally is that their view of the world is altered. For one, they become part of a global family, with ‘brothers and sisters’ around the globe. A nomadic family living in northern Mongolia; single people working in the financial districts of Tokyo, New York, London and Sydney; a remote tribe in the jungle in Papua New Guinea; and a young couple trying to survive in a shanty town in Honduras: all these can be united as followers of Jesus Christ, and part of His worldwide family, the church.
‘We must follow the examples of the Christians’
The Hutu and Tutsi conflict that ravaged Rwanda also engulfed other African countries during the mid-1990s, including Burundi. Fighting broke out on the university campus, and a number of Hutu students were killed; others fled to nearby mountains. They were followed by Tutsi Christians who took food and clothing first to their Christian ‘brothers and sisters’, but also to others. Some of these Tutsi students were later rejected by their families because they put their allegiance to fellow believers in Jesus Christ ahead of tribal allegiance. However, the Principal of the university, who did not call himself a Christian, said on record, ‘Our culture is disintegrating. On our campus there are three types of people: Hutus, Tutsis and Christians. If our culture is to survive, we must follow the examples of the Christians.’
No room for complacency
A belief that God is ultimately good and in control does not mean that Christians can sit back and relax. The Old Testament prophets had renounced the ungodliness of nations which neglected the needs of orphans, widows, immigrants and the poor. The prophet Micah had said that God ‘has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God?’ Jesus Himself was moved with compassion when He saw people who were like ‘sheep without a shepherd’. He healed the sick, giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, strength to the lame and paralysed, and even life to the dead. He fed hungry crowds, cured people with leprosy, cast out demons from the tormented, and met the spiritual needs of those who came to Him. He worked and taught, and trained His disciples to do the same. He went about doing good. He cared for the underdogs, the neglected and the needy, taking time with those others ignore. His followers have sought to follow His example. Early in church history, Christians sold what they had and distributed their goods to the poor. Collections were taken to give to the poor and people who had suffered because of famine. Jesus’ disciple John wrote to Christians saying, ‘If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.’ There is an inner compulsion in followers of Christ, as well as direct commands to do so, that leads them to commit to hard work in physical, social and spiritual ways. For example, during the period of social reform in the eighteenth century, it was the evangelical community that worked for the abolition of slavery, medical provision, the establishment of orphanages, and the reform of child labour and prison abuses. Christians have been at the forefront of establishing schools, health care and hospitals throughout the world. Others have given their lives to guarantee free speech, to alleviate suffering and to proclaim the good news of Jesus who said that He had come ‘to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free …’
Myriad forms of pain
Pain is not always dramatic or headline hitting. It might even be something one suffers alone; a hurt one carries around that is too painful to share with others. Loneliness, fear, poor self-image and rejection can hurt deep and sharp, and it’s easy to think that no-one cares or understands. American lyricist and singer Janis Ian captured the sentiments of many in her hit single ‘At Seventeen’:
To those of us who knew the pain
Of valentines that never came
And those whose names were never called
When choosing sides for basketball
It was long ago and far away
The world was younger than today
When dreams were all they gave for free
To ugly duckling girls like me
We all play the game, and when we dare
To cheat ourselves at solitaire
Inventing lovers on the phone
Repenting other lives unknown
That call and say – come dance with me
And murmur vague obscenities
At ugly girls like me, at seventeen.
Strength in God
While our bodies may fail, our spirits be crushed and our minds falter, we can find new sources of energy and strength in God. He can give us the resources we need, not necessarily to escape the circumstances we are in, but to cope, and even to ‘soar’ in situations where we felt we were sinking.
He has not left us alone
We don’t always know if we will be healed from an illness, rescued from death, enjoy long-lasting relationships, keep our job, be free from natural disaster, or have enough resources to live on; yet we can trust that God is in control – of the world, and of our own day-to-day lives. He has not left us alone.
‘Be glad, be humble, be patient’
Dr Steve Brady, when he was the Principal of a Christian college in England, made a similar point based on these words of Jesus: ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ With a wife suffering from multiple sclerosis and mounting family difficulties, Steve drew three straightforward conclusions from Jesus’ words: be glad for what you do know; be humble for what you do not know; and be patient for what you will one day know.
We side with the weak and the suffering
Christians rightly pray for good health. The apostle John wrote to his friend Gauis saying, ‘Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, just as you are progressing spiritually.’ We pray for protection and help in all situations. The litany in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer includes prayer ‘from lightening and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us.’ Christians will work and strive to prevent disaster in this fallen world, and to help the weak and suffering, using legitimate means to bring about social and economic good. The disenfranchised and downtrodden should be able to experience just economic empowerment and social mobility. The Bible declares that God decries social and economic injustices; after all, He is a just God. Nevertheless, despite our aims, we will always have injustice because we live in a world that has not yet been put right by the Ruler of all, who will one day reign in justice and equity. Co-existing with our striving for justice is rest in knowing that God, who rules, also overrules in the situations we would naturally avoid at all costs.
‘Nothing can separate’
The ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland were a running sore in the United Kingdom in the latter part of the twentieth century. Mingled in the sadness and tragedy were many incidents of faith and courage. For example, Bill McConnell was the deputy governor of the notorious Maze Prison. He was murdered in front of his wife, Beryl, and three-year-old daughter, Gail. Bill had had a premonition of death three weeks before his murder. He wrote a letter to be read at his funeral. It was also published in national newspapers. The last paragraph read: Finally, let no one be alarmed as to my eternal security. [Years ago], I committed my life, talents, work and actions to Almighty God in sure and certain knowledge that however slight my hold upon Him may have been during my years at school, university and the prison service, His promises are sure, and His hold on me complete. Nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
An appointment with death
Peter Marshall was a greatly respected chaplain to the American senate. He used to tell this story: An old legend tells of a merchant in Baghdad who one day sent his servant to the market. Before very long the servant came back, pale and trembling. In great agitation he said to his master, ‘Down in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and when I turned around I saw it was Death. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master, please lend me your horse, for I must hasten to avoid her. I will ride to Samarra and there I will hide and Death will not find me.’ The merchant lent him his horse and the servant galloped away in great haste. Later the merchant went down to the market and saw Death standing in the crowd. He asked her, ‘Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?’ ‘That was not a threatening gesture,’ Death said. ‘It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra!’
Come to him, now
Will you now ask God to forgive your past, guide your present and be with you forever? There is a degree of urgency about that question. We never know what the future may bring. I wonder whether part of the awfulness of being lost from God is the sense of regret: that God was so close, and yet was neglected or refused. In the Old Abbey Kirk at Haddington, in Scotland, one can read over the grave of Jane Welsh one of many pathetic and regretful tributes paid by Thomas Carlyle to his neglected wife: ‘For forty years she was a true and loving helpmate of her husband, and by act and work worthily forwarded me as none else could … She died at London the 21st of April, 1866, suddenly snatched from him, and the light of his life as if gone out.’ It has been said that the saddest sentence in English literature is this sentence written by Carlyle in his diary: ‘Oh, that I had you yet for five minutes by my side, that I might tell you all.’