Chaplain John Cherico offers pastoral advice for the heartbroken.
The following article was originally published in the Winter 2021 edition of Inside Journal®, a quarterly newspaper printed and distributed by Prison Fellowship® to correctional facilities across the country.
I was born and raised in the New York City area. As an adult, the Lord called me to be a church pastor in Minnesota. I felt guilty about leaving my mom, since she had serious health issues. My brother lived near my mom, but he was struggling with alcoholism.
My mom died unexpectedly on Monday, September 10, 2001. I made plans to fly out Wednesday, September 12, since the funeral was scheduled for Thursday.
But then, the unthinkable happened.
On Tuesday, September 11, the World Trade Center was attacked by airplanes that caused the twin towers to collapse. This sent shock waves throughout the nation, forcing an emergency shutdown of all transportation in or out of the New York City area. The airports were closed for many days, preventing me from attending my mom's funeral.
DEALING WITH BAD THINGS
The 9/11 disaster and my mom's missed funeral became connected in my mind and filled me with guilt and anger. Simply put: They were bad. They made no sense and seemed to serve no purpose, except to cause me emotional pain and spiritual confusion.
However, decades later, I became a chaplain. I now frequently sit down with men and women behind bars who are grieving the loss of a loved one whose funeral they're not allowed to attend. My experience with not being able to attend my mom's funeral has given me an empathy I never would have had. It has allowed me to establish a connection with those feeling guilty or angry over not attending a loved one's funeral. The Lord has taken my painful experience and used it for good, giving it purpose by increasing my emotional understanding about this situation.
When something difficult or overwhelmingly painful happens—like the loss of a loved one, or a parent being sent to prison, or even a global pandemic—people who aren't Christian might ask, "Isn't this proof there is no God?" And even faithful Christians might have moments where they wonder, "Is God still in control? Is there a silver lining in all this?"
1 Samuel 12:24, NIV
GOD TURNS THE BAD INTO GOOD
Thankfully, God is not only in control, but He is literally the only One who has the full power and wisdom to turn something tragic into something positive. Perhaps the best example of Him turning "bad" to "good" is what Jesus did on the cross for us. He suffered horrific torture and ridicule, and even death (the "bad"), to pay for all our sins, so that whoever believes in Him could have eternal life in perfect, pain-free heaven (the "best"!).
Someone being sent to prison is often another example of God turning bad to good. On a regular basis, people behind bars will tell me, "I now know that God brought me in here to get my attention.”"
Research shows that people who have never turned to God before may suddenly turn to God in a crisis or in suffering. In those cases, a "bad" thing can inspire someone to accept Jesus as Savior, resulting in an eternity in heaven instead of hell—talk about turning a negative into a positive!
And while it's true that people might turn to God when things are bad, they then might turn back away from God once everything seems good again. But 1 Samuel 12:24 reminds us to faithfully serve the Lord, in good times and in bad, and remember all the wonderful things He has done for us.
'DOES GOD REALLY LOVE ME?'
Recently, an incarcerated woman named Trina sent me a message in the form of one question. "Does God really love me?"
As an only child, Trina was neglected and abused by her alcoholic parents, who often locked her in a closet as punishment for hours. If she cried or rebelled, her parents would burn her with a lit cigarette, a practice Trina continued into adulthood as a self-harm coping mechanism. Trina came to me in pain. So, I told her about God's love.
Trina was just released in 2020. She knows about God. But the world is dark and overwhelming, and soon she may again ask herself, "Does God really love me?" When Trina understands and believes the answer, her life will change, forever. Trina is seeking God. The Lord makes this promise to anyone who does that: "If you look for Me wholeheartedly, you will find Me" (Jeremiah 29:13).
There are so many broken and hurting people looking for hope. People in pain question their self-worth. They also wonder if anyone cares enough to confirm they matter.
They wonder, "Can good things happen even in bad situations?"
They ask, "Does God really care?”"
Yes, He does. The Lord God is in the business of changing people, healing them from the inside out. He can take bad things and give them purpose. Romans 8:28 sums it up best: "And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them." Yes, everything. Even the most painful things.
GOD IS STILL IN CONTROL
Jesus never promises His followers a pain-free life, and "bad" things seem unfair. But God can turn bad into good. Even in prison, in a pandemic, or in the wake of impending danger, God can turn the "worst case scenario" into something beautiful for His higher purpose.
God wants us to trust in Him fully, even in our anxious moments. In the words of author Henri Nouwen, as inspired by Matthew 14:27: "Make the conscious choice to move the attention of your anxious heart away from the waves and direct it to the One who walks on them and says, 'It's Me, don't be afraid.'"
ABOUT CHAPLAIN CHERICO
Chaplain John Cherico serves as a lead chaplain in the Hennepin County Jail System in in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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