A perfect storm of suffering may overwhelm you.
A perfect storm of suffering might drive you away from God.
God is most clearly revealed in the worst moments of our suffering.
Scriptures: Job 30, Job 40, Job 42
To understand why the Andrea Gail never had a chance, one needs only to search the clues along the shoreline of the Eastern Seaboard.
At first, it went by the name of the “Halloween Storm,” given its late-October fury. As far south as the North Carolina coastline, winds of 35 to 45 mph lashed the area for five consecutive days, and waves of 10 to 30 feet pounded the beach. In Rhode Island, a fisherman was swept off the rocks by heavy surf and killed. In New York, another man fishing from a bridge lost his life when he was either blown off the bridge, or swept off by high waves.
The New England coastline hammered so soundly, even a few lighthouses – buildings designed to survive the very worst weather – were damaged. With winds hovering around 65 to 75 mph, utility poles, trees, piers, sea walls and boardwalks simply disappeared. Thousands of lobster traps were destroyed. Flooding was extensive, invading homes, and closing roads and airports.
At sea, it was far worse.
At 80 degrees, the water of the Atlantic that fall week in 1991 was still very warm, almost tropical. But the seasons had changed in New England, and a cold front from Canada was racing across the northeastern corner of the country. At the same time, a hurricane was forming in the warm ocean water, moving toward a collision with the cold front in what soon became known as “The Perfect Storm.”
The Andrea Gail had a crew of six, and the small fishing vessel was caught square in the crosshairs of the colliding storms. Sustained winds of 60 knots and sea swells of 39 feet were recorded, and unconfirmed reports told of even stronger winds and higher waves. The movie that told her story, and coined the phrase “the perfect storm,” painted a graphic picture of a crew caught in the middle of overwhelming difficulty, pressed in on every side by the colliding weather patterns.
The fishing vessel went down sometime after midnight on Oct. 28, and ironically, its search and rescue, satellite-aided tracking system washed ashore a week later on Sable Island. Strangely enough, the tracking device was found with its power switched off. Could it have been an accident . . . or was it a case of a storm so overwhelming, so devastating, that the captain of the ship simply turned the device off as a symbolic gesture of giving in to the worst storm he’d ever seen? (Source: “The Perfect Storm, October 1991,” NOAA Satellite and Information Service, National Climatic Data Center.)
If so, Job would have understood.
His story is so painful, his name has been linked to suffering itself. To have a “Job-like” season of life is to suggest that the worst of suffering is under way. His “perfect storm” involved grief beyond description, physical pain that defied understanding, and a spiritual pain that might have been the worst of all. For Job came to understand, even as a hard rain began pelting him, that the God who could have prevented the suffering had chosen to allow it. The God who should have noticed his faithfulness – and indeed had noticed it – had decided to reward his faith with torture. Job’s friends only added to his misery, and his wife didn’t help. As the skies above him turned dark and a thunderstorm blew in around him, Job connected the dots between the stormy weather, and his set of very difficult circumstances.
It was a perfect storm of emotional, physical, and spiritual pain, and it descended upon the old man even as a real storm thundered overhead.
A transcript from Job’s storm sounds like this:
(Read Job 30:15-22.)
“You toss me about in the storm.”
If you’ve ever known disease, you’ve known the storm. If you’ve ever known heart-piercing grief, you’ve known the sensation. If you’ve ever been betrayed, forsaken, cheated or hurt, you’ve known the horror at the heart of it all. For the God in heaven, the very one the Bible tells us controls all things, and at the same time, the God who has promised to love you always – this same God allowed it to happen.
“You toss me about in the storm.”
As it comes to a conclusion, Job’s poetic story indicates a gathering of the clouds, a blowing of the winds, a storm of incredible magnitude. Eventually, God spoke to Job out of the storm, his voice surrounded by the flashes of lightening and the crashing of the thunder.
As the storm rolled in, Job never moved. With the rain coming down, he sat in the clumpy, wet mass of dust and ashes, his sores still running, his heart still broken. The friends stayed, too, and they must have been anxious. Unlike Job, they still wanted to live. And unlike Job, they did not know what it was like to have multiple problems crashing in upon them, all at the same time. It was symbolic that the skies around Job were turning dark, that the wind and the thunder were coming closer and closer to the little group of men in Job’s story. The more stormy the weather, the more Job related. He was living out the worst days of his life, dealing with a perfect storm of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain.
But right there, in the apex of the storm, some of life’s most important lessons became apparent for Job, and for us.
I. A “perfect storm” of suffering may overwhelm you.
Job’s “perfect storm” overwhelmed him. In an amazingly brief period of time, enemies had attacked, his financial portfolio had been sacked, and worst of all, his children had been killed. In the aftermath, his own health deteriorated to the point that he wanted to die. And yet he could not die. And through the worst of it, his friends had arrived and announced that the entire thing had been Job’s fault! “Confess your sin, Job,” they said, each in his own way, “and perhaps God will relinquish his shock-and-awe attack against you. We know God to be fair, and just, and right. No matter how much you protest your innocence, Job, God simply cannot be wrong. Come now . . . what did you do to deserve this?”
It was a perfect storm that sank Job to the depths of discouragement and depression as surely as the Andrea Gail sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Haven’t you seen it? When the funerals start arriving for a family, they seem to come in bunches. A family that didn’t even know where the community funeral home was suddenly knows the back hallways and hidden rooms, the price of coffins and the way to organize a memorial service. After a rash of funerals, it numbs them. At times, the survivors wonder which one of them will be the next they remember in their season of death.
Or what of the health issues? A person who has known only the best of health slams into a troubling symptom as if he’d hit a truck on the highway. And the problems pile up behind him, bringing tests and surgeries and treatments and expensive medical bills and thoughts of giving up.
Financial pressures can do the same thing to a person, or a family. A job is lost, and bills are missed. The debts pile up, and a car – or a refrigerator – decides to quit, just when there is no money to pay for the repairs. When the storm of financial worry builds to a peak, changes are made, attorneys consulted, letters written, and phone calls are avoided. It’s a little like dancing around the lightning bolts, unsure where the storm will strike next.
It’s the kind of situation that only needs one more element before the perfect storm sinks the entire family in a wave of crushing financial pressure. If, in the midst of one kind of trouble another one develops, it can be absolutely overwhelming.
Christians are not immune to such pressures. We can’t sing a favorite hymn and wish the problems away. The Bible will be a tremendous comfort for those who turn there, but there will still be tough decisions to make, still be pain to tolerate, still be pressures from multiple angles.
David often sang of the helpless nature of unrelenting pain. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” is the way Psalm 13 begins, at first glance the most aptly numbered psalm in the Bible’s songbook. David knew what it was like to hurt in every area of his life. Though he had been promised a throne, he only knew the life of a fugitive for several years, before the throne became his.
Joseph, too, had a string of crushing disappointments. Sold by his brothers, betrayed by his employer’s wife, stuck in a prison cell he didn’t deserve, he must have been overwhelmed with discouragement. Though he rallied after each disappointment, if we don’t think Joseph struggled during that time, we’ve not read the story with proper emotion.
Paul was so low during one of his letter-writing sessions, he told Timothy that one man had deserted him, and “only Luke is with me” (2 Timothy 4:11). He’d been beaten, chased, arrested, scourged, caned, imprisoned, denied justice, and eventually, shipwrecked. Though Paul had a tremendous attitude and faith, he knew real pain, and that kind of pain can overwhelm a person, even if only for a season.
If a perfect storm of problems overwhelmed the greatest individuals in the Bible, including Job, we should not be surprised when similar circumstances overwhelm us. It’s almost as if Job held on to his faith, and his sanity, by his fingertips, barely able to avoid the chasm of complete destruction.
II. A “perfect storm” might drive you away from God.
Job was a great, great man of faith. He hadn’t just gone through all the right motions. He had the right heart to go with his actions. He had been so faithful that he had been the subject of a conversation in heaven.
“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asked Satan. “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.” (Job 1:8)
But after the storm battered Job long enough, he had some serious questions about God. The combination of pain, of heartache, and of unending agony shattered his impression of the God he’d always known. The logic was impossible to miss, no matter how long Job tried to keep a good impression of his God. If God was in control of everything, why had God allowed such suffering? If God noticed the faithfulness of one of his humans, why would God reward that faithfulness with such pain?
Make no mistake about it. Pain is an incredibly powerful tool of teaching. Great change has taken place when people connect with pain, even when the pain is in the life of someone else.
His name is Ezzeldeen Abu al-Aish. He is a 55-year-old physician known to both Palestinians and Israelis, and because of his sufferings, he is now known to the entire world.
Ezzeldeen’s wife died recently from cancer. Together, they had raised eight children, and made a remarkable impact upon all of Israel. Abu al-Aish speaks fluent Hebrew, and practices medicine on both Israelis and Palestinians. Armed only with a joyful spirit, he had become a popular, national celebrity because of his regular appearances on Israel’s national television news programs, and his work on a number of peace projects. He had become one of the most loved men in the entire country.
During Israel’s January war against Hamas terrorists, Abu al-Aish and his family became trapped in their home. In all, 18 members of his family were taking cover there. And every day, news anchors from Israel’s Channel 10 called their friend to get first-hand reports of the fighting inside Gaza.
On Jan. 20, the call from Channel 10 took a horrible, unexpected turn. According to some reports, a sniper was firing on Israeli troops from the top of Abu al-Aish’s home. Other reports dispute the charge. What isn’t disputed is that an Israeli tank shell landed on the doctor’s home, killing three of his daughters and a 14-year-old niece. Two other daughters were injured. Ezzeldeen himself had been hurt.
But what struck at the heart of the matter was the father’s broken heart. He sobbed into the phone, and his cries were carried throughout the entire nation. “Oh God, oh my God, my daughters have been killed,” the father cried into the phone. “They’ve killed my children. Could somebody please come to us?”
Sitting at his news desk for one of Israel’s main evening news broadcasts, the anchor held his phone up. For three minutes and 26 seconds, Abu al-Aish’s wailing was broadcast across the country. The anchor fought off his tears, stunned by the grief that griped him.
The shocked news team began scrambling for help, calling on the air for ambulances to take the man and his family to safety. For the first time in the 22-day war, the Israeli army allowed a Palestinian ambulance to go directly to the border crossing, where the family was transferred to Israeli ambulances, and then to a medical helicopter.
The news that entire day, and the next, gave constant updates on the physician’s situation, and replayed the recording of his anguished cries. Though the citizens of Israel had lived with the rationale behind the war, one father’s pain – one father’s Job-like pain – changed the mood of the entire nation.
The grief was so profound, so deep, there are those who believe Israel’s withdrawal from battle the next day was due, in part, to the modern-day Job living in their midst. He had been a face of great pain, a connection point they had not wanted. It’s one thing to support a war when the enemies are all faceless terrorists, but when the enemy is a friend, it changes everything. Did it have an impact on the war, which had already accomplished most of Israel’s goals?
Perhaps not. Then again, the fighting did stop the very next day. And without a doubt, public opinion about the war inside Israel had changed dramatically, thanks to the suffering of a heartbroken father.
After the funerals, Abu al-Aish demanded answers, and said, “I’ll be proud that my children were the symbol of this war — that their blood wasn’t futile.” (Sources: “Gaza doctor who lost girls demands Israel explain,” Associated Press, Jan. 21, 2009; also similar stories on Jan. 17, at Haaretz.com., and Jan. 17 in the Los Angeles Times.)
When the pain is severe enough, or shocking enough, enormous change can take place. A war can stop in the Middle East . . . and faith can be lost in any country, with any individual. Foundational beliefs can be shaken. Prejudices can crumble, and thoughts of God can take turns never before thought possible.
Job’s very public grieving led to that kind of change in him. He demanded a hearing, with God called as the defendant. Job reviewed his life, his efforts at avoiding sin, his attempts to worship the very God who seemed to be bent on his destruction. Job’s suffering took him to the very edge of rejecting the God he’d always served, always loved.
If you ever run into the perfect storm of pain and suffering, it may take you to the same place. Thankfully, for those who endure the suffering, there is hope, even there.
III. God is most clearly revealed in the worst moments of our suffering.
Sometimes, life’s most difficult circumstances lead to life’s most enlightening moments. In the classroom of suffering – and perhaps only there – life’s most important lessons are learned.
It was certainly that way for Job.
Job had longed, all his life, to know God. He had brought the offerings, he had kept the rules, and he had kept a righteous heart.
But it was only in his suffering – in the very worst of the suffering – that he met God in the deepest way.
In the very storm that had nearly devastated him, Job met God! Of course, the meeting didn’t go exactly the way Job had envisioned it! God spoke to Job directly, challenging him to answer His questions and to stop asking so many of his own.
(Read Job 40:1-10.)
Job didn’t stand a chance, and he couldn’t stand under the withering questions of Almighty God. And once the proper order was restored, Job was finally ready to address His God correctly.
(Read Job 42:1-6.)
How ironic. It took the worst days of Job’s life to bring him to the place where he finally was able, in his words, to see God. No longer had he simply heard of God. Now Job knew God. And even in continuing, crushing loss, Job was satisfied.
How many stories could we tell of those who found God only when they hit bottom in real life?
I remember a number of prisoners who said landing in prison was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Their choices had led to behind-bars consequences, but there they had also met those who shared the Gospel with them. When the life-transforming truth became their own, prison turned from a place of confinement to a place of enlightenment.
What of those who hear a horrible prognosis in a doctor’s office, and only then decide to get serious about a relationship with the God of all eternity? No wonder some have said things like, “Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me. For if it hadn’t been for cancer, I’d have never met the Lord.”
When people face life-threatening moments – planned or unplanned – they often seem to come face to face with ultimate truth. Life is short, eternity is long, and God is in charge. They have Job-like revelations, in the peak of the very storm that caused so much pain.
And it’s not always a medical or physical emergency.
Financial hurricanes may sweep all you’ve known away. At that moment, God might easily and clearly direct the career path of the person who suddenly has no blockade of an existing job. There, in the middle of the storm, you might find the answer to a life-long prayer for direction.
[A note about the following illustration. This is a true story, and his name really is John Brewton. Some of the most effective illustrations available to us are the true stories of people in our congregations who have come through suffering. It is critically important, however, to ask permission to tell the story, to offer the person or his family a chance to read what you’re planning to say, and to clearly communicate during the illustration that you’ve been given permission to tell the story.]
John Brewton came by my office, years ago, to explain that he’d just lost his job. True to his gracious nature, John has given me permission to share his story with you.
John worked as a manager for a shirt factory in rural Georgia. As jobs go in that area, it was easily one of the best-paying jobs available. However, problems at the factory had led to delays in delivery, and in a shake-up of organization, John had suddenly, without warning, lost his job. As he told me the details of his crisis, I thought of his wife, and his child. How would his wife take the news later that day? How would this couple handle the pressure of paying the same monthly bills with less than half of their monthly income? The more I thought of the pressure John must have been feeling, the more discouraged I got.
In the midst of my own feelings, I hadn’t noticed John’s excitement. “You know,” he said, “I think I can finally do what I’ve always wanted to do.”
He must have seen my confusion, or read the look of worry on my face. “This is a good thing,” John said, trying to assure me of his relief. “I’ve always wanted to teach, and now I’ve got the chance to get the education I need for teaching, or find something I can do right now that involves teaching. Plus, I’m going to get some time off.”
John’s job had taken him on long road trips, and kept him away from home several nights a week. It had been a brutal schedule, part of the price tag of having a good income in that area. But that schedule had also kept him from being the father and husband he wanted to be, and it completely blocked his chances to become a teacher.
We prayed together, and I was left stunned by the genuine and unabated enthusiasm of a man who’d just lost his job, and yet a man who believed God was working in the midst of his storm.
One month later, John had a more secure job than he’d ever had – with regular hours – that allowed him to use his experience in manufacturing and his love for teaching. He’d had a nice break, with more family time than he had in years, and he’d also seen God provide the answer to his prayers – through the very crisis that had left him without a job.
Romantic relationships can blossom, and fade away faster than a summer flower. But for the patient follower of Christ, there can be a victory, even in the lost love. For perhaps, as is often the case, the answer for the frustrating loss will be known as soon as the right person appears. After all, didn’t Jesus challenge us this way? “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Job found the God he’d been looking for not by avoiding the storm, but by holding on to a thread of faith as he went directly to the center of the hardest of hard times. God was revealed best by the very storm that seemed to cast a cloud around God’s presence.
It’s the story of two people.
One is Ted Turner. He is 71 years old, and still in the news. With a net worth estimated around $2.3 billion, Turner has made an impact on cable television, news reporting, and major league baseball. He has given $1 billion to United Nations causes, and was once married to Jane Fonda. Through it all, Turner was never boring. Outspoken at every turn, Turner’s few missteps have included harsh statements about Christianity.
“Christianity is a religion for losers,” he said in 1990. On another occasion, he joked that the Pope should step on a land mine. He once asked some of his CNN employees who were wearing ashes on their forehead on Ash Wednesday, “What are you, a bunch of Jesus freaks?” Turner even blamed his divorce from Fonda on her decision to become a practicing Christian.
Interestingly, Turner grew up in a Christian Home, and at 17, planned on being a missionary! “I was very religious when I was young,” Turner told Michael Eisner. “I was a born-again Christian. In fact, I was born again seven times including once by Billy Graham. I mean, I know it inside and out.”
Bur Turner lost his faith when he watched his sister die from a rare form of lupus, at the age of 20. For five years, turner said, “I prayed 30 minutes every day for God to save her, and he didn’t. A kind and loving God wouldn’t let my sister suffer so much. I said, ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with you.'” In short, the concept of suffering separated Ted Turner from his faith in God. (Sources: “Conversations with Michael Eisner,” CNBC.com, Fortune magazine article, May 26, 2003.)
The other person to consider? Her name was Amy Carmichael. She, too, knew the disappointment of unanswered prayer. It may sound silly to know that as a child she had prayed for her eye color to change, but she desperately prayed that her eyes would change from blue to brown. Many people in her native England had blue eyes, and Amy wanted them, too. The color stayed the same, of course, but Amy didn’t turn away from God. In fact, she followed more closely.
She became one of the most famous missionaries in history, moving to India, where she remained for the rest of her life. And there, surrounded by Indians, she noticed that the entire nation there had brown eyes. Her eyes, as it turned out, were a gift to her from God.
One other thing that was a gift from God? A painful nerve condition and a bad fall left her bedridden for most of the final 20 years of her life. But even there, Carmichael saw her suffering as a gift from God. Saying simply that, “A wise master never wastes his servant’s time,” Carmichael wrote most of her 46 books from that bed, books that have inspired generations of believers, including a host of other missionaries. It was Amy Carmichael’s life and writings, for instance, that proved to be the major inspiration for Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, two more voices that changed the world for Christ, in part, through their suffering. And through such influence, Carmichael saw her suffering turn into pure joy.
Truth is, the storms are coming. They come for all of us, whether you accept that as a part of life, like Amy Carmichael did, or whether you reject God because of the same suffering, as Ted Turner did.
Job’s message? Look squarely and honestly into the center of the dark clouds and the raging storm. For it is there you will find that God has kept His promise to never leave you, to never forsake you, and to never stop using you for His glory.