The 11th chapter of Hebrews bears relevance to believers who have gone through great sorrow and suffering. Described in that chapter are the men and women who persevered in hardship and danger for the sake of the Cross.
Some were tortured, imprisoned, flogged, stoned, sawed in two and put to death by the sword. They were destitute, mistreated, persecuted and inadequately clothed. They wandered in deserts, in mountains, in caves and in holes in the ground.
It is most important to understand that “they died not receiving what they had been promised.” In other words, they held onto their faith to the point of death, even though God had not explained what He was doing (Hebrews 11:35-40).
Without detracting from the sacredness of that Scripture, I would like to submit for your inspiration my own modern-day “Heroes’ Hall of Fame.” Listed among these giants of the faith are two incredible human beings who must hold a special place in the great heart of God.
During my 14 years on the attending staff at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, many of the kids I saw suffered from terminal illnesses. Others endured chronic disorders that disrupted and warped their childhoods.
Some of them were less than 10 years of age, and yet their faith in Jesus Christ was unshakable. They died with a testimony on their lips, witnessing to the goodness of God while their little bodies withered away. What a reception they must have received when they met Him who said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me …” (Mark 10:14, KJV).
Bells Were Ringing
In my first film series, “Focus on the Family,” I shared a story about a 5-year-old African-American boy who will never be forgotten by those who knew him. A nurse with whom I worked, Gracie Schaeffler, took care of this lad during the latter days of his life. He was dying of lung cancer, which is a terrifying disease in its final stages. The lungs fill with fluid, and the patient is unable to breathe. It is terribly claustrophobic, especially for a small child.
This little boy had a Christian mother who loved him and stayed by his side though the long ordeal. She cradled him on her lap and talked softly about the Lord. Instinctively, the woman was preparing her son for the final hours to come. Gracie told me that she entered his room one day as death approached, and she heard this lad talking about hearing bells.
“The bells are ringing, Mommie,” he said. “I can hear them.”
Gracie thought he was hallucinating because he was already slipping away. She left and returned a few minutes later and again heard him talking about hearing bells ringing.
The nurse said to his mother, “I’m sure you know your baby is hearing things that aren’t there. He is hallucinating because of the sickness.”
The mother pulled her son closer to her chest, smiled, and said, “No, Miss Schaeffler. He is not hallucinating. I told him when he was frightened – when he couldn’t breathe — if he would listen carefully, he could hear the bells of heaven ringing for him. That is what he’s been talking about all day.”
That precious child died on his mother’s lap later that evening, and he was still talking about the bells of heaven when the angels came to take him. What a brave little trooper he was! His courage was not reported in the newspapers the next day. Neither Tom Brokaw nor Dan Rather told his story on the evening news. Yet he and his mother belong forever in our “Heroes’ Hall of Fame.”
My next candidate for faithful immortality is a man I never met, although he touched my life while he was losing his. I learned about him from a television docudrama that I saw many years ago. The producer had obtained permission from a cancer specialist to place cameras in his clinic.
Then with approval from three patients, two men and a woman, he captured on film the moment each of them learned they were afflicted with a malignancy in its later stages. Their initial shock, disbelief, fear and anger were recorded in graphic detail.
Afterward, the documentary team followed these three families through the treatment process with its ups and downs, hopes and disappointments, pain and terror. I sat riveted as the drama of life and death unfolded on the screen. Eventually, all three patients died, and the program ended without comment or editorial.
There was so much that should have been said. What struck me were the different ways these people dealt with their frightening circumstances. The two who apparently had no faith reacted with anger and bitterness. They not only fought their disease, but seemed to be at war with everyone else. Their personal relationships, and even their marriages, were shaken — especially as the end drew near.
I’m not being critical, mind you. Most of us would respond in much the same manner if faced with imminent death. But that’s what made the third individual so inspiring to me.
He was a humble, black pastor of a small inner-city Baptist church. He was in his late 60s and had been a minister throughout his adult life. His love for the Lord was so profound that it was reflected in everything he said.
When he and his wife were told he had only a few months to live, they revealed no panic. They quietly asked the doctor what it all meant. When he had explained the treatment program and what they could anticipate, they politely thanked him for his concern and departed. The cameras followed this little couple to their old car and eavesdropped as they bowed their heads and recommitted themselves to the Lord.
In the months that followed, the pastor never lost his poise. Nor was he glib about his illness. He was not in denial, he simply had come to terms with the cancer and its probable outcome. He knew the Lord was in control, and he refused to be shaken in his faith.
The cameras were present on his final Sunday in his church. He preached the sermon that morning and talked openly about his impending death. To the best of my recollection, this is what he said:
“Some of you have asked me if I’m mad at God for this disease that has taken over my body. I’ll tell you honestly that I have nothing but love in my heart for my Lord. He didn’t do this to me. We live in a sinful world where sickness and death are the curse man has brought upon himself. And I’m going to a better place where there will be no more tears, no suffering and no heartache. So don’t feel bad for me.”
“Besides,” he continued, “our Lord suffered and died for our sins. Why should I not share in His suffering?” Then he began to sing, without accompaniment, in an old broken voice:
Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
And all the world go free?
No, there’s a cross for everyone,
And there’s a cross for me.
How happy are the saints above,
Who once went sorr’wing here;
But now they taste unmingled love,
And joy without a tear.
The consecrated cross I’ll bear,
Till death shall set me free,
And then go home my crown to wear,
For there’s a crown for me.
I wept as this gentle man sang of his love for Jesus. He sounded very weak, and his face was drawn from the ravages of the disease. But his comments were as powerful as any I’ve ever heard. His words that morning were his last from the pulpit, as far as I know. He slipped into eternity a few days later, where he met the Lord he had served for a lifetime. This unnamed pastor and his wife have a prominent place among my list of spiritual giants.
Pieces to Life’s Puzzle
There are more heroes in my catalog than I could describe, but I will resist the inclination to name them. My concern at this point, however, is to help those who are not so well grounded in their beliefs. If everyone was gifted with the tenacity of a bulldog and the faith of Father Abraham, there would be no need for a discussion of this nature. But most of us are not spiritual superstars. That’s why these thoughts are addressed affectionately to individuals who have been wounded in spirit by experiences they could not understand. The pieces to life’s puzzle simply have not fit together, leaving them confused, angry and disillusioned.
Perhaps you are among those who have struggled to comprehend a particular heartache and God’s reason for allowing it. A thousand unanswered questions have been recycling in your mind — most of them beginning with the word, “Why?”
You want desperately to trust the Father and believe in His grace and goodness. But deep inside, you’re held captive by a sense of betrayal and abandonment. The Lord obviously permitted your difficulties to occur. Why didn’t He prevent them — and why has He not attempted to explain or apologize for them? The inability to answer those fundamental questions has become a spiritual barrier a mile high, and you can’t seem to find a way around or over it.
For some of my readers, your sorrow can be traced directly to the death of a precious son or daughter. Your pain from that loss has been so intense that you’ve wondered if you could even carry on. What a joy he (or she) was to your heart. He ran and jumped and giggled and hugged. You loved him far more than you valued your own life.
But then, there was that horrible morning at the pool, or the ominous medical report, or the accident on the bicycle. Now your beloved child is gone, and God’s purpose in his death has remained a mystery.
For someone else, there will never be anything as painful as the rejection you were dealt by an ex-husband or wife. The day you discovered the infidelity, or when the divorce papers arrived at the door, or that unforgettable night of violence — those were indescribable moments of heartache.
In some ways, it would have been easier to have buried the spouse than to see him or her in the arms of another. How could that person to whom you gave everything be so cruel? Many tears were shed as God was begged to intervene. When the marriage continued to fail, disillusionment and bitterness rolled over you like a tidal wave. You’ve said you would never trust anyone again — not even the Almighty.
I’m thinking also of widows and widowers trying to survive on their own. If you’re one of them, you know what very few of your friends fully comprehend. They want you to get over this loss and return to the business of living. But you just can’t do it. For so many years, your marriage was the centerpiece of your existence. Two separate human beings truly became “one flesh” as God intended. It was such a sweet love affair that it could have gone on forever. In fact, when you were young, you honestly thought it would. But suddenly, it was over. And now, for the first time in many years, you’re truly alone. Is this what it all comes down to?
To those whom I have been describing — those who have struggled to understand God’s providence — I bring hope to you today. No, I can’t provide tidy little solutions to all of life’s annoying inconsistencies. That will not occur until we see the Lord face to face.
But His heart is especially tender toward the downtrodden and the defeated. He knows your name, and He has seen every tear you have shed. He was there on each occasion when life took a wrong turn. And what appears to be divine disinterest or cruelty is a misunderstanding at best and a satanic lie at worst. How do I know this to be true? Because the Scriptures emphatically tell us so. For starters, David wrote, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Isn’t that a beautiful verse? How encouraging to know that the very presence of the King — the Creator of all heaven and earth — hovers near those who are wounded and discouraged. If you could fully comprehend how deeply you are loved, you would never feel alone again.
David returned to that thought in Psalm 103:11: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him….” Another favorite passage is Romans 8:26, in which we’re told that the Holy Spirit actually prays for you and me with such passion that human language is inadequate to describe it. That verse says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
What comfort we should draw from that understanding! He is calling your name to the Father today, pleading your case and describing your need. How wrong it is, therefore, to place the blame for your troubles on the best friend mankind ever had! Regardless of other conclusions you draw, please believe this: He is not the source of your pain!
If you were sitting before me at this moment, you might be inclined to ask, “Then how do you explain the tragedies and hardships that have come into my life? Why did God do this to me?” My reply is not profound, but I know it is right! God rarely chooses to answer those questions in this life!
That’s what I’ve been trying to say. He will not parade His plans and purposes for our approval. We must never forget that He is God. As such, He wants us to believe and trust in Him despite the things we don’t understand. It’s that straightforward. Jehovah never did answer Job’s intelligent inquiries, and He will not respond to all of yours. Every person who ever lived, I submit, has had to deal with seeming contradictions and enigmas. You will not be the exception. If that explanation is unsatisfactory, and you can’t accept it, then you are destined to go through life with a weak, ineffectual faith — or no faith at all. You’ll just have to construct your castles on some other foundation. That will be your greatest challenge, however — because there is no other foundation. It is written, “Except the Lord build a house, they labor in vain which build it” (Psalm 127:1, KJV).
My strongest advice is that each of us acknowledge before the crisis occurs, if possible, that our trust in Him must be independent of our understanding. There’s nothing wrong with trying to understand, but we must not lean on our ability to comprehend!
Sooner or later our intellect will pose questions we cannot possibly answer. At that point, we would be wise to remember His words, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than you ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:9). And our reply should be “Not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42, KJV).
For those who are hurting and discouraged, I think it would be comforting to look forward to the time when the present trials will be a distant memory. A day of celebration is coming like nothing that has ever occurred in the history of mankind.
The Guest of Honor on that morning will be One wearing a seamless robe, with eyes like flames of fire and feet like fine brass. As we bow humbly before Him, a Great Voice will thunder from the heavens, saying:
“Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, and there shall be nor more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4, KJV).
And, again, the Mighty Voice will echo through the corridors of time:
“They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. And God will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17, KJV).
This is the hope of the ages that burns within my breast. It is the ultimate answer to those who suffer and struggle today. It is the only solace for those who have said goodbye to a loved one. Though the pain is indescribable now, we must never forget that our separation is temporary. We will be reunited forever on that glad resurrection morning. As the Scripture promises, our tears will be banished forever!
My father and mother will also be in the crowd on that day, standing expectantly beside my little grandmother, who prayed for me before I was born. They will be straining to catch a glimpse of our arrival, just like they did so many Christmas seasons when we flew into the Kansas City airport. Dad will have so much to tell me, he will be bursting with excitement. He’ll want to take me to some distant planet he’s discovered.
Your loved ones who died in Christ will also be in that great throng, singing and shouting the praises of the Redeemer. What a celebration it will be! This is the reward for the faithful — for those who overcome their sense of betrayal in tough times and persevere to the end. This is the crown of righteousness prepared for those who have fought a good fight, finished the course, and kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7).
Throughout our remaining days in this life, therefore, let me urge you not to be discouraged by temporal cares. Accept the circumstances as they are presented to you. Expect periods of hardship to occur, and don’t be dismayed when they arrive. “Lean into the pain” when your time to suffer comes around, knowing that God will use the difficult for His purposes — and indeed, for your own good. The Lord is very near, and He has promised that your temptation will not be greater than you can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).
I’ll leave you with these wonderful verses from the 34th Psalm:
The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all (v. 17-19).
“Why Did God Let This Happen to Me?” was adapted from his book When God Doesn’t Make Sense. Copyright © 1993 Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Read more from Dr. Dobson at Focus on the Family.