Date: January 9, 1938
Prayer for Comfort in Christ
Blessed Lord Jesus:
We thank Thee that at Thy birth and in Thine infancy Thou didst manifest Thyself both to the lowly shepherds and to the ancient searchers for salvation who followed Thy star from the distant East; for thus didst Thou show us from the first moments of Thy life that divine love and mercy recognizes no difference of person and position, race and rank, color and clime, caste or class, but that Thou art the Savior of all who call upon Thee for peace with their God and their conscience. Send Thy heavenly comfort into all hearts weighted by the burdens of sufferings for which we have no human balm. Say to us as Thou once didst comfort Thy disciples, “Let not your heart be troubled.” Raise Thy divine arms once more to invite the weary and the soul-sick with the gracious promise, “Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” O Jesus, we all need Thee more than we can know and say; for we live in troubled times, our sins distress us, our sorrows distract us. Come to us, our contrite hearts implore Thee, in Thy mercy forgive us, by Thy Word and ordinances strengthen us, with Thy joy and comfort cheer us, by Thy wisdom and power preserve us. We ask this according to Thy divine will and never-failing promise, O Christ, our blessed Savior! Amen.
Why . . . is all this befallen us? – Judges 6:13
THERE may be or there may not be sixty families that control the private wealth and direct the business of the United States, multimillionaires and billionaires who can spend only part of their income; but certainly six million families and more are hovering on the edge of destitution, stunned by repeated reverses, cringing under the fears of tomorrow with its insistent demands for rent and shelter, fuel and warmth, food and clothing. There may be a small, select circle of those whose lives seem armored against every sorrow. They have never been hungry or tired or soul-wearied; they have never shivered in the cold; their eyes have never filled with tears; not once have they lost their calm and confidence. Yet for every one of these self-possessed who meet life with unruffled poise I will show you legions in our human tangle who have been crushed by sorrows: the diseased in body and soul, the paralyzed in mind and will, the broken in heart and spirit, those racked by human wretchedness, beaten by poverty, chained by the tyranny of sin.
These afflictions of every shade seem to be the unhappy heritage particularly of our disquieted age; for if each step in our modern progress has brought increasing ease of life, it has also multiplied our sorrows. We witness the swift travel of airplanes and airships, but with that the quick death of air disasters. Our streamlined motorcars speed along smooth roads; but more graves have been dug beside these superhighways than when the pioneers’ covered wagons followed the roadless trails through hostile Indian country. We have more attractive homes but more broken homes; more gold stored in Government vaults but more poverty in the citizens’ homes; more schools but more suicide; more industrial genius but more unemployment. We conquer one disease only to see that another deadly malady takes its place. We see less tuberculosis but more heart disease; less smallpox but more cancer; less yellow fever but more nervous breakdowns. Our startling advances leave the problem of pain unrelieved. We lay television cables, but they will never enable us to see the dawn of a sorrowless future. We build towering skyscrapers, the tallest in the world, but from their dizzy heights we scan the horizon in vain for any radiant hope to brighten the dark hours. We build immense power dams in our canyons, but the millions of horsepower that they generate cannot move a single life from sorrow to security.
In this fear-fraught age with its heaped adversities we have, thank God,
THE DIVINE SOLUTION TO THE MYSTERY OF SORROW,
Christ’s answer to the problem of your pain; and it is this comfort that I would bring to you in Jesus’ name as I ask Gideon’s question (Judges 6:13): “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” and bring you the answer that God gave him and still gives us.
REASON CANNOT ANSWER THE “WHY” OF OUR SUFFERING
The sorrows that brought this question to Gideon’s lips were the same sufferings that make many of you repeat his question: “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” He lived in a distressed age, in which many of his fellow countrymen lost their homes, their little farms, their meager possessions, when the Midianite raiders swooped down to rob and destroy with fire and sword.—Many of you, within the quick flight of a few years or even a few months, have lost everything, your house, your property, and your few surplus dollars. As the Israelites of that day were driven into dens and caves in the remote hills, so thousands of you have been exiled from your home and happiness.
Gideon lived in a thwarted generation. He, like his fellow-Israelites, would secretly prepare a small plot of ground, plow it, hoe it, sow it with grain, rake it, and then guard it through watchful weeks, only to have the Midianite marauders suddenly descend when the heavy ripened stalks of golden wheat swayed in the harvest sunshine and take every kernel of the precious grain.—Some of you in the drought-stricken, plague-bitten, flood-smitten agricultural areas who hopefully sowed your seed last spring, only to meet another total crop failure after the summer months of labor; others from whom thieves and charlatans, accident and loss, have taken the little that you had, know these feelings of Gideon as there under the oak-tree at Ophrah the restrained tide of his emotions breaks its bounds and he cries: “Why . . . is all this befallen us?”
In Gideon’s own home there were deep-rooted troubles. His own father had erected an idol altar. His own family had broken faith with Israel’s Jehovah and was bowing before an ugly, sensuous Baal.—Too many of you understand the wrenching pain of that unfaithfulness. Christian wives, with heart-breaking anguish see their husbands sullenly turn their backs on Jesus; Christian fathers and mothers spend sleepless nights worrying about their wayward sons and daughters; Christian children are agonized by the terrifying thought of eternal separation from a father or mother who has suddenly become Christless. They can feel the pangs of grief which stirred Gideon’s soul when he cried: “Why . . . is all this befallen us?”
Indeed, the pressure of pain on your life may be greater than the weight of Gideon’s burdens. You may say: “Well, Gideon at least had his health, and I have been stretched out on this bed for thirty years,” as one listener writes. You may say: “Gideon was sound of limb and body, sound of mind and senses, and here we are, crippled, disfigured, maimed for life; here we are with our sight, our hearing, our speech, gone forever. Here we are—may God have mercy upon us!—with our lucid, rational moments overwhelmed by complexes and phobias; our happiness blighted by fear of the unforgiven sin.” You may say: “Well, Gideon did not walk the way of sorrows whence I have come. No specter of death choked joy out of his life, as it has embittered my every moment, waking and sleeping, toiling and resting. Here we are, widows and widowers, our best-beloved ones snatched away from our beautiful home-life, in some cases after only a few months of the deepest human love we can know! Here we are, orphans, bereft of our parents’ devotion and direction, deprived of the love and warmth of a home. And here we are, bereaved parents who have just laid into the cold, hard earth the lifeless form of our only child, the joy of our hearts, the hope of our earthly happiness.” All of you in the vast, restless army of affliction,—with cross-marked lives and sorrow-burdened souls,—join in Gideon’s cry, the lament of all lands, the agony of all ages: “Why . . . is all this befallen us?”
May you follow Gideon in addressing this question to God; for no one else can solve the searing mysteries of sorrow! If you would have light in your darkness, strength in your weakness, turn to the same God that Gideon met under the oak-tree in the hills of Ophrah! What tangled confusion the human mind offers when it seeks to explain sorrow, to soften the bitterness and heartaches of life! Some of our new cults actually seek to explain away all suffering, sickness, and death, describing pain as an illusion of the mortal mind. What deep anguish is involved in convincing suggestible minds that they imagine the torture of trial—only to have these souls scream in protest as they are torn by torment. Contradict any of the clear-cut truths you will; say that I am not speaking to you in this moment; disagree with any of the truths of life; but don’t pour salt into bleeding wounds by questioning the reality of pain and death! Don’t thrust the dagger of distress any deeper by insisting, “Your heartaches are not real. They are imaginary, self-imposed phantoms!”
Nor need we turn to the scientific learning of our day to see whether in the remarkable achievements of this intellectual advance our greatest minds have solved the mystery of sorrow. Too often we find a fatalistic philosophy of life, which denies, ignores, or questions God, His existence and His power. If you and I are only creatures of chance that crawl helplessly on the crust of this accidental planet called the earth; if all existence on our sphere owes its beginning to a collision with a wandering star; if the impulses of life are only chemical reactions; if our emotions and personalities are controlled by glands and glandocrats; if mother love may be expressed in a chemical formula embracing manganese, calcium, and prolactin, there can be no sustaining, strengthening hope, no comfort for its multiplied problems; then life is a fluke, our destiny a toss-up. What anchor can any storm-tossed soul find in the raging torrents of sorrow if the world is but an accidental aggregate of human atoms? What comfort in the bragging delusion that makes godless men swim against floodtides and drown, challenge hurricanes and be swept away, try to move mountains with a shovel and wear themselves out in futility?
Is there any sustaining help for the sorrows of life in the Christ-denying churches which, instead of inquiring, “What does the Lord say?” demand, “What does the current trend of thought say? What do the latest theories say?” It is at the doors of these churches that we lay much of the blame for our spiritual and mental distress. Altogether too frequently their spokesmen lose their role as comforters through Christ and become interpreters of the news, disseminators of poorish philosophies, reviewers of questionable books. We have some churches in this nation that are neglecting the systematic ministration to the poverty-stricken while salaaming to the rich and kowtowing to the prominent. History demonstrates that, whenever the churches are allied with wealth to the neglect of the everlasting poor, they have sealed their own doom and often precipitated national upheaval. Because some churches are not feeling the pulse of the discontented, disturbed masses and are losing their vital contact with bleeding and broken lives, we see that as never before in American history churches are indicted as cold, calloused, capitalistic. How can the calm of courage quiet a troubled heart when there is no infallible Word of God on which to base that courage; when you cannot be sure about God Himself; when you discount His promises and discard His revelation, as unbelieving Protestantism does in our country today? Take a man who has lost everything, his home, his happiness, his health, his money, his self-respect, his friends; and does any one endowed with a normal quota of intelligence believe you can help his struggling soul with the assurance that suffering is worldwide and age-old? He is not interested in the history and geography of pain. He wants the answer to Gideon’s question, “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” If a woman sees the high castles of her hopes crumble into dust as disease, poverty, sin, reap their ruinous harvest on her field of pain, will it help her to say that we are coming “from chaos to cosmos,” that in the rise from the amoeba to man the human race was endowed with a network of nerves which the lower creatures never knew, so that we could feel pain and be uplifted by that contact? That woman, as perhaps many others, may not know what “chaos” and “cosmos” mean; and when the ashes turn cold on the hearth of her happiness, she is not concerned about the biology of suffering; she wants help, strength, and comfort!
Ask the man in the street Gideon’s question, “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” and because our skepticism has little room for the supernatural, he will try to evade the answer by telling you to grit your teeth, clench your fists, place your feet solidly on the rock of courage, and believe that time will bring a healing liniment. You cannot feed starving souls with the sawdust of optimism and the wind of wild exaggeration. Our age needs no narcotics to drug people into irresponsible hope. We must be brought to a consciousness of the menacing dangers surrounding us individually and nationally. We must be prepared, if it be the will of God, to face more adversity. The last four of Martin Luther’s immortal Ninety-five Theses were never more timely than today:
“92. Away, then, with all those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace!
“93. Blessed be those prophets who say to the people of Christ, ‘The cross, the cross.’ . . .
“94. Christians should be exhorted to strive to follow Christ, their Head, through pains, death, and hells;
“95. And thus to enter heaven through many tribulations rather than in a security of peace.”
GOD CAN TURN OUR ADVERSITIES TO ADVANTAGES
When we thus turn to God, this mystery over which the ages have brooded, the question that Gideon raises in behalf of all suffering humanity, “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” is clearly answered. As these plaintive words rang over the stillness at Ophrah, Gideon showed that he had forgotten one of God’s two answers to this deathless question, “Why do we suffer?” In the verses immediately preceding our text we read that a prophet of the Almighty had been sent with the divine explanation that Israel was suffering for its sins. Because it had spurned the mercies of God’s love, forsaken the worship of Jehovah, and bowed at the shrines of the Canaanite Baals, it had invoked the wrath of God on its own head. Every time the pillaging Midianites had taken another farmer’s crop and led his cattle away; every time they threw firebrands into a Hebrew home, Israel was paying the penalty of its own sins; it was suffering the consequences of its unbelief and ingratitude.
Can you think of a more timely theme for our laboring, pain-racked world and the distress of our own country? Listen to the contradictory explanations for present-day conditions, which trace our adversities to causes ranging from the laws of supply and demand to the spots on the sun. Select your own favorite explanation for the nervous and hysterical tension of the hour and believe that it is due, as some insist, to governmental interference or, as others claim, to economic royalists. This afternoon I sweep all these interpretations aside, the good with the crude, to say that behind the sorrows which engulf our age and nation is the retributive hand of God raised in punishment upon those who are guilty of the same sin, thanklessness and idolatry, that marked Gideon’s day. Behind the masses unemployed or on relief, behind the mounting national indebtedness and the tremors or uncertainty in our business world, is the unavoidable factor of sin, the tragedy of selfishness, the abuse of privilege, the obsession of vanity and greed. Beneath the sorrows in every home or heart turned away from God lurk the sins of deception, dishonesty, unfaithfulness, hatred, grasping covetousness. If violation of the law of the land demands the payment of a legal penalty, how much more will the perfect justice of God, not moved by respect of person, swayed by bribery, nor changed by collusion, carry out the sentence which God has placed upon every transgression of His holy will!—Here, then, is the first answer to the mystery of sorrow: Men suffer because of their sins; they are punished because of their ingratitude.
The searching heart-question of all human existence thus centers in the appeal, “Where can we find power to forgive and check our sin? Where can we discover the assurance that our heavenly Father is a loving, merciful God instead of a punishing, retributive Judge?” As we turn to God for the answer, we stand once more on “holy ground,” under the cross at Calvary. There we are taught that we are saved from sin, not by character, culture, achievement, attainment, not by a mere forgiving or forgetting on the part of God, but by “the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son.” When we learn to lament the wrong of our wayward hearts; when we renounce the greediness of our own blundering, sinful selves; when we come to the cross with the evil that lies red on our hands and black on our hearts; when our faith strives toward Christ, who for us and our sins was nailed there below the pall of a blackened sky and above the crime of a corroding world; when we fling ourselves prostrate before God and make the prodigal’s confession our own, “O Father, ‘I have sinned . . . and am no more worthy to be called Thy son,’”—then, when the calm of peace and pardon makes our soul sing, “Through this cross, through this blood, through this suffering, through this death, I have been restored, I have become a child of Thy grace, I have been brought from death to life, from wrath to righteousness, from hell to heaven,” then—oh, blessed assurance!—we have the Christ who can turn our afflictions to advantage, our sorrows to salvation, our grief to glory. You can join the psalmist in this apparent contradiction that only God’s elect can harmonize, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted.” You can say with Saint Paul, who, speaking of his bonds and his imprisonment, exulted: “This shall turn to my salvation.” You know that, if God loved you with that unfathomable love which “spared not His own Son”; if, being washed and cleansed, pardoned and purified, by your faith in that atoning, self-giving love of Christ, your Savior promises, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee”; “I am with you always”; “Neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand,” you can find God’s love in every sorrow, His protection in every adversity, His blessing in every affliction. Through Christ we understand that our lives are not the cobwebs of chance, but that we who are His, in the white race, the black race, the yellow race, the red race (and how I thank God that you of different races and colors worship with us in this broadcast!), all the redeemed, are the glorious creatures of divine grace, so precious in our Father’s sight that nothing but the bleeding and dying of God Himself in Christ could save us.
Gideon was soon to learn how God can turn affliction to advantage. Was it not the raiding and plundering by the Midianites that gave him the priceless privilege of seeing God and with his own ears hearing the divine truth? Many in this audience know that the God whom they neglected in prosperity came into their hearts with a deepening devotion in adversity. Many who were too busy for Christ, too preoccupied to hear His Word and study His counsel, were brought down on their backs in long sieges of sickness so that they could meet God. Blessed is that suffering and sorrow by which our heavenly Father rescues us from ourselves and saves us for Jesus in those darkened hours of wondering and searching when we ask, “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” and divine wisdom answers, “To bring Christ to you and you to Christ.”
Gideon also found an advantage in adversity when that Midianite oppression taught him God’s power and removed his doubts. With only three hundred men, and these armed not with bow and spear and sword but with pitchers and trumpets and torches, he was to defeat the vast host of the Midianites and to realize that God always keeps His word and proves His power. Has it not been in the fog of fear that the beacon of God’s power has loomed most brightly in your life? When all else gives way, human help founders and men’s words flit into thin air, God’s words are clearest and answer your question, “Why . . . is all this befallen us?” with the promise, “In order to reveal My power to you, deepen your faith, strengthen your conviction, and remove all your doubt.” Again I say, Blessed are the sorrows that show us the strength of God.
Gideon was to know that grief is often God’s way of helping and strengthening His children. The Midianite invasion brought him the command to cut down the idolatrous altars of his father. In this way the sufferings of those bitter years finally made Gideon’s home better and stronger, just as depression and recession have welded many a family more closely together and enriched their homes. In the wider circles of life the losses of sorrow become the gain of the spirit, through Christ. As trees must be cut and trimmed if they are to flower in full blossom and produce a heavy yield, so our lives must be pruned and purged of all wild branches and grafted into Christ. As the wet clay is whirled on the potter’s wheel and then baked in the oven before its new form is hardened, so God, the Potter of our mortal day, whirls us through the dizzy turns of life and thrusts us into the fires of affliction, that our new existence in Christ may be endowed with power and permanence. As the sword blades of Saracen steel could be bent to the hilt and then sing as they sprang back, so the souls that have been forged and reforged on the anvil of grief can bend under each new stress without breaking and sing as they bend. As two hundred tons of ore, almost half a million pounds, are worked to secure one small grain of radium, so in our lives the tons of earthly dross have to be refined and purified in order to preserve every grain of our faith.
Milton was blind and Dante was almost totally deprived of his eyesight, yet who among human poets have seen more dearly the vision of the Paradise above? Many of you have had the light of your vision disappear only that the brightness of faith might be enkindled and you in your blindness might see Christ more closely. Some who can hardly understand my words know that they have lost their hearing only that Christ could speak more distinctly into their soul and give them a closer understanding of His blessed promises. In many other lives, trials have paved the way to triumphs. It is said of Robert Louis Stevenson that the years of his most painful suffering were the most productive in his entire literary career. Charles Lamb wrote his incomparable essays after he had been rescued from insanity and while he was still under the shadow of melancholy restraint. Louis Pasteur rose to his most commanding height during the thirty years after a stroke of apoplexy had lamed his left side. In a much higher way it may be that you and I can do our best for Christ and build the temple of our faith highest and holiest under the purifying and strengthening power of adversity. With one or both of your limbs removed; with pain-racked days and sleepless nights; with the verdict of “incurable” spoken over your frail, disease-ridden body, you can come closer to the merciful Christ than many come who have perfect physique and unbroken health. With the loss of your money, work, friends, family, with the loss of life itself, you can draw nearer to Christ than some who are blessed by the overflowing abundance of all things. That is what Jesus meant when He said: “He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it.” While I cannot promise that God gives any guarantee for frictionless ease and softness of life, I can repeat the Savior’s pledge, “Your sorrow shall be turned into joy” and assure you that through the power and the love of Christ you can distill sweet blessings from the bitterness of life and after the ruin of each storm, through His Word build a new trellis on which the broken tendrils of your hope can climb higher and more closely.
To human eyes it is a strange message, this promise of the Scriptures: “Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth.” Intellect rebels against it; yet no part in our faith is more positive than this promise of blessed guidance in faith, this pledge that Jesus, even though we must be led through affliction, will keep us in humility and saving grace. Here we see “through a glass, darkly”; but when Jesus, through faith in His atoning death and His life-giving resurrection, takes us beyond the portals of this world, we shall see “face to face.” Then, with no more pain or parting, no more tears or trials, no more waiting or weeping, no more sorrow and sickness, no more sin and suffering, no more despair and death, we shall look ever to Jesus, who “hath done all things well,” who Himself was made “perfect through suffering.” By His blessed grace we who have been “faithful unto death” will “receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love Him.” For “if we suffer” with Jesus and for Jesus, “we shall also reign with Him.” God grant this, for His mercy’s sake! Amen.
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.