MLK on Engaging Suffering and Unearned Pain

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Did you remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today?

Maybe you liked some MLK quotes on Facebook. I did that. Then I enjoyed King’s voice in his Mountaintop speech (“Only when it’s dark enough can you see the stars.”) and these voices singing We Shall Overcome. After that I took notes on this podcast. In it, author Collin Hansen interviews Mika Edmondson on how King handled “unearned pain.”

The podcast is a gem for all of us who face “unearned pain.”

For all of us.

Hansen: How did King account for this suffering that he pursued but did not deserve?

Edmundson: He believed that it could be engaged for good. Suffering is an evil that can be engaged in such a way so that the Lord could work to bring about his good purposes. It must be engaged with love. Then it can be redemptive. The Messiah did not revile when he was reviled.

MLK grappled with the question of why an all-good, all-powerful God would allow African-Americans to suffer so much in America…He believed that Jesus showed the way to engage suffering redemptively, and that God had especially and providentially prepared African-Americans to bear suffering as a witness to the overcoming power of the Gospel in America and as a witness of what the Gospel is and can be…

God has a purpose in allowing his people to engage suffering to the glory of God. This is not to say suffering is good or that somehow God smiled about slavery. I am not saying that at all. It is a terrible, horrible thing and yet God is sovereignly and graciously able to uphold his people so that their oppression does not have the final say; just like at the cross, where injustice and the worst oppression coming upon the Messiah.

But the Resurrection proves that oppression and injustice do not have the final say.

Hansen: Why didn’t this view lead to passivity?

Edmundson: King’s theodicy [his answer to the question of why a good, powerful God allows suffering] did not lead to passivity because he understood that God works through means. He knew that God works through the faith and energy and efforts of God’s people. We don’t just sit and wait passively for the Lord to bring this about. He will bring it about through his people.

King understood divine concurrence: that we can be at work and at the same time God is at work. Christianity holds out for us hope…that even if we don’t win in our lifetime, we will win. Even if we don’t see the ultimate victory, we know we are part of the winning cause…. There’s something about being a part of a hopeful cause that goes beyond ourselves.

Jesus did not shrink back, nor did he respond with violence. His life was not taken from him.

Martin Luther King, Jr. redemptively engaged in suffering to the glory of God. Responding ‘agapically’ to unjust suffering is… identifying with Christ and knowing that he is at work and that ultimately we will have victory. It does not guarantee physical safety or financial success, but neither does the Gospel.

Hansen: As a black man, what does it mean to trust the Lord through your tears?

Edmundson: It means that Christ will not allow me to suffer in vain and…that everything that he allows to come my way has a redemptive purpose around it. It means ultimately I am swept up in his purpose and I’m swept up in his victory and it means that I have hope.

Practically, it means that there is there is no room for despair and no room for bitterness and hatred. It means that I am not ultimately defined by my oppression but I am defined by Christ’s victory and by his victory in and through me to overcome the instances of suffering that come my way.

King’s theodicy affirms the dignity of those in the crucible of oppression. They are not just victims, they are overcomers

For everyone born of God overcomes the world.

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.

1 John 5:4

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

No Shadow Goodness

There was a strange moon over our house last week.

What I mean is that the dark side and light side got mixed up. There was a weird shadow on right side.  The dark side-  to my non-astronomic mind, anyway,- was the wrong side. I’m sure there was a perfectly sensible reason for that odd lunar light. Something about the northern regions and Third Quarter.

But mostly the shifting  shadows on the moon last week lit up  truths about dark and light and good. Big truths to chew on.

Our Dark Sides

They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good. Psalm 14:1b

We’re all shadowy souls, we are. We’re all Two Faced. As much as we wish it weren’t so, we resemble Jerry Seinfeld’s ugly/pretty date.  While we look lovely sometimes, we don’t look good at all in some light.

A unique mix of good, bad and ugly- we all cast shadows. Depending on the lighting- the context and the temptation-  we look ugly. We have our dark sides. Lots of times they’re thee flip sides of our good sides.

Take, for example, those lavish, generous souls. The ones who never come empty-handed and always give those above-and-beyond sort of gifts?  Even those dear souls cast shadows. On the other side you might find self-indulgence or insecurity or gross disorganization. Shadows of the good.

Or take those faithful, self-disciplined types. You know the type-A’s who never forget your birthday and seldom drop the ball? I know some.  They’ve got shadow issues too. Those kind can tend toward impatience and harshness and the self-pity form of pride. Ugly sides.

We all have both sides. I know I do. Even the kindest and most compassionate among us cast shadows.  Some more, some less- because none of us is all good or all bad. We’re all a mix: gray or plaid.

Except One

And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”  Mark 10:18

Remember that line?  It was a sort of avant-garde reply to man’s straightforward question. The point: No amount of good works will earn you eternal life. Because only One is truly good.

A.W. Pink explains,

There is such an absolute perfection in God’s nature and being that nothing is wanting to it or defective in it, and nothing can be added to it to make it better. ‘He is originally good, good of Himself, which nothing else is; for all creatures are good only by participation and communication from God. He is essentially good; not only good, but goodness itself: the creature’s good is a super-added quality, in God it is His essence. He is infinitely good; the creature’s good is but a drop, but in God there is an infinite ocean or gathering together of good. He is eternally and immutably good, for He cannot be less good than He is; as there can be no addition made to Him, so no subtraction from Him’ (Thomas Manton). God is summum bonum, the highest good. (The Attributes of God, p. 52)

Eternally, unchanging, completely good. He is good and he does good.

The Sum Total

You are good and you do good; teach me your decrees. Psalm 119:68

One of our family’s go-to, old-school prayers is one by Dr. Watts. It begins this way:

ALMIGHTY God the Maker of every thing in Heaven and Earth; the Darkness goes away, and the Day light comes at your Command. You are good and do good always. 

That first line is often on my mind. It anchors me. It’s a refuge for times when men fail me and for times when I realize how I fail them. You are good and do good always is a rock solid truth when darkness veils His lovely face.

God’s goodness might even be seen as the sum total of all God’s attributes. God’s goodness is all of his righteousness and glory and holiness and love is called goodness. God has no dark side. God is always, always, always good.

He is good and he does good and he gives good to his children: No good thing, wrote the Psalmist, does He withhold from those who walk uprightly (84:11).

But it doesn’t always seem that way.

Not Your Indulgent Grandpa

We get confused about God’s goodness and love.

By the goodness of God we mean nowadays almost exclusively His lovingness; and in this we may be right. And by Love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others than the self happy… What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.  (C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain)

Is that what we really want?  An indulgent grandfather who lets us do as we please? Is that good?  

Or do we need to need to redefine good

Good To Be Near God

But as for me, it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works. Psalm 73:28

If you need to calibrate to real, biblical good, Psalm 73 is worth a study,  (This one is terrific.) In short, Asaph the Psalmist walks us through his seismic reorientation of what is truly good. He helps us redefine “good.” 

Pastor Bob Deffinbaugh explains,

In verse 1, “good” really meant the absence of pain, difficulty, trouble, sorrow, ill health, or poverty. In verse 28, “good” means something far better than physical prosperity: But as for me, the nearness of God is my good…

Nearness to God—intimate fellowship with God—is our highest good. We may say then that whatever interferes with our nearness to God, our fellowship with Him, is actually evil. And whatever draws us into a deeper fellowship with God is actually “good.” When God brings suffering and adversity into our lives, our confidence in His goodness should not be undermined. Instead, we should be reassured of His goodness to us. 

Which means, as Deffinbaugh says, we can’t separate God from good. We can’t have good without God. Or have God without good.  When we get this, David’s words in Psalm 16:2 will finally make sense.

“I say to the Lord you are my Lord and apart from you I have no good.

No Shifting Shadows

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. James 1:16-17

We’ve come full circle. Back to the weird moon shadows that first reminded me of this verse. James had just finished a discourse on being steadfast under trial and not letting temptation lead us astray. Including, I think, the temptation to doubt God’s goodness when we face trials of various kinds.

Then verse 16 where he bursts  in with “Don’t be deceived.” That’s transitional. James is saying, Don’t allow yourself to wallow in rebellious self-pity:  understand that God is good. When you feel abandoned and crushed, do not forget God’s goodness.

In so much of life, there is a dark side. In a message on James 1, D.A. Carson notes,

We see that when the light is brightest. It comes in on one side, but that means there is a shadow on the other side. So we look at people’s strengths. We say, “He is such an extrovert. He has such good people skills.  He can relate to others so well. Of course on the other side, he can be a bit bossy.” There’s a dark side to the light side.

Not so with God.

Eyes To See

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Psalm 107:1

There is no dark side to God. God is all good. There is no shadow. That is what the text says. Or, like we sing, There is no shadow of turning with Thee.

We are Seinfeld’s Two Faced girlfriend, shifting shadows on the moon. God is not. He is good. As Carson said, He is good-good. He’s good, good, good, good.

God’s goodness is a rock-solid foundation for our shifty-shadow, two face lives. It should shape our view of God and His dealings with us in this life. It is a lens through which to view every moment and event of our lives. Oh for grace to see God’s goodness.

Will you let Sarah Groves sing this blessed truth home?

May God give us eyes to see all that is good.

Oh, how abundant is your goodnesswhich you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you in the sight of the children of mankind! 

Psalm 31:19

Days Like This (& New Mercies To Pick)

Mama said they’ll be days like this.  (They’ll be days like this my mama said.)

Mama knew about beaten-down days. About days when bad news comes and high hopes go. When relationships feel so strained it hurts to say Hi or to try to relate at all and we look down and wait for the other show to drop.

Days like this when no wind fills the sails and infection’s weight makes us just almost ache.

Days Like This

A 7:00 am text set me down a sad way. Even though her reason for cancelling had nothing to do with me, Still, I took it personally and started second guessing. You know how these, why-so-downcast-O-my-soul days can be.

Thirty minutes later, the email. Not any email.- the “Hey! When can we talk?” email. The sort that make your heart sink to where the other shoe dropped and you want to meet immediately to get the dread deed done.

Then my husband caught me by surprise and took me to task for a mistake I’d made a week back. His correction was right on and true blue. And stung a little still.

By 9:00 the day had officially become one of those days. One of those days that turns into a downcast, hot-mess of a day.

Pickin’ Mercy Off The Trees

But we don’t take days like this sitting down. Children of the Father of mercy  don’t write off a whole day as a bad day before the noon bell rings. Or anytime, for that matter. We don’t throw in the towel and give in to the sulks because this is the day that the Lord has made.

And because God gives his kids mercy to match the hard in these days. In fact, his mercies never come to an end. And if they never end, it means they’re there every single moment. They’re there in the morning and the whole day through. Ripe for the picking.

But we might have to fight to see them. There might be sweet mercy fruit hanging on the trees, but it’s not ours till we go pick it. Looking for mercy in days like this takes some spiritual pluck. Pluck like what weeping Jeremiah showed when, in the throes of disaster, he wrote,

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22–23

I surely wasn’t singing that tune this morning. It was all I could do get showered and dressed and to the group where I needed to be.

Mercy to Match

Four hours after that “can we talk” email summons, the hard talk was had. It was a firing of sorts- bad news. But I swallowed hard and forced a smile and started back to the car. And just as the first tears were welling, a few cars before mine, I looked up and there was Deb,

Deb’s my friend Jen’s mom. She’s s a sweetheart. Still, when Deb smiled and asked, “How are you today?” the words didn’t come at first, because I knew words would release tears. But Deb cared and words came-thankfully, more than tears. Then, Abigail, how can I pray?  and Deb hugged me and we were on our way.

Mercy waiting in the parking lot.

Then to the post office where no line- more mercy- greeted me. So when our town’s friendly-face-of-the-USPS- Ted- asked how I was, I looked up and gave a real answer. God’s still good, I said, but it’s been one of those days. To which Ted spoke some of the kindest, most encouraging words a guy selling stamps could ever say.

There it was again- mercy for today.

Defy Yourself

The more I looked, the more big and little mercies I found that afternoon. The more my focus changed from woe is me self-pity to great is his mercy.  They really were all around and it was, as so much of the Christian life is, mainly a matter of focus. Of fighting to behold God’s glory and so be transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18). Of  choosing to think on what is true and noble and good (Philippians 4:8).

It got easier to see them, and have hope. But I had to do defy my downcast soul to do it. Like the Psalmist in Psalm 42: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are so in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

We must not be content in days like these to listen to the lie that says, Go ahead. Sympathize with yourself. Its okay to sulk this one away.

Talk Back to Yourself & Take Back the Day

We must, says Lloyd-Jones, take ourselves in hand. 

We must talk to ourselves, instead of allowing “ourselves” to talk to us! Have you not realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? You must say to your soul, preach to yourself, questions yourself “Why are you so downcast?”

Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: I will hope in God for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Spiritual Depression, p. 20)

Mama said there’ll be days like this, and God said He’d send fresh, ripe mercies on these days.

But we might not see his mercies until we defy ourselves to lift our eyes and look.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,  “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.

Lamentations 3:22-25

Ills Have NO Weight? THOUGH Ills Have Weight? (Still, Abide With Me.)

Last week’s JoyPrO post was written by my friend Hannah. Hannah had cancer and has a thing or two to teach us all about rock-solid, living hope. At the end, I snuck in a link to Audrey Assad singing Abide With Me.  In the week since, I’ve been feeding on the hymn, soaking in these lyrics so I can store them up.

Because in the span of this one week dear some ones lost a tiny life and a heart attack almost cost a life and someone started chemo and another discovered disease. Because weather in our neck of the WI woods is way more damp, dismal fall than blazing glory today.

And because, truth be told. sometimes you just wake up feeling old and change and decay is all around to see. That’s why we need Abide With Me.

Store Up Abide With Me

That’s  why I want this one in me. I want to hide its truth in my heart so I draw on it at will. Like Psalm 23 or “I before E except after C” or “Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” I want it to be in me so it overflows from me. Because, one day it might be the right word to sustain a weary soul.

So I’ve listened to every mix of Abide With Me I can find- this one by King’s College Choir and this one by Indelible Grace and this acappella version by the Antrim Mennonite Choir and this one by sung by Hayley Westenra at an big rugby final and this beautiful one by Stephanie Seefeldt. This bagpiping father’s daughter even sung in tune with the Pipes and Drums of the Guards of the Royal Scots Dragoon.

And soaking so long like that landed me on a “variant” of a single line in verse four that I’ve been chewing on all week. I’d love to hear your take, to find out which lyric you pick. I’ll explain in a minute. First, maybe pick a link-Audrey Assad’s is my favorite- and sing along.

Change and decay in all around I see

Isn’t it stirring? The story behind the hymn is too. I won’t tell it now, but it is a great read. Because it’s these lyrics- so raw, so real, so what a soul feeling fragile needs- that are key. Will you read them with me?

  1. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
    The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
    When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
    Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.
  2. Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
    Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
    Change and decay in all around I see—
    O Thou who changest not, abide with me.
  3. I need Thy presence every passing hour;
    What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s pow’r?
    Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
    Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.
  4. I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
    Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
    Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
    I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
  5. Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
    Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
    Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
    In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Aren’t they rich? Every verse a tried and hurting heart’s faithful cry. Every verse  a cry to the Lord who formed us and loves us and keeps us and promised he’d never leave us.

But it’s the second line in the fourth verse of Lyte’s lyrics that gives me pause: Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness. 

Is it really “Ills Have No Weight“? Or is it “Though Ills Have Weight“?

Which is it?  Did Lyte really write, lIls have no weight and tears no bitterness? Because if he did, I cannot relate. I’m not there yet. Ills do have weight and some tears have a bitter taste. Or did Lyte really write this version, which reads, Though ills have weights and tears their bitterness? 

This second one I can sing with abandon; I can pull out all the stops. Because sometimes my ills feel heavy and my tears have a bitter sting. No often, thank God, and not very long. But there are times. That’s why I prefer Though ills have weight and tears their bitterness. 

As in, I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless; though ills have weight and tears their bitterness. As in Peter’s, Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake you will be blessedor Paul’s sorrowful yet always rejoicing.  Or like Lamentations 3- just before great is thy faithfulness- Jeremiah, a man of great faith, recalls his affliction and my wanderings; the bitterness (“wormwood”) and the gall and his eyes were spent for weeping.

As in our Suffering Servant, our Lord Jesus who felt sin’s weight so much he sweat bloody sweat. 

And Jesus wept.  

What Did Lyte Write?

Turns out we do have access to a 150 year old copy of the actual words Lyte wrote. He handed them off to his daughter a few weeks before at age 54, he “wore out for God.” You can see them in his own hand at the Challies’ “Hymn Story.”

Lyte wrote no weight and no bitterness.

Yow. I get that compared with the weight of heavenly glory our earthly ills are small. You might even say they “have no weight.” But I don’t say that, because I feel weight. Yes, I set my my heart on heaven, but my body still feels the weight of the fall. None of us is impervious to pain. We cry out to God like patient Job (6:10), “What is my strength, that I should wait?  And what is my end, that I should be patient? Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze?

Yes, it is okay to weep while we worship.

But we also sing songs and hymns to catch a vision for where we can be and for what will be. 

So I’ll sing what Lyte wrote. Even though ills still have weight and some of my tears sting. But I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to sing the other, Though ills have weight and tears their bitterness. Because ills have weight this side of heaven.

Though it’s a tough run, a fight of faith, and sorrowful yet rejoicing, in Christ we will triumph still. Because in the end, it’s like Paul and Lyte both wrote, Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory? We grieve, yes, but as those with hope. And as for triumph, oh yes- We are more than conquerors through Christ Jesus.

But if you woke up feeling fragile today, or if change and decay is all around to see, if ills do have weight and tears some bitterness, well, have I got a hymn for you.

I fear no foe with you at hand to bless, 
Though ills have weight, and tears their bitterness. 
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, your victory? 
I triumph still, if you abide with me. 

-Henry Lyte