The certainty of suffering and death
The book of Job says, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Just as sparks from a campfire inevitably rise, trouble will find us all sooner or later. We may enter this broken world with a sense of invincibility, but it can’t last. Never mind trivial disappointments and inconveniences. Even the youngest infant knows the aggravation of dropping his pacifier out of reach. Eliphaz the Temanite has real troubles in mind, such as injury, disease, heartbreak, loss, and other devastating calamities.
No one is exempt. Trouble is inevitable.
Recently, I helped a man plan his dying father’s funeral. A hospice care facility became involved the day before. Eating and drinking stopped days before that, yet this man was in partial denial of his father’s mortality. He was willing to admit arrangements had to be made but tried his best to convince me it wasn’t necessary. My attempts to ease him toward acceptance were met with unrealistic optimism. During our conversation, I quoted Christ, who said, “In the world, you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33). His reply stunned me.
“Not necessarily,” he said.
Though I was curious and paused long enough for an explanation he never offered, I finally responded, “If that were true, I’d be out of a job.”
A theoretical universe is the only place to avoid hardships and trials. If our feet are firmly planted in reality, we’ll see suffering all around us. The first five minutes of the evening news reveal more than enough to compel us to pray, “Lord, come quickly.” While some of us may pass through life with hardly a scratch, the house of mourning is the end of all mankind (Ecc 7:2). The fatality rate remains one hundred percent across every demographic, including you, me, and everyone we love. Life may tell many sweet stories, but it operates like a public ￼library with non-negotiable due dates. ￼￼Ultimately, it takes everything it gives.
For some of us, death is the least of our concerns. I have a homeless friend who occasionally stops by my office to get warm and break the monotony of loneliness. I’ve learned his dad was an abusive alcoholic. His mother overdosed on prescription medication he stole and supplied to her as a teenager. He fled home at sixteen only to begin a thirty-year struggle with drug addiction and failure. If you were to ask him, he’d tell you he doesn’t fear death at all.
“Why should I worry about dying?” he once said. “It’s gotta be better than what I’ve been through.”
Even so, he remains surprisingly optimistic about the future. Like those gamblers who bet big on red after watching the roulette wheel land on black twenty times in a row, he naturally assumes a better day will come sooner or later. Only God knows whether it will, but he needs something to propel him forward. We all do.
Better days, however, do not resolve our dilemma. You may purchase your dream car after decades of longing, but an expensive ride won’t prevent you from losing your keys or breaking down on the side of the road. A job promotion earns a larger paycheck but may also increase stress and require long hours. If you can take the exotic vacation you and your spouse have craved for years, you may get sunburned the first day and spend the remainder in agony. The solution to our problem cannot be more of the same. The best this dying planet has to offer is still marred and fleeting.
In what, then, do we invest our hope? Whatever it is, money can’t buy it. Prestige and fame can’t obtain it. One’s intellect can’t secure it. Circumstances hold no sway. Cancer, car accidents, and the deepest depths of poverty cannot touch it. Despair cannot diminish it. Even the worst of our enemies, death itself, is powerless over it. If not, what good is our hope? Its object will perish along with everything else.
Hope in the transient may get us out of bed in the morning and carry us through minor disruptions—job loss, a flat tire, broken relationships, and the like—but can it survive a major calamity? Will it prove strong enough when the doctor uses a word such as terminal? Will it still get us out of bed when death claims one of our children? Where will it be when we step to the edge of a grave dug explicitly for us? It is, after all, appointed for man to die (Heb 9:27). We are born to trouble and find one way or another to endure it, but what then? (Job 5:7). A fleeting hope is buried with us, and after that comes judgment.