Recently, Jill and I were at the Donald Gordon Hospital for an appointment. As we pulled into the all-too-familiar parking lot, I said, “It’s strange, but this hospital has been for me a place both of suffering and security. Though I suffered here, I felt safe here.” And then I said, “Kind of like the local church.”
While there, I saw (and hugged) some familiar medical personnel. One of them said, “It’s nice to see you; I’ve missed you.” I responded, “It’s strange, but this place sometimes feels like my home away from home.” And as I pondered that, I thought, “Yes, just like my church.”
I think it was Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian pastor who suffered unspeakable horrors under atheistic Communists, who highlighted that the sights and smells of sickness at a hospital is actually a glorious thing, for its presence means it is being treated and therefore there is hope. He then applied this to the glory of the local church where there is both sin and suffering, which is then treated with the medicine of the gospel. And healing takes place. Yes, suffering and safety go hand in hand in the local church. It certainly is coupled together at Brackenhurst Baptist Church. And as church members, we should be grateful.
At any given gathering of our church, there will be those in our midst who are suffering. Some suffer physically, some suffer emotionally, and, for those who “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25), some suffer spiritually as the flesh wars against the Spirit and the Spirit wars against the flesh (Galatians 5:17). When Paul wrote to the Romans, he did not hide the fact that Christians groan in broken bodies in this broken world and sometimes with broken spirits (Romans 8:18–25). Therefore, when we come together for worship, for fellowship, and for ministry, we should assume the presence of suffering and be sensitive to the promise of safety. That is, our church should be a safe space for the suffering.
Sometimes, the provision of safety can be painful. As in a hospital, where needles, scalpels, and painful procedures are usually necessary to alleviate suffering, so it is with the church. Painful transparency as we confess our sins to one another, sorrowful realisation of how far we are from the glorious glory of God, grief over those who have fallen by the wayside, mourning with those having experienced loss—all of this is a painful part of church life. But as Jesus promised, “Blessed are those that mourn for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And, as Paul reminded, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3). James agrees, and writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). In short, as church members suffer together, they are comforted together, and they rejoice together because they grow in faith together. This makes our church a safe place.
When I told my doctor friend that her hospital was like my “home away from home,” I was affirming that there, like at my home, I feel well-cared for. This is how our church should be as we await the day when we will finally and fully be at home in the new heavens and new earth.
When Jesus returns and we receive our glorified bodies, we will be well-suited (pun intended) for our eternal home. We will put off this body of death and will be clothed in a new body fit for our new sinless environment (2 Corinthians 5:1–5). The old tent will be shed and a glorious new tent will enable us to live in the presence of holy God, safe and secure, without any more suffering—forever! But until that day, we experience a glimmer of this in our God-appointed tabernacle, the local church.
Unlike our heavenly abode, we suffer in our earthly spiritual home, and yet we experience the presence of the Head of our household wiping away tears that attend the suffering (Revelation 7:17). We cast our care upon him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
Sometimes, mistakes happen in hospitals. Sometimes, nurses mess up as they try, and try, and try (and we cry!) to find a “good vein.” Sometimes, doctors misdiagnose. And sometimes patients have their patience tried! In other words, sometimes hospitals add to our sufferings. But, in most cases, they are still the safest place for the sick and wounded. I suspect the same is true for Christians and their local church. I suspect the same is true for members of Brackenhurst Baptist Church.
Sometimes, insensitive or less-than-competent or stressed church members can unwittingly cause suffering to one another. And yet, with all our faults and failures, the biblical local church remains the best place for the suffering to find safety. To quote the ruby-shoed Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”
Safely home, while away from home.