The Comfort and Challenge of Jesus

“Comfort! Comfort!” These are the words announcing Christmas, the coming of the long-promised Messiah in Isaiah 40.

Isaiah declares immediately after that every mountain needs to be leveled and every valley filled in. The coming of God brings comfort, but it also presents a challenge. Our lives will have to adjust to fit the new reign of God.

It’s not surprising, then, that when we meet Jesus in the Gospels that we find a person who brings amazing comfort but who also presents significant challenges.

He is His own person, has His own goals, is willing to challenge people at almost any time, and is unwilling to get caught up in the torrent of our emotions. But He also stays connected; welcomes everybody; and provides help, blessing, and comfort beyond our wildest expectation.

The account of Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4 is an illustration of the comfort and challenge of Jesus.

After a long day of teaching, Jesus is tired and enters a boat with His disciples to go to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Mark reports, “A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped” (v. 37). This was no small or imagined problem. Their lives were in mortal danger.

And what was Jesus doing? “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion” (v. 38). As followers of Jesus, we will often feel like we are in mortal danger, and we will wonder, why isn’t Jesus more concerned about this?

When we feel anxious about a situation, we generally want others to feel the same way. It’s not easy to tolerate a calm presence when we are filled with anxiety. So, what do we do? We’ll try to pull people in, and we’ve got a lot of ways of doing this.

One way we try to bring people into our anxiety is through accusatory questions. The disciples seek to pull Jesus into this situation by waking and asking Him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

This is just the sort of question that is designed to awaken our anxieties as parents, pastors, bosses, and leaders. Our response is generally to defend ourselves, to reassure, or to argue.

But that’s not what Jesus does. He actually doesn’t address that issue at all. In essence, He says, “I’m not going to get into that with you, but here’s what I’d like to talk about: why are you so afraid, and where is your faith?”

This is the sort of question that would probably deeply disturb and annoy us. Here we are, we might say, in serious trouble, and you want to challenge our emotions and our faith!

It’s frustrating! Here’s a serious issue, and Jesus is telling us that we should not be afraid and have faith. A real challenge!

The fact is, though, that Jesus does care about them and us, and He is willing to help them. He stands up and responds to the storm, “Quiet! Be still!” –

Remember that at this point the disciples are just beginning to understand who Jesus is. So, they are terrified. The Greek adjective is mega. They are terrified with a mega-fear. They are in total disbelief at what has just happend.

Who is this? They ask. And that’s a great question for us to consider this Christmas. Who is this man? What kind of person is He?

In calming the storm, He not only solves their problems but gives them the key to controlling their anxiety and fear in every situation. Instead of seeing the storm, they need to see Jesus who is Lord above all storms. If they can understand that, then they will have a foundation for faith that can give them peace in the midst of every storm.

That’s why the question that Jesus asks is so crucial. Jesus has compassion on us but doesn’t enter into our anxious responses. He challenges us to have a faith that is the antidote to every anxious response.

So, where are you feeling anxiety this week? What are you anxious about? If you could see Jesus as for you and Lord over the totality of those events that you are worried about, wouldn’t that make a big difference? Wouldn’t that calm our anxious nerves?

But it’s hard to let go. It’s a real act of faith to say that we’ll let go of our own anxious responses and trust Jesus and His solutions.

That’s the comfort and the challenge of Jesus.

Learning to Accept Loss

How do we make sense of loss?

Last year, wildfires came down from the Smoky Mountains and consumed Gatlinburg, killing 14, leaving hundreds displaced and thousands of buildings destroyed.

How do we make sense of such losses? How can we learn to live with the loss of a spouse or child or the losses caused by abuse?

It’s not easy, but we can come to a place where we accept the losses we have experienced.

However, it’s important to recognize that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss is something that takes time. We should not rush it. We need to be patient.

The case of Joseph is instructive. Several decades after experiencing abuse and human trafficking at the hands of his brothers, he was able to accept what had occurred and even see some good in it. He told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

But this didn’t happen overnight. He had a long road to walk. His experience at the hands of his brothers was a very traumatic one. The trauma was so bad that his brothers continually feared that the guilt of it caused them to continually fear that something bad was going to happen to them, “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us” (Gen. 42:21).

They did not take Joseph’s life. Instead, they sold him as a slave to Egypt. Potiphar purchased him, but he was falsely accused of adultery by Potiphar’s wife. This landed him in prison, and he had no clear timetable of when or if he would get out.

Finally, he saw a light. He was able to interpret the dreams of two of Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer, and he thought that one of them would take his plight before Pharaoh and get him out of prison. But two full years passed before the cupbearer spoke to Pharaoh. Two more years of Joseph in prison!

During all that time, I imagine it was very difficult for Joseph to accept the loss of his family and get past what his brothers had done to him.

Joseph was released from prison because Pharaoh dreamed two disturbing dreams which none of Pharaoh’s servants could explain. At that moment, the cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph was able to explain that the dream was a declaration of the future: seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph took the opportunity to suggest how Pharaoh could deal with the famine.

Pharaoh was so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom that he put him in charge of carrying out the plan. Now, at last Joseph might begin to think, maybe God brought all this about for a purpose. If I had not been sold, I would not be in a position to do good, he might have thought

The seven years of plenty passed, and the famine arrived. During the famine, Joseph’s brothers showed up. They come to Egypt to buy grain because it was the only place that had an abundance of food.

I can imagine that Joseph’s thinking crystallizes at this point. He realized he had an opportunity not only to save Egypt but his family.

Joseph initiated a series of tests to see if he could trust his brothers. He wanted to see them not only provided with food but also restored as a family. The result is that his brothers did show their repentance, and family trust was restored.

But after the death of Jacob, Joseph’s brothers got nervous. They started to think that now Joseph would get even with them.

At this point, Joseph wept. I believe he wept because it brought back all the pain he had experienced. The trauma he had experienced many years earlier had left a scar on his soul that would never fully heal in this life.

At the same time, he had come to accept the loss. He could say with conviction: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen. 50:20).

Over time, Joseph had learned to accept the loss.

Joseph is not the only biblical example of learning to accept loss. Here are a couple more from Scripture:

1. David experienced that affliction had helped me return to the Lord: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word” (Psalm 119:67).

2. Solomon learned that hardships could be discipline from the Lord that would train him. So, he told his son: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Prov. 3:11–12).

3. The Apostle Paul struggled with some “thorn in the flesh” that he asked God to remove. He came to accept that God’s grace was sufficient for him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:8).

4. James learned to recognize that suffering could even be a joy because it could ultimately shape us into what God wanted us to be. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).

5. Peter, who had rebuked Jesus for saying that He would suffer, came to recognize the importance of suffering and see it as walking the way of Christ: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21).

6. Jesus Himself had to learn to accept His own suffering. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). He recognized that his death would mean suffering but that it would be the salvation of the world: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (v. 32).

The important thing to recognize is that acceptance of loss and recovery from loss does come. It just takes time.

If we are struggling with accepting loss, we should enter into the grieving process (for an explanation of this process, see my post here). We should not expect to be able to accept the loss right away. It will take time and grieving.

For those who are helping others grieve, let me encourage you to let others come to their own way of accepting loss. Do not be like Job’s friends who talked and talked trying to explain his loss. They were all wrong in the end. Job eventually did come to his own way of accepting the loss and to healing, but his friends had been more of a hindrance than a help.

I find it very common for Christians to want to give quick explanations for loss. We don’t need to do this. We just need to be there to help someone grieve and be a loving presence. Acceptance will come with time.

As we walk through the grieving process, listen for our own and others way of accepting loss. Let that be the way you help yourself or someone process it.

Throughout the Bible, there are a variety of ways of making sense of suffering. We don’t have to use a one-size-fits-all method.

The good news is that we can come to accept the loss. It may be dark all around you, but the light will dawn. “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Pet. 5:10).

Understanding the Grieving Process

A depiction of an ancient Egyptian funeral procession

The Apostle Paul calls God “the God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).

One way that we see God as the God of all comfort is the fact that His Word, the Bible, has so many descriptions of grieving people and funerals.

This shows us that God comes alongside us at these times and is with us.

Ultimately, it points us to Jesus who is “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:1). He knows what it is to grieve as we we are reminded when He stood before the tomb of Lazarus: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).

In the many funerals of the Bible, God teaches us what it means to grieve. He teaches us about the grieving process which is a process that He has created for human beings to recover from loss.

A funeral for a loved one isn’t the only time we enter into the grieving process. We may need the grieving process for all sorts of losses: when loved ones move away, when we lose a job or a dream is shattered, when opportunities are lost, or when we experience trauma. However, funerals represent one of the strongest forms of grief, so they are particularly helpful in teaching us about grieving for all sorts of loss.

One example of a funeral in the Bible is the funeral for Jacob in Genesis 50. There are several important points about this funeral:

  1. They expressed their emotions. “Joseph threw himself on his father and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1). Later, they spent a whole week expressing their emotion at the loss (v. 11).
  2. They took time. The Egyptians mourned for Jacob for 70 days (50:3).
  3. They talked about it. They didn’t hide it. They openly shared that they were dealing with struggles, and Joseph even asked Pharaoh for a leave of absence so he could process the grief (50:4–6).
  4. They got support. Joseph and his brothers didn’t do this alone. They took along those who cared about them and were a part of their lives (50:7–8).
  5. They used rituals. This whole section of Scripture involves detailed rituals that the Bible and ancient wisdom recognized as a good means for walking through the grieving process and recovering from loss.

This same pattern can still be used today. The grieving process is what God has created for human beings to recover from loss.

When I say that it is a process, I do not mean that these five points are a checklist such that once you’ve checked off all these things from your list, you are done grieving. No. These five things are just the sorts of things that we must do in order to walk through the grieving process.

We also cannot say for certain how long or how often we will have to walk through these things in order to recover. As Scott Floyd writes: “Grief allows no timetable” (Crisis Counseling: A Guide for Pastors and Professionals [Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2008]).

Indeed, there is a sense in which recovery is never complete. There is real and substantial recovery in this life but rarely a perfect one. As C.S. Lewis explained: “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history, and if I don’t stop writing that history at some quite arbitrary point, there’s no reason why I should ever stop” (cited in Floyd, Crisis Counseling, 79). In other words, sorrow becomes part of our lives and is incorporated into it, even when we find substantial healing.

The continuing presence of an element of sorrow in our lives causes us to look forward to the life to come when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev. 21:4).

Our culture is the culture of the quick fix, but the human soul is not designed for a quick fix. If we follow the Bible’s wisdom, we can help people enter into the grieving process that God has created for recovery from loss and teach people what it means to mourn as those who have hope (1 Thess. 4:12).

Preparing for Suffering and Trials

Trauma can happen to anyone. We should expect suffering. Trials are part of life.

When we read these things, we know they are true.

However, everyone seems to get the belief that somehow they will be exempt. “It won’t happen to me!” we think. Or we don’t think about it all. We just live as if life will go on forever the way it is.

It won’t.

The more we can recognize that this is the case, the more we will be equipped to deal with trials, suffering, and trauma when they occur.

That doesn’t mean that suffering won’t hurt. It just means we’ll be in a better place to process it.

That’s why the Bible constantly tells us to expect suffering. I did a brief survey of passages on suffering. It is truly amazing how often the Bible warns us to expect suffering. Here’s a brief list.

  1. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1:2–4).
  2. I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
  3. Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you (1 Peter 4:12).
  4. Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all (Heb. 12:7–8).
  5. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4).
  6. When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future (Ecclesiastes 7:14)
  7. Jesus wept (John 11:35).
  8. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1 Pet. 2:21).
  9. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said (Acts 14:21–22).
  10. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know (1 Thess. 3:2–4).

Another thing that helps us to process suffering and loss is to learn ahead of time the comfort that can come in the midst of suffering.

Here are a few ways to think about suffering and loss that will help us deal with them when they occur.

  1. You’re not alone. Suffering is the lot of human beings in this fallen world. When you feel intense grief, you may feel like you’re going crazy or strange. This is not true. The grief process is part of processing loss, and everyone who experiences loss has to walk through it in one way or another.
  2. God is shaping us through it. That’s why James says to count it all joy when we experience various trials and temptations. The testing of our faith produces character.
  3. God will be with us. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze” (Is. 43:2–3).
  4. God brings light out of darkness. After a long period of time, Joseph was able to forgive what his brothers had done in large part because he saw how God had used it for good by putting him in a position to save his family and many others (see Gen. 50:20). We shouldn’t rush to conclusions about how God is going to do this, but over time, we will often see it.
  5. God Himself has entered into the suffering of this world. Tim Keller writes in his excellent book The Reason for God that Jesus’ death on the cross may not answer all the questions, but “we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition” (31). He has entered into it.
  6. Suffering is generally temporary in this life. The author of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time and season for everything, a time to weep and a time to laugh. There are times for both in this life, and life goes through its seasons.
  7. Suffering is absolutely temporary for believers in Christ. For believers in Jesus, this is the time of suffering. In the new heavens and new earth, there will be no suffering, for we have this promise: “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4).

If we keep these things in mind, we will weep but not as those who have no hope. Processing loss will be a process, but the God of all comfort will comfort us so that we can comfort others with the same comfort that we have received (2 Cor. 1:3).

The more we can recognize that this is part of life, the better we will be prepared to process loss when it happens.