Watch Now

When Suffering Strikes, Psalm 129-130

When Suffering Strikes

Psalm 129-130


I don’t remember in detail every day of my life. None of us do. We can’t. But we can remember the big days. Big good days, filled with celebrations and great accomplishments and milestones. And big bad days – days marked by pain and suffering, even terror. I remember this day like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t one of the good ones.


It was November of 2003. Becky was about 4½ months pregnant with our third child. Aubrey was just 3½, and Sterling was just a little over 1. So yeah, it was a long time ago. But it feels like yesterday. We were together at the doctor’s office for the mid-pregnancy ultrasound to check on our new little one and hopefully reveal whether our third child would be a boy or a girl. As they did the ultrasound, the tech quickly announced that our new baby would be a little boy. We already had a boy name and a girl name picked out. His name would be Corin. Corin Dean. Dean was my Grandpa Goodwin’s middle name.


The ultrasound felt pretty normal to me. The tech measured all of the things she was supposed to measure. And then, when the she was done, I headed back to work while Becky waited to chat with the doctor. The test had seemed normal to me, but Becky had noticed that the tech had kept repeating measurements of the same bones over and over again, like she was trying to make sure the numbers she was seeing were correct. And then, after I had pulled out of the parking lot and was about 2 minutes down the road, I received a panicked call from Becky. The doctor needed to talk to us about something. Something about little Corin wasn’t right. As I quickly turned around and rushed back to the doctor’s office, I hoped against hope that this was much ado about nothing.


When I walked back into the room where Becky was waiting, I could see the fear and anxiety etched on her face. The doctor came in and told us that some of Corin’s bones – bones in his arms and legs and also his rib cage, weren’t measuring as long as they should be. She set us up with a perinatal specialist from Spectrum in Grand Rapids who came up to Munson hospital here in Traverse City to work with couples whose babies were showing problems in the womb.


A month later, in December of 2003, we sat in a room much like the room in the doctor’s office we’d been in a month before, only this room was inside Munson hospital. And this time, the tech took all of the same measurements from the previous ultrasound, this time with the specialist looking over her shoulder. It didn’t take him long to realize what was happening. He’d seen it before. He turned to us and, with genuine sadness in his eyes and voice – the sadness of a man who had delivered this kind of news to frightened couples more times than he could count without allowing himself to get callous and jaded – he said, “Your son has a very serious condition. It is a type of dwarfism known as Thanatophoric Dysplasia. This type of dwarfism is incompatible with life. He will not be able to survive outside of the womb.” Incompatible with life. I will never forget that phrase. Thanatos is the Greek word for death, and many of our medical terms come from the Greek language. Thanatophoric Dysplasia. A death-bringing dwarfism. Incompatible with life. His exceptionally small chest, created because the bones were not growing to their proper length, would not be able to expand, meaning his lungs would not be able to fill with air.


Three months later, on March 10, 2004, we made our way back to Munson for the delivery, and then the death, of our precious baby boy. Because his arms and legs were abnormally short, Becky didn’t feel him moving inside her the way she’d felt Aubrey and Sterling. But the day before we went in to Munson, she’d felt him moving around. She said it was like he was saying “I’m here momma. I’m here.” And so, on March 10, 2004, Corin was delivered by c-section, as all of our children were, and the nurses handed him directly to me to hold where Becky could see him. He cried once as his lungs tried to fill, and I baptized him right there in the operating room. And then Becky and I held him as they finished up the procedure and moved us quickly into a private room, where Becky held him in her arms, me by her side until, 54 minutes after he was born, he died.


Becky’s dream had been to have a large family – 4 kids – from the start, and several months later we were ready to try again. When a family has an infant die, the next one born, if they have another child, is called their “rainbow baby.” The beauty after the terrible storm and a reminder of the faithfulness of God. Our rainbow baby – Ezekiel Dean, he would carry his older brother’s middle name – was born on August 10, 2005. We called him Zeke for short. And then, three years later, Eli came along. A bundle of energy and enthusiasm with a propensity for getting himself into places he wasn’t supposed to be in (I once found him sitting inside the rabbit hutch with the rabbit), Eli was the opposite of Zeke. I remember Becky telling me, as she looked at our four kids sitting in the back of her Yukon XL, “This is it. I am happy. I am content. This is what I wanted.”


Zeke was a quiet, thoughtful kid. He didn’t really talk until he was almost 3. A friend of our who is a speech pathologist always told us, “He’s fine. Don’t worry. He’ll talk when he’s ready.” And he did. But he was always a kid short on words and long on observation and listening. He had a rich inner life full of imagination. He spent so much time throwing a baseball into a pitchback and catching it in his glove – pretending to be pitching and fielding for the Detroit Tigers – that he wore a bare spot in the yard. During football season he’d go out and stand just inside the door to one of the barns and then run out into the yard and then jump up and down, like he was leading his Trojans or Titans or Lions onto the field. If he ever misbehaved, which was rare, even during the terrible three’s, which are way worse than the two’s, just a look from Becky or I could reduce him to tears. The biggest hissy fit he ever thew was when he threatened to never eat again if we didn’t let him live at Disney World. He did that as we were leaving after vacationing there with the kids over spring break one year.


In 2012 he was old enough to take a 4H project to the fair with the 4H club Becky and I led at the time, and he took our pony, HIS pony, Bella. He was so proud to sit there on top of HIS tack box, beside HIS pony’s stall and show her off. He couldn’t wait for Wednesday – kids day and special kids day – when kids got in free and could walk around petting the 4Hers animals. He wanted to stand there in Bella’s stall and let other kids pet HIS pony, proudly wearing his 4H club t-shirt. On the morning of August 8, 2012, he jumped out of bed and pulled on his club t-shirt and got on his bike and excitedly headed toward the horse barn to feed his pony and clean her stall (with my help, of course). He never made it to the barn. A truck driving in front of him stopped, and then suddenly backed up, the driver not realizing Zeke was right behind him, and backed over him. After being rushed to Munson, and then flown to DeVos in Grand Rapids, he was taken off life support shortly after midnight and he died shortly after, in the early morning hours of August 9, 2012, he died, in Becky’s arms, with me sitting beside her, arms around both of them. He was just one day shy of his 7th birthday. Our rainbow baby, taken from us too.


What do we do when suffering strikes? Where do we turn with the darkness closes in around us? Turn with me the Psalm 129-130. These Psalms are two of the 15 Psalms of Ascent, found in the book of Psalms as Psalm 120 – Psalm 134. They are a small collection of Psalms intended to be sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way from their homes and villages around Israel to Jerusalem for the great Jewish feasts and celebrations. Jerusalem is in the hill country and set on a hill, and so as the travelers ascended into Jerusalem, they sang these songs. Let’s look first at Psalm 129.


The Psalmist begins with suffering that comes at the hands of other people. People who treat you poorly, unfairly, or in meanness. People who wrong you. Look at the image he uses. Look at V. 3. It’s like I’m laying down on the ground, or even like I am the ground, and farmers plowing the ground are running their plow right down my back. He’s talking about real pain and suffering here. Pain and suffering caused by the actions of others.


Now, look at V. 4. God has cut the cords, the harness that enables the ox to pull the plow. They may still be running back and forth over me, but they cannot destroy me. Why? Because God has rendered their efforts fruitless and impotent. They may be able to cause me pain and deep, deep suffering, but they cannot touch my heart, they cannot touch my soul. They cannot do a single thing to take me out of the hand of God, or separate me from the love of God. No matter what happens to me on any given day, no matter what happens in this life, no matter what anyone says about me or to me, or does to me, my eternal destiny in the presence of God is secure.


Following Jesus isn’t a weak, fragile life, a plant that only flourishes when the conditions are just right, when the going is easy and the rain plentiful and the sun is warm. Or when your business is successful and the money is ample and everyone likes you and all the traffic lights turn green as you approach. It’s more like a tough, indestructible perennial that keeps going, regardless of conditions.


Look at the life of St. Paul. Look at what he said about his life after giving it to Christ in 2 Corinthians 11:24-29. This is what it looks like to have tough faith. To have perseverance. To be able to keep going, even when it’s hard. Reminds me of this weed that grows in our yard. It’s called “plantain weed” and we tend to see it late June and into July, after the first dandelion growth dies out. Parts of our yard are full of them. They have this really long stem with a cone-shaped green flower on top. And the thing that drives me nuts is you can drive over them with the mower and look back and see 76 of those stems standing up laughing at you. It’s like those stupid stems are stronger than sharpened mower blades. I hate those things.


Or like the sedum that grows out behind the church, where the soil is really, really sandy. Grass won’t grow there. Even dandelions struggle. But the sedum just keeps on living. Flooding rains? No problem, we’ll just breathe underwater. Drought? No problem, we’re like camels. Want to drive on us? No problem, we’re stronger than asphalt. Spray us with weed killer? We drink that stuff like water. Those weeds just keep going. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t snuff them out. You can’t cut them, you can’t kill them, you can’t drown them or burn them up in the sun. They’re tough and persistent.


But that toughness and persistence doesn’t come from our own inner grit and determination. Yes, authentic faith in Jesus is filled with grit and determination, but our grit and determination finds its source not in our own toughness, it finds its source in God’s faithfulness. The Psalmist says “The LORD is righteous; HE has cut the cords of the wicked.” Look at Vv. 6-8. When your life is in God’s hands, yes, you will feel pain, and yes, you will still suffer, just as those who don’t follow Jesus do. But the efforts of those who hurt you will be rendered eternally ineffective, even though they may hurt you now.


In the ancient world, roofs were often made of dirt and clay. And as the wind spread seeds around, some of it might land on a roof and sprout – temporarily. But when the sun shone down on it in the heat of the day, and the roof dried out, the grass that had sprouted dried up and died. That’s what the efforts of those who try to hurt you are like. They may sprout for a bit, but they will not last, because God will dry them out and render them useless.


Now, look over at Psalm 130. This Psalm changes tone slightly, from the grit and persistence of a tough faith grounded in God’s faithfulness, not our own strength, when others hurt us, to suffering in general. Before, the Psalmist felt like he was laying on the ground being run over by a plow. Now he feels like he is drowning. This pain and suffering isn’t caused by the efforts of other people, it’s the pain and suffering of life in general. “Out of the depths I cry to you.” I’m drowning here God. Where are you? I can’t see you or hear you. Are you there?


One of the things I love about the Psalms is that they’re an honest look at the inner life of those who follow Jesus in every season of life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. And life for all of us ebbs and flows into and out of each one of those. We all face suffering. We all face adversity in this life. We will all experience pain. Sometimes we suffer because our bodies break or get sick, or we develop problems in our minds and emotions. Or because societal systems cause suffering. Poverty, bias and oppression, illness and injury and disease, mental and emotional challenges can all cause suffering. So can the intentional or unintentional actions of others. We live in a broken world and sometimes things just go wrong, even in the safety of a mother’s womb.


Sometimes we suffer because we follow Jesus, and actually following Jesus often doesn’t make sense to those who aren’t following Jesus. It’s like we’re driving the wrong way down a busy one way street. At best it’s annoying to them, at worst it can seem downright dangerous to them, because we go against the flow of societies and cultures and empires. Our values are different. Our perspectives are different.


And sometimes we suffer because we’re being tempted. Tempted to give up or give in. Tempted to stop following Jesus altogether, or more likely, just not necessarily follow him fully in the situation we’re facing. To compromise in an area where we shouldn’t. The word “adversity” comes from the same root as the word “adversary,” and in Satan we do have an adversary who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” And he will never be more active than when you are facing adversity that he didn’t necessarily cause, but can use to get you to quit.


So what do we do, with gritty, tough faith, when we’re suffering or facing adversity? We cry out to God. Look at Vv. 2-4. When we’re suffering, we’re also looking for someone to blame for our suffering. And if no one else it to blame, we often blame ourselves. “Am I to blame?” “Why would God help me?” “I’m not worthy of God’s love.” “God is punishing me. In the months after Corin died, Becky often cried, “I feel like this happened because I’m not a good mom to Aubrey and Sterling.” Now, she’s a great mom. She’s the best mom. With them, she’s gentle. With others, especially when they threaten or hurt one of her children, she’s fierce. Like you don’t really want to go there, because she will take you out. That fear wasn’t true. It wasn’t based in reality. But the feeling was there and it was very real.


And yes, sometimes we do suffer because of our own sin. We break a law and wind up with a hefty fine or a jail sentence. We fail morally and lose our marriage or our job and we’re humiliated. But not all suffering is our own fault – a direct result of our sin. In fact, one of the main complaints of the Psalmists is that it far too often seems like good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to people who aren’t, in the moment, doing anything wrong. But even when our suffering isn’t the result of our own sin, we know we are still sinners. We do miss the mark. We do fall short. But we have to remember that God’s forgiveness is real and complete. I love the question the Psalmist asks. “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” The answer is “no one.” Often, we suffer because we live in a fallen, broken world, not because of any specific thing we have done.


But the Psalmist offers no explanation for suffering. No philosophical or theological treatise to explain suffering. Oh, those things exist, but he doesn’t offer any here. He simply acknowledges two important truths – suffering is real, and so is God.


So we cry out to God, and we do so in hope. Look at Vv. 5-6. Most ancient cultures had walled cities with people living in or near those walled cities, and the people living nearby could take shelter behind the walls in times of danger. And those walls were guarded by night watchmen. Now, most cultures had four 6-hour watches each night, meaning that no watchman had to be on duty for more than six hours during the day night. But the Jews had three 8-hour watches. So each watchman was on for eight hours, instead of six. When it comes to alertness and the ability to pay attention, things required of watchmen, there’s a huge difference between six hours and eight. Jewish watches were long. The picture here is of a long and anguished watch and wait. In our suffering, we watch and we wait.


Watching plus waiting equals hope. Look at Vv. 7-8. In his book on the Psalms of Ascent called A Long Obedience In The Same Direction, pastor and author Eugene Peterson writes, “Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning (to our suffering) and the conclusions (to our suffering). Hope is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality (Instead we can acknowledge that we are suffering and it hurts). It is the opposite of desperation and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying.


And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time.”


You see, the source of our hope is God’s full redemption. Redemption from our sin and a restored relationship with God, and ultimately, redemption completed, when everything is made new. It is a hope based on the solid foundation of God’s redeeming work, the work he accomplished through Jesus.


It is a hope that looks forward to the day when we will hear God say, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Rev. 21:3-5)


Yes, we suffer, and we face adversity and we deal with deep, deep pain. But those of us who follow Jesus know that he has already rendered any attack ineffective in stealing us away from him, and so we cry out to him in hope. A hope firmly grounded in God’s faithfulness to us, that God will do, in God’s time, what God has said he will do. That he WILL bring us to a place where every tear is wiped from our eyes, where every wrong is made right, even wrongs that happened in the safety of a mother’s womb. Where redemption is complete and sin is finally and fully destroyed. Where we will see loved ones taken from us too soon again, and where the light of Christ shines on all that is. Let us pray.