Date: December 6, 1936
Prayer for Affliction
God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:
We bring before Thee all our griefs and sorrows, our own desperate needs as well as the pains and problems of our fellow-men, trusting in Thy love and in Thy power to help. Thou who in the fulness of time didst send Thy Son to redeem our souls wilt not forsake us in our bodily and spiritual afflictions. Thou who hast gloriously revealed Thyself in our Savior wilt not desert us, but wilt offer healing for every wound, consolation, for every conflict. In Thy wisdom and compassion help us to solve the perplexities of distressed souls that have written for guidance and direction. Only in Thee can our souls find rest and our hearts discover a refuge from life’s cruelties. O Thou, on whom we now cast our cares, guide our faltering vision ever heavenward, focusing our thoughts on Jesus, our divine Companion for life’s rough way. May Thy Spirit transform our afflictions into strength and blessing, as He who once came in humility and lowliness now comes in power to rule our lives. We ask Thee to open the eyes of a blind world, so that many may see Thee as Thou art, not only holy, sinless, and just (for Thy holiness condemns our unholiness), but in Christ Jesus infinitely gracious, infinitely compassionate. Bless us with this vision of Thy mercy, guide us along the right paths for the sake of Jesus, our coming Prophet, Priest, and King! Amen.
All things work together for good to them that love God. – Romans 8:28
THIS afternoon our discussion centers about one of humanity’s ancient problems, yet a question that has never been raised with more pleading insistence than in our confident age. It is the mystery of sorrow, the ever-echoing, never-subsiding “why” of wounded hearts. From our radio mail-bags I have chosen a letter written by a New York woman who asks for guidance. “I worked for a man for over ten years,” the letter reads, “and I worked hard and faithfully. . . . However, my employer became involved with a woman and lived in adultery with her for eight years. He defied everybody and boasted that this woman was his god. Finally he secured a divorce, married her, and now that nearly all his desires are fulfilled, he is riding on the crest of the wave. Three years ago he became so abusive that I had to leave his office. Since that time I have prayed faithfully and asked God to provide me with a position so that I could earn my daily bread and help support my aged parents. But I cannot understand why that brazen person who has broken several homes and many hearts gets a $5,000 salary increase, while I cannot find any kind of employment. Please do not misunderstand me. I am a sinner who humbly bows before God and asks for forgiveness. But all this is too hard to understand, and I am heartbroken and have never felt so forsaken.”
Equally serious problems, different only in sordid details, loom up throughout the nation. The greatest issue that we face today is not the stumbling-block of unemployment nor the bolstering of financial resources, but the problem of quieting the soul-sorrow of disconsolate and bewildered masses. Your own letters draw a wide map of tragedy. A Massachusetts mother continually brought to tears by the unbelief of her son; a West Virginia father, his lifetime savings gone in a bank crash, barred from employment because industry has no place for a man over sixty; a Minneapolis invalid shut in forty-four years; a young man in Ohio suffering from three amputations, victim of a hit-and-run driver; a Chicago widow, blind, seventy-five years old, deserted by her only living child; a Detroit family robbed of its carefully accumulated reserve by a friend; a Kentucky widower left with six children, deprived of steady employment and heart-broken by his daughter’s disgraceful life; a Minnesota mother still afflicted with cancer despite sixteen operations; a South Dakota girl embittered by a family feud; a crushed Iowa mother whose daughter has brought a fatherless child into this world; a Missouri couple with so many bills that their farm may be sold under the auctioneer’s hammer; an Ohio woman with a husband, a professional man, whose habitual drunkenness has impoverished the family—these and unnumbered others in pitiful letters, almost too cruel to be true, have cried from the depths to ask: “Why has God blighted my life? How does it happen that I have been singled out as the victim of these multiplied afflictions? If ‘God is Love,’ how can He stand by while the storms of the night hurl me down to defeat?”
These are the questions I would answer with the confident promise:
CHRIST SOLVES THE MYSTERY OF SUFFERING
In the name of that merciful Savior we can offer to tens of thousands of American and Canadian homes, rocked by endless adversities, that beloved pledge of Christ-centered faith in the eighth chapter, twenty-eighth verse of Romans, “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
CHRIST ALONE SOLVES SORROW’S MYSTERY!
Only in Christ can we find the true explanation for human sorrow. Tear Jesus from the hearts and hopes of men, and you will leave them the haggard victims of their own sins, convulsively groping their way through a mistcovered world. Modern clinics and hospitals are equipped to fight the diseases of the body; eminent surgeons perform delicate operations on the human brain; our acres of farm lands and forests can produce enough to feed and clothe and shelter hundreds of millions; but only One can heal the spiritual wounds of mankind, rebuild broken spirits, feed famished souls—Christ, our blessed Savior. Only one institution can speak peace to the dazed and desperate souls of men—the true Church of Christ. Would to God that all churches throughout the world could understand the tragedy and betrayal of offering any substitute for that saving Gospel! If men today want to hear about the birds and flowers, they can visit natural history museums; if they want book reviews, they can resort to our 10,000 public libraries; if they want the news of the day, worldwide press services provide all this; but for the divine answer to human sorrows and the permanent healing of their heartaches they have only Christ, only His Church. This problem of sorrow, the pride of the godless, the prosperity of the wicked, and the affliction of the faithful, was an unsolved enigma even for the psalmist. “It was too painful for me,” he confesses, “until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I.” If only men and women today could similarly be brought to the Church,—and I mean the true Church of Christ, which hews unswervingly to the line of divine truth and in the face of ridicule glories in the Cross of Christ and its perfect atonement; the Church for which I solicit the support of those who are existing without Christ;—if only America’s unchurched sixty millions would stand in spirit within the sanctuary of God before the Christ of their souls and penitently look to Him “that loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood,” then—I am not dreaming, guessing, exaggerating—this faith would solve the mystery of suffering and radiate into grief-shadowed hearts the unquenchable confidence that “all things,” irretrievable loss, incurable pain, immovable sorrow, “work together for good” in the harmonious riches of divine grace. If you can look to Jesus and say: “My Savior, You were promised for me in these ancient prophecies of divine truth; You came for me in all the love with which the approach of Christmas warms my soul; You, whom ‘the heaven of heavens cannot contain,’ lived for me in the lowliness of Galilee and along the highways and byways of Palestine among the sick and forsaken, the destitute and the outcasts; You shed Your Blood for me under the sting of the lash, the cutting crown of thorns, the tearing nails of the cross; You died for me, offering Your own holy body for the atonement of every sin in my life; but, ever-blessed Savior, You rose again for me; today, sitting at the right hand of God the Father, You intercede for me; and in the great tomorrow You who once came in the lowliness of Bethlehem will come again in the glory of heaven for me”; if you have enthroned Christ with this faith, earth has no blind fate for you. You recognize no element of good luck or bad luck. You refuse to picture life as a spinning roulette-wheel. You can rise above the flowery rhetoric and the vague poetry to which distracted men resort when unbelief seeks to offer comfort and consolation. You hear St. Paul cry out: “We glory in tribulations,” and, beholding the suffering of Christ, you, too, can thank God for your affliction, even through tears. Without Christ the heaped sorrows of life tower before you as a blank, impassable wall. You seem to be only an atom of humanity that may be ground under the heel of pure chance; and as blow after blow descends upon your bowed head and broken life, each impact comes as the result of your sins. But with Christ and His sin-destroying grace you know in blessed assurance that, “whether we wake or sleep, we . . . live together with Him.” And living with Christ, we can break out in this confident refrain, “All things work together for good.”
CHRIST SOLVES THIS MYSTERY COMPLETELY
But some of you ask: “How can there be any good in my blindness, any blessing in my broken health, any advantage in losing my home, any profit in being crippled for life, any gain in my broken heart and home?” If you are Christ’s, your Lord tells you: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” If you and I survey our life from a higher vantage-point, we shall see that these losses in life through “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” were transformed into heavenly gain. We shall understand how the reverses of life offered a necessary discipline, which kept us from pride of arrogance, boastful security, and idolatrous trust in ourselves. Just as the surgeon removes a gangrenous limb to save the body, so our divine Physician cuts off anything that would destroy the soul. Just as a forester saves a diseased tree by sawing off the dead branches and hacking out the rotted portions, so the heavenly Gardener prunes the tree of our life to preserve our souls from rot and decay. Do not charge God with cruelty when He seeks to save you from yourself. Is the lifeguard cruel when he strikes a frantic, struggling swimmer into unconscious submission? Is the doctor cruel who withholds a glass of water from the parched lips of a patient to whom water might bring death? Is the mother cruel who keeps her child awake when sleep means the end? Blurred by the sympathy that we like to focus on ourselves, we may not be able to understand the measure of God’s mercy; for His ways are not our ways. I am not asking you to analyze, interpret, or explain the how and the why of every shadow that beclouds your life; I am begging you to believe that our heavenly Father, who through the sacrifice of His own Son for our sins gave us the highest spiritual blessings that even He could offer, every day directs the life-path of those who are His in faith for their good.
A few years ago a school bus was caught in the snowdrifts of a desolate Colorado road. The driver, who had set out to bring help, lost his way and perished in the cold. When night fell, the peril of the children in the bus had become acute. Fuel was exhausted, and the children were threatened by drowsiness and that falling into frozen sleep from which there is no awakening. One of the boys, with rare presence of mind, systematically irritated his schoolmates, struck them as hard as he could, made them scream in protest, fight back, and exchange repeated blows. It was a strange spectacle, these children struggling in the bus blanketed by heavy snows; but that struggle kept their blood in circulation and saved their lives. Many in this audience can testify that they, too, might now be on the road to hell instead of on the pilgrimage to heaven if God in His unfathomable wisdom had not sent trials that similarly proved blessings in disguise. If some of you had kept your money instead of having it stolen; if you had retained your health instead of losing it; if you had carried through your headstrong, obstinate will instead of being rebuked by God, you might today be exiled from His grace. And as St. Paul, the mighty apostle to the Gentiles, could review his persecutions, recreate in his mind those terrifying ordeals in which he was stoned, cast into deadly dangers, and suffered, as he himself summarized it, “in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren, in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness,” and still triumph, as he writes to the Philippians: “I know that this shall turn to my salvation,” so you who are Christ’s can rise above every question of doubt and sing Job’s heroic strain, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
Think also of the refining, strengthening power of affliction. God employs the sudden reverses of life not only to keep us from unbelief and pride and self-reliance, but to build up our faith. Have you ever walked through a greenhouse to watch florists clip off all buds but one, so that the whole strength of the stock may be concentrated into the full bloom of a large chrysanthemum? Have you ever stopped in a machine-shop to hear the emery-wheel and the buffer polish the surf ace of a dull metal to mirrorlike brightness? Have you ever peered into the roar of a smelter and seen the white heat fuse pieces of iron into the strength of the refined metal? May we not regard this as a crude symbol of the miraculous process by which God often removes the side-issues of life, so that our strength and interest are directed toward spiritual growth? The frictions of destiny add luster to our faith, and the fires of affliction strengthen our courage. The funnel of a tornado cuts its swath of destruction through a city; but the ruins are rebuilt into more modern homes and more attractive buildings. A fire destroys vast areas; but when the ashes have cooled, men build better and more wisely than before. An airplane crashes; but scientists examine the wreckage to find a clue for safer aircraft construction. Many of our material calamities involve a hidden benefit; and in a much higher degree, once you are Christ’s, everything that crowds into your life is designed to deepen your conviction, to steel your resistance to destructive impulses of life, and to warm your heart to the need and suffering of others.
One of the greatest among adversity’s sweet uses is the sympathy that it creates. You who have never left the cemetery and returned to an empty, death-stilled house cannot fathom the inner pain of those who have committed to the earth the lifeless remains of one who was to them the nearest and dearest of all mankind. You who have warm, comfortable homes, a large and steady income, the unruffled atmosphere of a pleasant existence, a host of friends, and the quick answer to any request can never understand how the other nine-tenths of your fellow-men can feel as they, deprived in many instances of life’s barest necessities, look into a blank, discouraging future, destitute of every blessing that you enjoy. Because this shell-shocked world needs Christian sympathy and the love of Him who came to bring the soul’s peace on earth and the good will of His mercy to men; because God wants you to love your fellow-men, particularly in these ordeal years that cry out for the spirit of Christ’s Good-Samaritanship, He often sends afflictions that stifle selfishness and open our hearts, our lips, our hands, for the unfortunate and the underprivileged of life. Too frequently we have to be hurled to our knees in prayer for ourselves before we can learn the duty and the responsibility of praying and working for others.
In short, view the life that you live in Christ from whatever angle you may, and you will exult, “All things work together for good!” As the artist employs dark, somber hues to emphasize the light, so the shadows sharpen the sunshine of the Christian’s life. As the great Flemish tapestries were often woven from the back and seemed to present a muddled confusion of loose ends and knots, until completed and viewed from the right side, so when we see the face of the finished and holy design created by Christ, the Master Weaver of our destiny, all doubt as to the wisdom and the love of God will vanish. As under the baton of a great musician the minor chords may blend with the symphonic theme, so, because “all things work together for good,” there is above all distress a harmony and symphony of Christian life.
That symphony always closes with a grand finale, the coda of sustained triumph. I should be untrue to my calling if I were not to emphasize with all the power that God gives me the great climax in Christ’s solution to the mystery of sorrow. By His blessed atonement, by His suffering, bleeding, dying, by His glorious resurrection,—and every promise that we have ever made to you has been conditioned by your acceptance of Christ, the God-man, the “one Mediator” between heaven and earth,—in that Savior you have Heaven’s pledge, immovable, unchangeable as every promise of God, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” You may break down under the weight of earth’s burdens, but the eternal Word tells you: “If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him.” You may be deserted and forsaken, but listen to this promise of the Word that never made a mistake: “We suffer with Him that we may be also glorified together.” There may be injustice, poverty, sickness, sorrow, crushed hopes, broken promises here on earth; but the worst that life can impose upon you is “but for a moment” compared with the blessings of eternity and “worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” When we peer into the radiance of heaven and with the Elder of the Apocalypse ask as we behold the saints of God: “What are these which are arrayed in white robes, and whence came they?” we find the highest blessings of sorrow in the answer, “These are they which came out of great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” When you can train your eyes above the tinsel and the tarnish, the sham and deceit, of a world that can shower 254 titles, honors, orders, and distinctions on a prince of war, an international munitions-dealer, and close its heart to the Prince of Peace, then, believing and experiencing the sacred harmony by which “all things work together for good,” you can raise a hymn of thanksgiving to God even in the darkest night; you can rise from every reeling blow with new hope; you can bear the lifeless remains of your beloved ones who have died in the Lord to their resting-place, you can face death yourself, with the invincible courage that exults: “Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“All things” truly “work together for good to them that love God.” “Do you love God?” I ask you directly as I place before you the greatest question in your life. Do you love this Christ, your God and Savior, who loved us “unto the end”? Push everything aside that prevents you from finding shelter in His mercies when He now calls, “come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” Choke off every sinful thought, every impure desire, every selfish protest, that keeps you from the fulness of His lifeimparting, death-destroying mercy. And as the day commemorating His coming into the weakness of the flesh, the poverty of His people, and the sinfulness of the world draws near, I ask you to read, repeat, and with all your heart to believe this confession of contrite faith: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.” If you have this faith, then there is no mystery in your sorrow and suffering; then “all things work together” for eternal good. Above all else that God may bestow upon you, may He give you this faith for Jesus’ sake! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.