“Show me just one shred of evidence that God has mercy! Give me some mercy!” shouted a small, elderly woman named Gladys.*
Her words stung into my heart and rang like a bell throughout our empty auditorium. Silence swallowed up the end of each sentence that burst forth from deep within her grieving soul. A piercing sound, then hushed silence… as if she were waiting to see if God might audibly respond for all to hear.
My Tuesday morning had begun in predictable fashion as I dropped my son off at school, headed over to our church’s main facility, quietly prayed near the front of the platform, answered a few emails in my office, and then continued with our pastoral team and support staff meetings.
After the regular agenda wrapped up, John Nixon (our student ministries pastor) and I dove into a discussion on outreach and visioneering that pulled us passed lunchtime. But in the middle of our rambling, three quick rings on the doorbell at the main entrance grabbed our attention. We quickly stepped out of our impromptu conference to see who it might be.
One middle-aged man and three women (two middle-aged and one elderly) stood anxiously waiting for us to open the door. I greeted these unfamiliar folks with a smile, “Good afternoon! How are you? What can we do for you?”
As soon as the words left my mouth, all four visitors burst into a torrent of tears.
“Hi…my name is Frank. Can we come in a sit for a while?” the man whispered.
The elderly woman put her hand on my arm and between sobs told me, “My 27-year-old grandson committed suicide last night… and we didn’t know where else to go or what to do, so we came here. Can we go inside?” She motioned toward the auditorium with a quivering hand.
John and I quickly ushered them in and helped them find a quiet place to sit.
A Storm of Suffering
Like a dark, ominous thunderstorm the story poured out between intermittent sobs and sorrows. The middle-aged man, Frank, was father to the young man who died the night before. His son was an Army veteran, recently back from Iraq, and had married a beautiful young woman just this past June. He had been struggling with PTSD, yet his life was blessed in so many ways.
Laura, one of the two middle-aged women, spoke up, “more than thirty years ago we came here for a children’s program… called AWANA and vacation Bible school – we always felt loved and welcomed here.”
Frank spoke up, “We hope it’s alright that we came here. We just didn’t know what to do or where to go, but we knew this church would be a peaceful place…”
His words trailed off into a stream of tears as I reassured them that they were welcome to stay as long as they needed.
“Frank,” I said quietly, “May I pray for you and your family?”
“Would you, please? That would mean a lot to us right now.” Frank replied.
As I asked God to show them His abiding comfort, mercy, and peace during this heart-wrenching tragedy, I sensed some movement behind me coming from Gladys. I finished praying and turned around to see her shaking her head back and forth with her hands clenched tightly around her forehead.
With eyes filled with sorrow, anger, and frustration she again turned her gaze toward me and demanded, “Can you show me some tiny piece of proof that God is merciful?! You can’t, can you?! You don’t know what our family has gone through! How can God be merciful when there is such pain and sorrow… suicide and murder in the world?”
All at once a hushed silence enveloped the room again. But I sensed there was more from deep within the mountain of her grief.
She again yelled back at God and me, “If God were real and merciful and loving… how could He allow this to happen!?”
“I feel like maybe I should go over to Satan! Or maybe my uncle who was an atheist had it right! It’s all just a bunch of hocus-pocus. Maybe there really isn’t any God at all.” She gasped at the echo of her words as they reverberated off the high wall at the front of our auditorium. I saw her eyes furtively glance up at the large cross that hangs as a centerpiece…
Her body sunk down into the chair as if her heart had just been squeezed like a lemon. But her weary, aging eyes focused intensely into mine.
I felt tears well up as I inwardly cried out to God for an answer. Should I say anything? Should I simply allow her to keep venting and releasing her frustration to God? But her eyes would not let me remain silent. She wanted to know, see, and sense that God really cared about their pain and suffering.
My heart ached as I reached toward her with words of hope, “Well, sometimes my wife and I have cried ourselves to sleep and wondered what God was doing – especially when we lost five babies to miscarriage,” I said softly. “We struggled with doubt and pain… but we’ve come to know and experience that God’s mercy and justice met together at the cross in the death of the His perfect Son, Jesus. The only hope we have for mercy is at the cross; that Jesus died for broken people and a broken world. . . .
. . . But His death wasn’t the end of the story. He rose from the dead on the third day just as He said He would and more than five hundred people saw and heard Him before He returned to heaven. The only hope we have for mercy is in Jesus, because in Him we know this life is not all there is… this life is not the end. There will be a day when all our tears will be wiped away and Jesus will make all things new. This will be true for all who trust in Him as the Savior, the one to Rescue us from sin, brokenness, and death.”
Gladys’ eyes dropped their gaze for a moment and she shook her head again, “But how does that give me some mercy RIGHT NOW! I want to see that God has mercy now! Is God really God if he can’t bring our Charlie back to us?!” She again demanded an answer, not merely a pastoral presence but a pastoral response.
“Gladys,” I replied, “One day Jesus’ closest friends lost their brother. He, too, was one of Jesus’ dear friends. The two sisters, Mary and Martha, were weeping and overwhelmed with grief because their brother, Lazarus, had died. But here’s the shocking truth: Jesus entered into their grief and He wept with them (John 11:17-37).”
…Tears streamed down God’s face. God’s heart ached with grief.
Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, mourned with those who were mourning. And, today, Jesus Christ still weeps over the destruction and death wreaking havoc across the world.
Charles Spurgeon, a brilliant Baptist preacher from a previous era said, “A Jesus who never wept could never wipe away my tears.”
Yet God has wept and, right now, He is still here to wipe away your tears. The presence of Christ is seen through the work of the Spirit in His people. And we, too, are here for you.
The dark day of Lazarus’ funeral became a celebration when Jesus, the Resurrection and the Life, turned over the tables on death itself and brought Lazarus back to life. . . .” (John 11:38-46)
“Gladys,” I continued, “God sees your pain and tears and suffering. And one day that same Jesus the Christ is coming again and He will make all things right.”
Mercy for Weary Souls
After continuing to listen and pray, I’m not sure about the direction of Gladys’ heart or of the others huddled together that day in our auditorium. But maybe some of you reading this right now have yelled the same questions back at God… waiting and hoping that He would respond. We have, too.
As I’ve reflected on my conversation with Gladys’ grieving family, God has taken me on a journey in His Word over the past few weeks. He’s walking me toward a larger portrait of His mercy.
Let the following truths about God’s mercy soak into your weary soul…
your grieving heart…
your tired mind…
your fractured faith…
In the deep cistern of despair after the nation of Judah had been overtaken and hauled off to captivity, the prophet Jeremiah called out:
“Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s loving-kindnesses indeed never cease, for His mercies [compassions] never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:19-23)
Our knowledge and experience of God’s mercy is wrapped in His faithfulness within and beyond our present circumstances. The only hope for mercy is found in the God who knows the future better than we know our past.
The prophet Isaiah recalled God’s mercies in the ancient past:
“I shall make mention of the loving-kindnesses of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has granted them according to His compassion and according to the abundance of His loving-kindnesses. . . . In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; In His love and in His mercy He redeemed them . . .” (Isaiah 63:7, 9)
To paraphrase my friend and teacher, Dr. James Allman, “What God has done in the past is a promise and a model for the future, but He is too creative to do it the same way twice.”
The rather obscure mouthpiece for God, Hosea, wrote of the futility of putting our hope for mercy in anything or anyone besides the Lord,
“Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to Him, “Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously, that we may present the fruit of our lips. Assyria will not save us, we will not ride on horses; Nor will we say again, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands; For in You the orphan finds mercy.” (Hosea 14:1-3)
Human methods for genuine mercy eventually fail. Human inventions of rescue and relief are only temporary. But God will give mercy to all who turn their hearts from man-made hopes to God-designed redemption.
All of the Triune God’s mercies toward humanity climax in Christ. Hear these words of prophecy from the father of John the Baptist that describe the dawn of redemption:
“…For you will go on before the LORD to prepare His ways; to give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:76b-79)
God the Father planned our redemption by His grace, God the Son accomplished our redemption through going to the cross, and God the Spirit draws us to God’s Good News and fills us with new, resurrection life in Jesus Christ the Son, all to the praise of God’s glorious grace. So the apostle Paul declared:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 2:4-6)
In our grief and pain and tears, we look upon the cross and see where God’s mercy and justice meets with broken humanity and offers the hope of redemption to us through what Jesus Christ did for us.
If your struggling with pain, suffering, doubt, or grief, would you tell a bit of your story below in the comment field? We want to listen and pray, and by God’s grace, be the presence of Christ by the work of the Spirit for you.
We can trust in His mercy… even today. In His mercy is the hope that is unstoppable, unquenchable, and unconditional because Christ will always remain faithful.
*The names of these four visitors to North Park Baptist Church have been changed to protect their anonymity.