This past Sunday, those of us who worshiped at Epiphany Lutheran sang "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord." As we were singing, I looked out over our congregation, marking with each face something that I knew about their unique suffering.
The poignant words of that hymn, and the compassion I felt for the people whom I've come to love so much moved me to tears.
We are in the midst of the season of Lent, the 40 days in which Christians focus intently on the cross which Jesus bore in order to conquer sin and restore human beings to their original dignity. The cross is a sign of glory -- a reminder that Jesus won victory over death.
Yet, the cross is also a sobering reminder that disciples of Jesus face the instruments of death that are still at work in our world. The mystery of the cross is a hard one to bear.
Why do we suffer? It's important to remember, first of all, that God never causes suffering. If God is completely good and completely powerful, as Christians believe Him to be, then nothing evil can come from God. The child dying of cancer, the elderly person viciously abused, the innocent bystanders gunned down in the crossfire -- these, and others like them, are not acts we should attribute to the God we know through Jesus Christ.
For reasons we cannot -- and should not attempt to -- understand, God allows suffering to happen. We ought not try to fathom why this or that particular event was allowed to happen. Suffice it to say that God hates evil, and grieves every time it unmasks its horrific face.
Yet, God does not remain distant from our cries of pain. Jesus, after all, wept when his friend, Lazarus, died (John 11). That poet of the Old Testament, Isaiah, compares the Lord's love to that of a tender mother who cannot possibly forget the baby at her breast (Isaiah 49:15). The cross reminds us that God knows something about our suffering -- for God the Son, Jesus Christ, bore human suffering Himself.
By walking that road to Calvary -- the place where he died -- with obedience and trust, Jesus makes it possible for us to be hopeful in our struggles, too. Moreover, because Jesus conquered over death, we can count on his strength to help us in our suffering. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and continues to give healing and new life to those in need, upon whom he has compassion.
Because of God's goodness, which we see clearly in Jesus, it becomes possible for our suffering to point to the cross, that instrument by which humanity was redeemed.
One of the signs of God's great power and love is that our difficulties and trials can point to His redemptive work. St. Paul says that he and his co-workers are "always carrying in (our bodies) the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you" (2 Corinthians 4:10-12).
In other words, the trials of Christians can become a testimony to the Lord's infinite love and power.
What's more is that the cross, and the resurrection, teach us to see that God's goodness will prevail over the violence and senselessness of our broken world. Out of betrayal, injustice and death come reconciliation, true justice and eternal life.
Somehow, some way, all the loose threads of the storylines that do not make an ounce of sense will be tied up into the great drama that God has been constructing since the beginning of time. At the apex of that drama is Jesus Christ, whose great love for us has shattered the death's rule in the world.
As we suffer, our tears, our anger, our disappointments -- these are real and tangible, and we ought not deny them. The Psalms stand as evidence of God's ability to receive the full brunt of all our human emotions. The cross stands as testimony to that, too.
Yet the one who hung there and died now lives. And, in the midst of our pain, in the midst of our tears, He promises to wipe them all away (Revelation 21:3). In the midst of our decayed world, Jesus says to us: "Behold, I am making all things new."
Nathan Hilkert is the associate pastor of Epiphany Lutheran Church, 2375 Ga. Highway 20 in Conyers, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 770-483-6222.