By Paul Koch –
There is a growing trend in our great nation that ought to worry us. I’m not saying we need to be afraid, but we certainly ought to be concerned about the culture that our children and grandchildren will grow up in. The fallout of this trend, the ramification of it has been making its way through the policymakers and bill writers of our land. Recently the lawmakers of New York voted to remove gestational limitations to abortion practices. New York now joins seven other states which practice late-term abortions. In the days that followed, lawmakers in Virginia, which already allows such abortions, put forward a new bill that would lessen the restrictions even further, thus blurring the lines between abortion and infanticide.
Now I can’t pretend to know the depth of sin and despair that one must be entangled in to make the decision to end the life of a child like that. I do know it is always far easier for us to judge from a distance than to try to understand how we too might do such a thing, and perhaps our hands aren’t as clean as we like to think. Perhaps we’ve seen enough atrocities in this life of ours to no longer be shocked by such wickedness. But we must admit that this is different, for it is not just brutal or senseless killing of an innocent life; it is killing with an expressed purpose. It is that purpose that is the real danger, the real trend that spreads like a plague across our land. For this killing is done not out of anger or jealousy but with an ardent desire to avoid suffering. Suffering is what all of society fears more than anything else, so much so that they will end a life to avoid suffering.
This may even make sense to us. After all, no one likes to suffer. Not real suffering, not a life with one tragedy piled on top of another. It is how we talk about a loved one after a long battle with cancer who has finally died. We say, “At least they aren’t suffering anymore.” Killing might even seem benevolent to avoid such suffering. What if the child will have some sort of crippling birth defect or the mother will struggle in abject poverty? What if there will be abuse and neglect? Wouldn’t it be better to abort than to suffer? And yet, for the children of God, suffering is not the greatest evil. In fact, the very workings of our God fly in the face of such a notion. Our God regularly uses what the world deems as foolish, weak, and despised to do his great work. The very heart of your salvation, the cost of your liberty and assurance that you are the children of God, comes not in a moment of glory and power but of abject suffering. A body broken and bleeding on a cross for the forgiveness of sins. Suffering is not a mark of the absence of God. In fact, it just might be where he is at work.
At the beginning of the book of Jeremiah, the prophet tells us about being sent out by the Lord. His story is fascinating, for it tells us something about where God is present, especially in the face of suffering. See, Jeremiah doesn’t want to go and be a prophet; it isn’t exactly a glamorous job. To be a prophet of the highest God, especially in the age of Jeremiah in the land of Judah, is to be sure that you won’t be liked by anyone. No one will want to have you over for dinner. No one will want to hang out anymore, because the message you proclaim is a relentless call to repentance, to turn from their wicked ways and cling to the mercy of God. On top of this, he is a bit young for the duty. Who will listen to him? Who will care about what he has to say? He isn’t exactly the gray-haired old man speaking with a lifetime of wisdom and reputation behind him. This task is going to be difficult. It will be marked by suffering and trial.
But the main focus of the sending of Jeremiah is the presence of God. God will go with him. God will not leave him in his trials and tribulation. In fact, God has been with him from the very beginning. And I don’t just mean from the day he was born. No, God says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:5). There is no life, no matter how small or how well formed that is outside of the view of our God. Life is his gift; it is his workmanship. Your life is a work of God. Every breath you take began with his creativity and love. Not just the good times but the bad times are also under his care. When you suffer, when you face fears about your future and how it will all play out, when you think there is no hope, when you can’t see a way forward, you are not abandoned by your God. You are not outside of his work and care for you. Suffering is not the greatest evil. It can be endured. In fact, God can be found even there.
Jeremiah doubles down. He insists this is a mistake. He says, “I don’t know how to speak. I am just a youth. I can’t do this.” But God assures him and says to him, “Don’t be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” He was with you before you were born, and he is with you even now. In fact, God himself doubles down as he reaches out his hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth. He says, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth.” He doesn’t just promise that he will be with him; he is actually with him, for his words now reside within his young prophet. God goes where his Word goes. The God who knew you in the womb, the God that does not abandon you in your suffering is with you even now in his Word.
I will never forget when I first arrived at the seminary in St. Louis. I had made the decision to go to the seminary because I loved the theology of our church. I wasn’t exactly sure that I wanted to become a parish pastor, but I wanted to continue to learn. At the beginning of the term, the president of the seminary had a reception on the front lawn of his home for all the new students. We gathered there to mingle and have a few beers and bite to eat, and I began to listen to some the conversations of these other young men standing around. Of course, everyone was a bit nervous about this new endeavor, but more than once I heard someone speak about how excited they were to be able to preach. And it was at that moment that I knew I was in the wrong place. Excited to preach? What in the world was he talking about? I was terrified. I thought the studies would be fun, the challenges were welcome, but to be responsible to preach the Word of God scared me to death.
Fortunately, I didn’t run out of there. And over time I learned a lot about who is really doing the work and what it means to be a pastor. That’s a lesson I continue to learn to this day. I was not called to speak my words or offer my insights but to proclaim the clear Word of God. His Word was to be found on my lips for the benefit of his people. All the training, all the study was to be better at doing just that. Over time I grew in my confidence that God was with me, because he was always with his Word.
Which brings us full circle. We live in a day and age where the world around us goes to great lengths to hide from suffering. Suffering is the greatest evil, the sign of the abandonment of God, or so they think. Such a world view is dark and driven by fear and false idols of control. But you bear a message right into the midst of such darkness. A message of hope, life, and light. It isn’t because you are old and wise or because you are holier than the person next to you. It’s because you bear the Word of God into the world. The same Word that tells you again and again that you are not alone, that you are loved, that you are forgiven is now upon your lips for your neighbor.
You can speak hope to the suffering, forgiveness to the lost, and welcome to the lonely, for God is with you.