He was going to be called Nathan.
After a five-year courtship and a six-month engagement, I had married Edrie, my childhood sweetheart. I’d got a job as a teacher, and we moved into our first home in Wiltshire. The first year was crowned with the exciting discovery that Edrie was pregnant.
We couldn’t wait to tell our families – this would be their first grandchild. We attended ante-natal classes. The date for the birth was set – April 23 – St George’s Day. We began to dream. We agreed on names.
He was going to be called Nathan.
And then in the middle of a cold winter’s night, Edrie began to experience severe pains. We saw the doctor the next day, and he admitted her to hospital. She wept as the consultant told us that our baby was gone. He assured us that there were long-term complications but having children in the future was a real possibility. His assurances seemed hollow.
Edrie was devastated.
She had to have minor surgery, and they gave her strong painkillers – but nothing could touch the pain she felt at the loss of our first child.
And that’s what it felt like – the loss of a child. We never met Nathan, but he was already part of our life. And of course, with grief come a whole series of irrational feelings and distressing questions. What had we done wrong? Were we being punished? Why had God allowed us to experience joy and sorrow in such intimate proximity? Would we be able to have children? Would we ever be happy again? We were embarrassed about telling people and felt guilty about our fears.
Suffering is real
Since the fall of our first parents, Adam and Eve, suffering and grief are part of the universal human condition.
We cannot avoid pain, and it can easily paralyse us. At the same time, it can become a source of growth and a spur to maturity. It is unhealthy to brush our feelings under the carpet – the Bible never does so. Instead, it takes them head-on, and so must we.
If God folds suffering into the texture of our lives, it is for a purpose. Understanding ourselves and the causes of our disappointments will give us perspective and courage. Grasping something of God’s purpose will give us patience and hope.
Romans 8 is the capstone and climax of Paul’s great statement of the gospel of justification by faith alone. In it Paul takes suffering seriously, explaining that our current experience brings both confidence and confusion.
Confidence and confusion
Let’s take the confusion and pain first:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies (Rom. 8:22-23).
Childbirth is both intensely painful and immensely fruitful – pain is the portal to life. The creation groans because it has not yet reached all that God will one day make it. It is poised between decay and glory. At the same time, we groan inwardly as we struggle with sin, decay and doubt. This will not end until we receive new bodies at the resurrection. Here is the answer to those who try to persuade us that if we do not enjoy health, wealth and prosperity, we are somehow living beneath our privileges. God has the whole of eternity to make up for all the pains of this world – but while we are in the body, our experience is poised between the already and the not yet. We live in hope.
But that is not the whole story.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Rom. 8:28-30).
These words are the softest pillow on which many a suffering saint has come to rest their weary head. God governs all things with wisdom, love and care.
Behind the events of this life is the steadying hand of God our Father. It is not fate or chance or mother nature, but the hand of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that directs our lives – we have a friend behind the phenomena. There is a script that our lives follow, and each paragraph and sentence and word is ordered by an author who loves us and plans good for us. His vision is comprehensive. It covers prosperity and adversity, sickness and health, joys and sorrows, blessings and trials – the good and the bad and the ugly. In God’s universe, there is not a single maverick molecule that can refuse his direction or derail his purposes. This includes those painful and disappointing occurrences which conspire to confuse us. He is the sovereign Lord who is in heaven and who does what pleases him (Psalm 115:3).
God’s good purpose
There is, of course, a great mystery here – we are free agents who make real decisions which count. We are not robots or puppets on a string. On the other hand, God works all things according to his will. There is never a crisis or panic in heaven. God does not have problems – he only has plans. And God works all things for our good.
Is Paul trying to persuade us that these things are good in and of themselves? Was the loss of Nathan a good thing in and of itself? Should we have rejoiced at this painful providence? That would be a bizarre and unbearable doctrine.
And, of course it is not what Paul is saying. Pain, suffering and grief are not good in themselves. It is the purpose that is good. We can and should hate the things that distress us. What we can be sure of, is that God has a purpose and is using the disappointments in life to accomplish this.
So, what is God’s purpose? Paul explains this in Romans 8 verse 29. Through the pressure of painful and disappointing circumstances, God is patiently and deliberately moulding our lives so that we are being ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. At present we are living in the tension of what we are and what we will be. It is that painful season of character forming which the Bible calls sanctification – being made holy. Like a master craftsman, God is working with the somewhat inferior materials of our lives to transform us into the likeness of his Son.
Sometimes it feels very shallow and simplistic when people assure us that suffering is good for us. The Bible never does this – it takes our tears seriously. But it wants to assure us that this process is designed and executed by God and that we can rest in the knowledge of his goodness and grace. God’s plans reach from eternity to eternity, swooping down to lift us out of the mire of sin and preparing us for glory to come (Rom. 8:30). Then Romans 8:31-39 assures us that the process we are part of is sure of a perfect outcome.
Amid suffering, it is easy to lose sight of God’s purpose. We need to step back sometimes and recognise the smile of God behind adversity. We need to look beyond our present pain to the ultimate outcome.
Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
The best is yet to be.