The Lord has used biblical counselling as a powerful way of speaking to many of us through intense suffering. In Bath recently we have had that put to the test. Among our group of forty or so students on the Certificate Course, we have faced what feels like wave upon wave of extreme trials since starting the latest module in January.
The suffering has been heightened since, in every case, it has involved those who seem too young. There is something that’s profoundly wrong about the funeral of a 16-month-old; a 2-year-old having a lobectomy; a 29-year-old with inoperable cancer in her remaining lung; a 33-year-old undergoing a hysterectomy to remove a cancerous tumour; a 42-year-old with lung collapse and a 46-year-old with bile duct cancer.
Not that we have a monopoly on suffering. I know many others who feel similarly besieged, but even so our pain is real. I will have been to four funerals in as many weeks. I found my youngest son, aged 12, hiding under a blanket sobbing, inconsolable – I know how he feels. Even as an onlooker at hospital beds and gravesides, the grief and pain of these situations feel at times too much to bear. My heart is bruised and battered. I’m wearied by what seems like overwhelming evidence to give in to fear and be brought low by grief. What can be said? What words can bring comfort and ease the pain?
Fear tells me to batten down the hatches of my heart, to hide away, to self-protect. If I keep listening to that fear, it’s hard to find God in all of this. Somewhere down the slippery slope I start to think He’s forsaken us, or forgotten about us. Blindsided by grief and sorrow, fear can seem a familiar but treacherous companion in the shadows of the valley of death.
But then I read these words in Isaiah 50 which speak of another kind of fear – fearing the Lord through suffering. ‘Was my arm too short to deliver you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?’ says the faithful Lord to idolatrous Israel – and to me (v2). This passage, which spoke to my heart and bolstered it, goes on to describe the obedient suffering of His servant, His determined trust and victorious confidence. The passage ends on a sobering note: ‘Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of His servant? Let the one who walks in the dark who has no light, trust in the name of the LORD and rely on their God.’
As we stumble through the dark, we can feel alone, angry, lost, overwhelmed and scared. It is only a Suffering Saviour who can speak to that kind of the pain. I’m so grateful that we have a Lord of Good Friday who can meet us and walk with us through the darkest of valleys. Yet even more grateful that we have a Lord of Easter Sunday, whose gospel victory means that the grave, the pain, and all the suffering of this life do not have the final say. And that we can have confidence that, by His grace, He is close by to help us now in the dark of this life, despite all the times we falter and fail Him. I am so grateful that we can know and fear our Saviour who learned obedience though suffering. A ‘Jesus of the Scars’, as the poem by Edward Shillito, a minister during WW1, beautifully puts it:
‘The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.’
Among our student group is an amazing young woman who broke her neck playing rugby. Though paralysed from the neck down, she has just come back from a skiing trip to Andorra! Despite being in constant pain, she continually encourages our group by her love of the Lord which radiates from her.
Another student said, at a time of great personal sadness: “The work on the course is the only thing I can do at the moment. It has blessed me over and over – I feel like I’m in the Refiner’s fire and that this work is preparing me for things I never imagined. I cannot watch TV, listen to the radio, or ring my friends, so I actually have time for the reading, thinking and prayer, which is extraordinary. I have found the [course] resources and the books so helpful. I have signed up for next term and know that whatever happens I will be able to do it.”
It is moving and inspiring to see how biblical counselling is blessing us as a community, as we witness God’s glory clearly reflected in those placing their trust in our wounded Saviour through their suffering.