Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“"What God Does, Is Done Well"”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

(Romans 8.28)

The German composer Johann Sebastian Bach got an early dose of grief, when his mother died.  Sebastian was only nine years old at the time, but he didn’t have long to come to terms with that loss, before his father also died, eight months later.  Despite being an orphan, he managed to achieve some small success with his musical abilities—although nothing like the rockstar status he holds in hoity toity circles today.  He got married and had a couple of kids, and then disaster struck again.  When he was 28 years old, his wife bore a set of twins, both of whom died within a few weeks of birth.

In the following year, 1714, he composed and directed a musical performance centered on the theme of suffering, following Jesus’ example, and finding sanctification through sharing in Christ’s trials.  The basic text was provided to him and not a product of his own imagining; but the music he wrote to go with it was evocative, opening mournfully to the words, “weeping, wailing, mourning, despairing.”  Considering the grief he’d suffered, it’s tough to imagine him writing this work without his own losses in mind. 

Its body grew from 1 Peter 2.19, “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.”  It encouraged Christians to suffer as Christ suffered, echoing the apostles’ words, “that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Ac 14.22).  The work closed with a triumphant assertion, taken from an even older hymn by Samuel Rodigast, “What God Does, Is Done Well.”  This was, in turn, based on a snippet of Moses’ song for Israel:

“The Rock, his work is perfect…”

(Deuteronomy 32.4)

Taken on its own, this seems like a trite and unhelpful observation about God’s creation, but that’s not the point!  The idea is that, as Paul told us in the words quoted above, “for those who love God all things work together for good,” including our suffering! 

It’s tough for us to imagine how our pain and sorrow could be good.  But in fact, that’s not what the Scripture said!  Rather, it said everything works together for good.  Or, as Peter also wrote above, it is “a gracious thing” to endure unjust suffering.  The suffering itself may be unjust!  But it can be redeemed and turned toward God’s purposes, if we endure it patiently, looking to Jesus, who suffered more—and more unjustly—than we can imagine.  It is oddly comforting to recognizing that God’s plans do not involve our escaping all the miseries of this world.  We see this in Job’s attitude toward the deaths of his ten children:

Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

(Job 1.20-21)

We see it also in David’s reaction to the death of the child conceived in sin with Bathsheba:

And David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?” They said, “He is dead.” Then David arose from the earth and washed and anointed himself and changed his clothes. And he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. He then went to his own house. And when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done?” …He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

(2Samuel 12.19-23)

But this is not license to ignore suffering, when we have the means to alleviate it!

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?

(1 John 3.17)

Rather, we are to accept trials, and learn to mold our expectations after God’s plans, and not our own, easily twisted sense of justice.

When Bach wrote his “Weeping, Wailing, Mourning, Despairing” cantata, he’d suffered more grief than most 29-year-olds.  But he was not done.  When he was 34, his seventh child died.  When he was 35, his wife died.  When he was 37, his brother died young.  When he was 41, his eighth child died.  At 42 he lost his twelfth child; at 43 his tenth, as well as a close friend and benefactor, and a sister. At 44, he lost his fourteenth child, and at 47, his fifteenth.  Both his thirteenth and seventeenth children died, when he was 48.  And finally, when Bach was 54, his sixth child, now 24 years old, also died.  He fathered twenty children, and ten of them died in infancy or early childhood.  Another died a very young man, and let’s not forget about Bach’s parents, wife, brother, sister, and close friend, who all died far too young. 

In part, these losses shock us, because our modern lives are cushy, and early death was more common in the 18th century. Yet this was an astonishing degree of bereavement, even by the standards of the time!  What is striking, though, is that Bach brought out the old hymn, “What God Does, Is Done Well,” building portions of it into seven more of his musical works, each time soon after a period of bereavement.  We should all be ready to endure suffering and grief, while giving glory to God, and patiently waiting to see how he will use our pain, for our good.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8.18)

Jeremy Nettles