What is our default response to suffering? I think our response in times of suffering shows the trueness of our faith, and the depth of our relationship with God. It may be easy to sing praises to him when it seems like everything is going our way, but when pain and persecution strikes – death and suffering, which are the theme of our fallen world – where do we turn? To blame God, or to be healed by him, our great Shepherd?
This passage in Matthew 9 shows the responses of people in faith towards Jesus, despite immense suffering, in some cases for many years. The ruler’s daughter had just died, the woman had suffered from “a discharge of blood” for twelve years, and the other men healed by Jesus had been blind and mute, presumably for a while. These believers struggled for years, some of them perhaps since birth (definitely the case for the blind man in John 9) with why God allowed them to endure their suffering.
When we experience pain, sometimes it can be easy to blame God, or to question why God is allowing something to happen to us. We might know that the Lord tells us in the book of Jeremiah, “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD; plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (29:11), but in the moment that promise might seem a thousand years down the road. Where are the welfare and the future in this, O God?
But the people who came nearly 2000 years ago to be healed by Jesus did not come in any kind of doubt. They each made radical, utterly incomprehensible displays of faith in the way they approached Jesus.
First, the ruler said to Jesus, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” In the face of unimaginable tragedy, he turned to Jesus to do literally the impossible: for her resurrection from the dead. Even when Jesus stops while on the way to heal the woman (imagine the agony over that delay!), still he maintains hope and Jesus finally raises up his daughter.
For the woman, she superstitiously believed that Jesus was so powerful that even touching his cloak would heal her. She could have blamed God for the decade in which she suffered in pain, or complained that God did not see or understand her pain. But she kept her radical trust in Jesus, and her faith, even built upon inaccurate theology, was accepted by our Lord as a radical display of trust. In that moment, she recognized that all that could heal her was Christ, and he granted her wish.
We can also learn something from the two men. They approached Jesus crying out for mercy, acknowledging him as the Messiah and with recognition of his power. The two blind men then were asked by Jesus whether or not they believe he could heal them, and according to their faith, and their immediate “Yes, Lord”, they were healed. Could we have this simple faith? Could we recognize who our God really is and trust him for our healing? Could we bear any delays in timing as God brings his complete and perfect plan into fruition in our lives, in his way?
Yet sometimes it is so hard to bring our suffering to Jesus, especially when it seems like so many things have not gone “right”. These past several weeks for me have been honestly some of the most stressful and confusing emotionally – many people coming from a genuine and justified position of hurt and anger have called HCFA immoral, exclusive, and hateful. I was heartbroken over the tension threatening to divide the campus and my dear family – a welcoming home in which I have experienced only godly love and intentional friendships, and that accepted me like no other community ever has. My dinners with members of HCFA and other concerned friends, always filled with the joy of meeting with one another, were tinged with the atmosphere of tension and worry, and I needed to balance checking in with friends with the ever-growing pile of problem sets and midterms. Eventually it felt like the wave of work and emotions was sweeping over my head and I was going to slip under. After my computer blue-screened and crashed (thank God it’s working again), and I finally decided I needed a break.
I headed towards Weeks Bridge, the place I usually wander when I go to seek God, and asked him why all this was happening. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be more to your glory if we Christians could share the Word of God unimpeded, without this stigma surrounding our name? Why this pain? Why this battle? Why am I here? Why should I do what I do?” But breathing in the sweet night air, I reminded myself of all that God had already done: he brought me out of my humble town to Harvard, where I could experience Christian community through HCFA as I never had before. He had my family to him through an impossible miracle of healing, and every day he was making me more like him. The Lord’s hand was, as always, still on the situation. He brought me back to his words written in his Book, and also to a song that has been my comfort in many situations.
David wrote, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” (Psalm 23:1-4).
Even in the valley of the shadow of death, David recognized the Lord as his shepherd, and he sought nothing else but to be led by God. How much more can we be satisfied in Jesus, when God has revealed to us more than he did to David, now that God has revealed to us that in the new world we are to be co-heirs of the new Earth and the bride of the Lamb?
Jesus also heals another man who the gospel of John records as having born blind:
“As he [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1-3)
I think this is the sentiment referenced in the bridge from the song “Voice of Truth” by Casting Crowns, which has brought me much comfort:
But the voice of truth tells me a different story
The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”
The voice of truth says, “This is for My glory”
Out of all the voices calling out to me
I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth
In every burden and challenge that we face, let us not blame God or call him unfair for giving it to us and not someone else. But let us persevere, knowing that God has promised that his plans for us are good and that everything – suffering, persecution, pain, failures, or even physical illnesses from which we seek to be healed like the people recorded in the Gospel – have been set in place for the sake of God’s glory. It was not because God is unfair, or he hates us, but because so that he might display his glorious works in us that we might rejoice and turn to him. In everything, may we give thanks and praise to God, and trust in him, the Voice of Truth: that his hand is on the situation, and that he led us to where we are now for our sake and the sake of his glory. Though it seems that we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the glories of heaven’s heights are on the other side, and so are fruitful growth and harvest of the gospel in the following time on earth, so that God’s name is glorified.
But Jesus also knows every burden we have had to carry. The letter to the Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus sees the weakness of our flesh, and he loves us through it. In verse 36 of this passage it says that, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” His conclusion at seeing the lost sheep is to turn to his disciples and say to us: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
After both healings, Matthew records that report of the miracles spread throughout the region. Jesus even “sternly warned” the previously blind men to let no one know about the miracle, but still they could not contain their joy what Christ had done for them. And we have received so much more; eternal life and communion with God our Father and Jesus Christ; a spiritual family of those united in Christ’s name; the Holy Spirit, a person of God, indwelling every one of us. How then can we keep from declaring Jesus’s name everywhere we go?
If for us our sole true comfort is Jesus Christ, then how much do we need to proclaim this gospel of peace unto people who do not yet know about him! This is why the Lord, upon seeing the helpless sheep, immediately reminds the disciples to tend to them. Three times in John 21, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers yes, Christ replies with a variation of “Feed my sheep”. Further, we who are comforted by God are called to comfort others (II Corinthians 1:4). The one who has tasted the comfort of the great Shepherd must too be a shepherd, and lead our friends (both those already within and those outside the fold) nearer to the side of the King, the only one who can truly satisfy.
Lastly, I want to close this piece with the benediction from the end of the letter to the Hebrews, which I think reflects what I learned from this passage in the Gospel this week:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Allen Lai ’20 is a Chemistry and Physics concentrator in Quincy.