In 1996, when my brother Dan died in a car accident in Hungary, my only thoughts were how it was affecting me and my family. My brothers and I lost a sibling and best friend. My parents unnaturally lost a child. Dan’s girlfriend, who was in the accident with him, literally watched her future die. And as he drew his last breaths here on earth, our family suffered an irrevocable blow. How was God going to use this for good as He promised?
It’s fifteen years later, and life has returned to the normalcy of highs and lows. My brothers and I have grown closer through the pain. Dan’s girlfriend met a wonderful, godly man and created a family of her own. And my parents are doing what they always do this time of year, traveling around Florida from church to church telling pastors about the youth ministry to which my father and brother dedicated their lives. And although none of us have forgotten the pain of loss we lived through, each of us has been able to see how God redeems that pain.
It was the last visit of the day and my father was trying to find the last church on his list but had gotten miserably lost. He almost quit, but as “luck” would have it, he finally found the church. He entered the large foyer and immediately headed to the secretary’s office. There he found the church secretary and a gentleman seated in the reception area. He was a 40-plus man in jeans and a sweat shirt whom my dad assumed was one of the church workers; he later discovered that the man was the Senior Pastor on his day off, who had just stopped to get his mail. As my father began his spiel, the man’s ears perked up and he listened in on the conversation about Word of Life.
The man interjected, “I’m not too familiar with Word of Life Camps…I am a little familiar with Word of Life overseas, however, in Hungary.”
Forever curious about people’s connection to Hungary, the country to which my brother had been a missionary, my father asked, “What do you know about Word of Life in Hungary?”
He paused and soberly said “I knew a man on your staff back in the 90’s. It was a very sad thing…he and his girlfriend took me to the Budapest airport and then within a half hour he died in a horrible accident. I think his name was Dan. He was one of the sharpest young missionaries I had ever met. I can’t remember his last name.”
In shock, my father asked, “Would his name have been BUBAR?”
He paused and said, “Bubar…Bubar…yes, that was his name…did you know him?”
“Yes,” My father answered. “I knew him very well. He was my son.”
The man stood to his feet and gasped, “Oh my, I am so sorry! You will never know how that impacted my life, truly. I had never known anyone close to me who had died before then and it was the first time I was confronted with the fragility of life! When I received the word that he had died within only a few minutes after leaving me, I was broken and was forced to grapple with my own mortality. It was after that I told the Lord He could have my life and I would serve Him. I enrolled in seminary in Fort Worth and there I met my wife and went on to get my Ph.D. I am in the ministry today because of your son’s sudden death!”
When my father recounted the story to me, I couldn’t help but think back to those dark days fifteen years ago and praise the Lord for what He did through my brother’s life and death. If you’ve ever gone through something tragically sobering, then you understand this fact: There are times when hurt is so deep you question whether you’ll survive the pain. And if you do survive it, by God’s grace, how on earth is God going to use it for anything other than changing YOU?
When I think of a woman suffering in Scripture, the character of Naomi immediately comes to mind. This woman followed her husband to the godless land of Moab, watched her sons meet and marry Moabite women, and then watched her life quickly fall to pieces. Her husband and sons die, leaving her financially, socially, spiritually, physically, culturally and emotionally destitute…and with a matching set of baggage in the form of two daughters-in-law for whom she was now fiscally responsible. It’s no wonder she asked to be called “bitter.” Life was bitter, and had left her the same. But there are three major lessons about pain that Naomi learned, three truths that you and I can remember when we go through those deep waters that seem to want to drown us.
1. God doesn’t waste our pain; He redeems it.
We first come to Naomi’s story in Ruth’s first chapter, and she was NOT a happy woman. She had lost everything, and in her own words, had “no hope” for the “hand of the LORD had gone out against” her. As the story continues, we see a progressive change come over her life, and by the end of it, her final words are the antithesis of her opening ones, “Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without a redeemer.” During her pain, Naomi felt like God had abandoned her, left her hopeless, literally opposed her with a strong arm against her. But at the end, his name was a blessing to her life. Indeed, he had not left her destitute. Naomi’s pain and heartache had been redeemed.
Why? Because redemption is what God is all about. In every story told in Scripture, in every miracle that Christ performed, on every page from Genesis to Revelation, redemption can be found. It is the driving force behind his judgment, it is his motivation for chastening his children, it is his reason for sending his Son, and it’s what caused Christ to lay down his life for ours. Our redemption. And while it’s true that God seeks to redeem all of mankind, it is the business of redeeming individuals where his focus lies. The pain in our lives is no different. God seeks to redeem that pain and use it in our lives as well as other’s lives. He’s not going to allow suffering into our lives without some purpose, some reason, some work for it to perform in our lives or through our lives. He’s not a haphazard God; He’s organized, thoughtful, and good. Pain for no purpose has no good in it, and since God is good, the pain he allows into our lives is for our good.
2. God makes beauty from the ashes of our life.
Naomi’s life was the quintessential picture of a city of rubble. Everything she knew gone. Everything she loved dead. Ashes. All of it. There was literally nothing in her life worth saving, and so she returned to her homeland a broken-down, dejected woman, a shell of who she was when she left. But God had a plan in motion in the man named Boaz and the Moabitess named Ruth. And what began as a family tragedy ends in one of the greatest love stories ever told. And God again made beauty from ashes.
Isaiah 61:1,3 – “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.”
3. God can use your tragedy to transform the lives of strangers.
I love how Naomi’s story doesn’t end in the last chapter of Ruth, it continues on…for generations. As women who are living thousands of years after Naomi, we can clearly see her bigger picture every time we read Matthew 1 and the genealogy of Christ. For there, in the fifth verse, we see God’s plan and purpose for Naomi’s pain. The lineage of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Naomi had no idea when she was walking through the darkest days of her life that there was an advent ahead of it. But that’s how pain is sometimes. We don’t always know the reason why God is allowing us to walk through the pain until later…sometimes MUCH later. In fact, we may never know this side of Heaven who is affected by our lives. Naomi didn’t. My brother, Dan, didn’t. But the fact is, our lives here on earth are a sliver in time compared to our eternity. So we keep on. Because as small as our time here on earth may be, we have one vastly important job: to glorify our Creator, to make much of Him. It doesn’t matter what accolades we achieve or what great things we accomplish, only one things matters, and that’s what we’ve done with Jesus Christ. This is why Scripture tells us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.”You may never know this side of Heaven who is affected by your life. So keep on!
Nobody wants to walk through something devastatingly painful. It’s not fun, it’s horrible, leveling, and heartbreaking. But it’s also a part of life, and we can avoid it no more than we can avoid death. But it can be redeemed when we surrender it to the Lord, allowing him to work his perfect will in our lives. Then, we can look at that pain and see the plans and purposes of God through it, or we can trust that one day, God will make sense of it all, and redeem our pain.