There is a wonderful line in the popular American movie "The Princess Bride."
"Life is pain, your Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something," says the Man in Black.
Suffering is everywhere — unavoidable — and its scope can overwhelm. We see it on the nightly news. It’s almost impossible to shut it out.
The Augustine family has tragically lost a 23-year-old son and nephew, cousin and brother, drowned in the Black River. We’ve experienced deep grief and unspeakable heartbreak. One could ask, “Why does God allow such things?”
The Biblical metaphor calls trials and troubles “walking through fire” (Isaiah 43:2). In Daniel, three faithful men are thrown into a furnace to burn to death. A mysterious figure appears beside them. In the story he’s called, “the son of the gods.” They walk through the furnace of suffering but are not consumed. This was the Son of God himself, one who faced his tormentors and won against an infinitely greater furnace of affliction — when he went to the cross.
That changes the concept of God “walking with us.” In Jesus Christ, we see that God experiences the pain of fire as we do. God provides love and understanding in our anguish.
Despite our deepest distress, our family has experienced this solace in the past few weeks. On July 11, we had prayer vigil at Christ Episcopal Church. We prayed: “God, help us find Shalim.”
Immediately after the vigil, we were called to meet officers at the La Crosse police station. We were told that Shalim’s lifeless body was found in the Black River.
Upon hearing this, we felt as if we had fallen into the fires of hell — we raged, cried out and screamed in agony.
Then something powerful happened. My brother Peter, Shalim’s father, stood up and said a prayer. I have no idea how he mustered the courage and faith to say, “We thank you God for giving us Shalim for 23 years. We have loved and enjoyed him. You gave him to us, and now he is with you.”
The calmness and warmth of his deep faith spread throughout the room. We suddenly became aware that God was there, holding us — raging and weeping with us. When we suffer (in our furnace of agony), Jesus is quite literally with us, in some way actually feeling the flames, too.
A famous hymn, "Crown Him With Many Crowns," speaks of Jesus “treading” through the same grief and troubles that we walk through:
Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He had trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for his own, that all in Him may rest.
George MacDonald, a Scottish minister, said, “The Son of God suffered into the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like His.”
This month, we’ve studied Romans, Chapter 8. In our grief we’ve read parts of this chapter with Peter, Lily, Sarah and Zarah Augustine in their home. Romans 8:26-39 is read at Christian funeral services. It’s a powerful testimony of utmost conviction that even death cannot separate one from the love of God. Death is not the end, but the beginning of a new phase of life in God.
Funerals aren’t the only places we mark grief and loss. We always need God’s help and assurance. This epistle reading provides such affirming, encouraging and assuring words: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26).
In troubled times we need not be unduly perturbed. We aren’t left to our own devices. The Holy Spirit is our companion in the difficult business of prayer. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us. Thus “the children of God have two divine intercessors”, writes John Murray. “Christ is their intercessor in the court of heaven” while “the Holy Spirit is their intercessor in the theater of their own hearts.”
St. Paul, who went through persecution and hardship, sings his triumphant song:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? … For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 36-39).
Paul himself was familiar with most of the adversities he mentions here.
Christians have no guaranteed immunity from temptation, tribulation or tragedy, but we are promised victory over them. In our time of suffering, we were led toward bitter disillusionment. Life seems nasty, hard and brutish, and it was too short for Shalim. Yet this passage and our faith give us hope — “every tear wiped from our eyes” (Revelation 21:4).
It is with the certainty of the resurrection to eternal life that Shalim is in the celestial embrace of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And we can witness with Paul:
Neither death, nor life ... nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Alleluia!