We had just begun the first song. In every aisle, people lifted their hands in praise, except for one woman sitting next to me. She was older than I, alone, and hadn’t said a word when my husband and I had taken our seats. When the singing began, she started to cry, but because of the angle of our row, few could see her except me.
Unable to stand, she sat and wept. It was too loud to talk, so I settled back down beside her, dug through my purse to find a ratty package of tissues, and gave her one. She clutched my hand and mourned, the music all but drowning out her sobs. I wrapped my arm around her trembling body, and she leaned closer in. As soon as worship was over, she whispered, “Thank you” and bolted from the sanctuary. I haven’t seen her since.
I wanted to believe my pew selection was a random event, but that’s not true. I was chosen to be in the middle. God put me there just for her.
We’re not used to thinking of “the middle” as a wonderful place to be. When we’re hurting, we just want to get beyond the pain. The other side of suffering is often all we think about in this barren place. But there is no way out—no way to bypass the pain that works its way through our bodies, as if testing us for weakness. Sleep flees. Friends stop returning calls. Family is too busy to drop by. In this place, we exhaust the depths of human wisdom, and there is often no further revelation from God.
We don’t go through trials to get to Jesus. He is the way through our anguish.
I remember a close friend whose child had died. One day, she looked at me through red, swollen eyes and asked, “Will I ever smile again?”
“Yes,” I replied reluctantly. In that moment, I feared the truth sounded callous. If there was a way out of this sorrow, neither of us knew what it would be or when the path would be revealed. The shock of grief seemed to stop the earth from spinning, and there was no momentum to carry her through it, no reason to move forward.
In these moments, we all want a way out. But Jesus isn’t waiting for us on the other side of our pain. We don’t go through trials to get to Jesus. He is the way through our anguish (John 14:6). On the cross, Jesus was firmly in the middle. A man was on each side, but only one recognized and received the gift He offered.
For the thief on the cross, finding Jesus in the middle meant finding eternal life. Either of the criminals crucified that day could have died alone. But Jesus was ordained to suffer between them. The men knew that escape was impossible. One wanted to die and be done with the pain; the other wanted to find Christ in his suffering. And the latter was ushered straight into heaven.
Christ is the offer of grace and the promise of paradise, wherever we find ourselves. He is our always-present High Priest and Intercessor (Heb. 4:14; 7:25-26). Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained it this way in The Cost of Discipleship: “[Jesus] wants to be the centre, through him alone all things shall come to pass. He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things.”
Because Jesus lives in us, we must stand in the middle for others, too. This is a sacred task for every believer, one we might be asked to perform when we’re least expecting it. But I learned something from the brokenhearted woman who wept beside me while others sang for joy. She had a need and allowed me—an absolute stranger—to hold her in a moment of suffering. And in that moment, we were both blessed.