A while ago, I went to visit a woman whose husband had died just a few days before. He'd been very sick for a long time, and she cared for him faithfully, at great cost to herself -- physically, emotionally, financially.
We sat in a small group of folks who had also come to visit this new widow. One man in the circle spoke of his dear sister, who had multiple sclerosis and was declining quickly. Another woman told about her daughter, who had gone into surgery for a simple laparoscopic procedure and ended up dying on the table because of an undiagnosed heart defect.
And then, a young man walked in with a boy of maybe ten or eleven. They'd also come to pay their respects. One of the other men in our circle told us his story. He'd married the love of his life two years ago, and the young man with him was his stepson. His wife, the boy's mother, had died in childbirth only a few months before. So the man had lost his wife, the boy had lost his mother, and there was a new baby to take care of and love -- who had also lost his mother, before he ever knew her.
Saddened, we all just sat there for a moment, just looking at each other. Finally, one of the women said, "Well, I guess life is hard. It's just hard."
There was no argument. Life IS hard. And bad things happen to good people.
The only thing that helps me is the conviction that God is with us always, and, if we let him, he'll use every one of those hard experiences to teach us and transform us. In fact, amazingly, he promises to bring good out of everything, no matter how awful. And I must say, the older I get, the more I see this to be true, and the more sense it makes. I don't really LIKE it! But I believe it.
A VERY odd passage from Hebrews 5 says pretty much the same thing:
"In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through the things that he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him."
That can't be true, can it? How could it be true that the Son of God had to learn obedience? Shouldn't he have just somehow been BORN obedient? Surely the fact of his divinity gave him kind of an edge over us, right?
Um ... no.
We speak of Jesus as being both human and divine -- in fact, he was 100 percent human, and 100 percent divine. I'm not sure how well I really understand that, but I BELIEVE it. So what -- on earth -- would it feel like to be both human and divine?
Well, here's a funny thing -- we should know that! Not because we're all Jesus ... but we ARE all human ... and, if we allow him, God will fill us with the Holy Spirit and we'll be in that process of being completely transformed into the image of God's Son.
God will use whatever happens to us -- hard or happy -- in that lifelong process. No wonder God has to keep reminding us to trust him! Because, as the woman said -- life is hard.
It was hard for Jesus, too. Being human, he was tempted. He had times of discouragement, times of fear and grief. We all understand that very well. It's life! But, whereas we give in to temptation, Jesus never sinned. Not because he had an edge over us, but because, from the very beginning, he opened his heart and life to God.
Jesus learned obedience because he, too, suffered. But every lesson made him stronger, strengthened his commitment, actually brought him to the point of complete and eternal transformation, as he loved sacrificially, willingly gave his life for ours -- and rose again ... God, Himself.
Yes, odd as it seems, we are also both human and divine. Most days, we feel a little TOO human, and not nearly divine enough. We give in to temptation. We can be lazy, we say and do things we shouldn't. Sometimes, we actually close ourselves to the Spirit, hugging our sin and guilt to us, ignoring God's offer of forgiveness and freedom.
But, the truth is ... God's Spirit is relentless. That process of transformation has begun in our hearts, and God WILL finish what he started. Our job? Open the door. Let the Spirit in. Allow ourselves to be filled. Confess and receive forgiveness. Remember that God will take every one of the pains that assault us, and use them to strengthen and transform us. He'll even work things out for good. That's his promise.
Rev. Susan Bennett is pastor of Stockbridge Presbyterian Church. She and her husband live in Stockbridge with two giant Rottweilers and a 15-pound rescue dog who is the boss of everybody.