Christmas and the holiday season are not always times that are cheery and bright. Loneliness and loss can have a sharper edge in December. There are families in Connecticut who will have a very hard Christmas this year. Presents bought for little ones will bring grief instead of joy. Remember to pray for them. Pray for all who undergo hardship. Look for those around you who may need burdens lifted and love them.
Suffering is a big thing, a tough thing. When people talk about suffering and God, I think the question that’s being asked is not where was God, but why did God let this happen? To them? To me?
Part of the problem is that we have a sliding scale of evil. We each have sort of a red line and we expect God to put up with evil done on one side of the line, but once that line is crossed (wherever we have drawn it), then we expect God to put a stop to whatever acts of evil are being perpetrated on the other side. That’s how we look at it. Is our line where God would draw it? Even if you don’t believe in God, consider for a moment the God of the Bible: a holy, just and good God. Consider only these few verses from Proverbs:
There are six things which the Lord hates,Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him:Haughty eyes, a lying tongue,And hands that shed innocent blood,A heart that devises wicked plans,Feet that run rapidly to evil,A false witness who utters lies,And one who spreads strife among brothers.Proverbs 6:16–19
There’s not a person on this planet who hasn’t done one and more of those six things, yet they’re an abomination to God. Are we, who do such things ourselves, to be in charge of drawing that red line and telling God where it is to be? Is a nation that has murdered by abortion millions of unborn children suddenly going to tell God where to draw that red line?
Those are a few thoughts on suffering from a philosophical perspective. But what about a personal perspective? In my anguish does God care?
The Bible is a remarkable book. When I think of suffering and anguish, I think of Job as most people do. David, Jeremiah, and Joseph also come to mind. All men were emotional men, and in their words you feel their affliction. Of those four, we have more from Job, David and Jeremiah on their thoughts. And some of their words are as raw as they come. Psalm 13 and Jeremiah 20 are heart-rending cries.
Psalm 88 (it’s not one of David’s) is a raw lament. It is the psalm of someone who has been ground down by overwhelming, lengthy suffering. It is a psalm that gives a voice to your heart at your lowest ebb.
I consider the book of Job especially to be God’s gift to those who suffer intensely, without apparent or traceable reason, because in Job we hear the words of a man, a good man, who struggles in pain with his doubt and his longing to trust God. Job’s horrific circumstances drive him to grapple with life at its depths. There are no glib answers here, and the fact that there are no glib answers means our pain is not trivialized, and that in turn offsets the depersonalization that suffering afflicts on our heart because we see that what we are going through is taken seriously by God. I think it’s very important to realize this.
So what about the why? What about comfort or compassion?
One of my commentaries on Job is by a man named Francis Andersen. He never states what happened with his family, but a few brief sentences in his preface indicate he knew his own dark days. He writes on Job:
…God’s two lengthy recitals are not replies to the questions that have tormented Job and which his friends have failed to answer. At least, on first inspection, they do not seem to have anything to do with the central issue of why Job has suffered so severely when he has done everything humanly possible to maintain a good relationship with God. The Lord apparently says nothing about this. Indeed, he makes very few positive statements or affirmations. His speeches are not oracles; he answers Job’s questions with a deluge of counter-questions. This sustained interrogation is not just a formal peculiarity. The function of the questions needs to be properly understood. As a rhetorical device, a question can be another way of making a pronouncement, much favoured by orators. For Job, the questions in the Lord’s speeches are not such roundabout statements of fact; they are invitations, suggestions about discoveries he will make as he tries to find his own answers. They are not catechetical, as if Job’s knowledge is being tested. They are educative, in the true and original meaning of the term. Job is led out into the world.Or loose the cords of Orion?Can you lead forth a constellation in its season,And guide the Bear with her satellites?Do you know the ordinances of the heavens,Or fix their rule over the earth?”Job 38:31–33
On God’s speeches, Andersen explains:
On first reading, the speeches seem to sidestep the issues which have dominated the book up to this point. There is no reference to Job’s experience of his problems. There is no debate with any of the things that Job and the other speakers have said.
Many frivolous readers have found God’s response not only puzzling, but irrelevant, evasive, even insulting. There is no hint that God despises Job…There is no hint of that irritating cant that silences the honest seeker with the reminder that it is not for us to question the ways of the Almighty.
Let me interrupt myself for a moment and say some personal things so you won’t think I’m merely going to quote a book at you.
The last four years have been the most horrible of my life. Prior to them I have suffered the loss of my hearing, lengthy illnesses, the death of my brother to AIDS (I had gone through his prior suicide attempt years earlier), afflictions of varying intensity because of my Christian beliefs—and this is not a complete list. The shock of the last few years was piled on top of those events of prior years, and then that impact combined with the severity of recent loss and abandonment by some family and many friends has made my grieving like a hemorrhaging wound. I have never gone through such storms of doubt as a Christian, and I have never gone through any affliction with so little comfort.
I’m telling you this so you know that when I write about suffering, these aren’t merely words. I have been there. I am still there. Journey Through The Storm is a collection of some of the posts I wrote from fall of 2010 to the end of summer 2011. This was a time when I was doing what I called bleeding all over the blog.
My posts were written as a Christian going through affliction. They describe who I am and what I felt. I don’t know if they would be of any interest to you, but they’ll give you a window into my own storm, and what God did in my life.
Organizing Love is about my friend Lisa who has been through more than I have known. A dear, precious woman whose oldest son committed suicide. She had already lived through some horrific family deaths including the suicide-murder of her parents. I wrote Suffering & Lovingkindness about how to help people who suffer.
Again, these are all written as a Christian, but if you want real, that they are.
Getting back to Job. Through His questions and speeches about the world, God invites Job to understand more of who He is: His vast wisdom and power, and His justice in matters far beyond Job’s ken. Some key verses are in Job 40:6-14. Andersen has these thoughts on 8-14:
The point made now is quite different, and we suddenly see what all those apparently irrelevant excursions into nature were leading up to. Job now must realize that he is no more able to exercise jurisdiction in the moral realm than he is able to control the natural….
In spite of its aggressive tone, this speech is not really a contradiction of anything that Job has said. In many respects it is very close to his own thought, and endorses his sustained contention that justice must be left to God. But it brings Job to the end of his quest by convincing him that he may and must hand the whole matter over completely to God more trustingly, less fretfully. And do it without insisting that God should first answer all his questions and give him a formal acquittal.
Here, if we have rightly found the heart of the theology of the whole book, is a very great depth.
But is it an unfounded assumption to believe God is even there to leave justice with? Ah, there is a foundation, and it’s not an assumption.
You’re welcome to read what I wrote on Apologetics—my reasons for my Christian beliefs, and how I became a Christian while I was in college at My Witness. This past August I wrote Jesus Christ and the Word of God. It’s my specific apologetic for the Bible—my reasons for believing it is the one and only Word of God.
A book that has helped me is Doubt by Os Guinness. The chapter, “Keyhole Theology,” is described in the chapter’s subheading as, “Doubt from insistent inquisitiveness.”
When a Christian comes to faith his understanding and his trust go hand in hand, but as he continues in faith his trust may sometimes be called to go on by itself without his understanding….
…A Christian does not say, ‘I do not understand you at all, but I trust you anyway.’ Rather he says, ‘I do not understand you in this situation, but I understand why I trust you anyway.’
…Face to face with mystery, and especially the mystery of evil, the faith that understands why it has come to trust must trust where it has not come to understand….
Can faith bear the pain and trust God, suspending judgement and resting in the knowledge that God is there, God is good, and God knows best? Or will the pain be so great that only meaning will make it endurable so that reason must be pressed further and further and judgements must be made?…To suffer is one thing, to suffer without meaning is another, but to suffer and choose not to press for any meaning is different again.
This is what he says about Job:
…To suspend judgement and simply trust is the hardest thing. Faith must reach deep into its reserves of courage and endurance if the rising panic of incomprehensible pain is not be overwhelming.
In Job we have the world’s classic sufferer, the one in whom every sufferer knows he has at least one brother. But much of Job’s agony was that he was racked by this very dilemma. Was he to trust God and suspend judgement, or was he to doubt in pressing for an explanation? At first he passed the test with honours….
Each degree of mounting pressure served to heighten the dilemma. If he trusted God and suspended judgement, he had to be silent. But every moment he continued in silence was taken as a tacit admission of his guilt. Yet to defend himself he had to explain the suffering, and to do this he had to press reason to conclusions he had no desire to entertain and no right to make. This tension was the torturous rack on which Job’s faith was stretched to the breaking point. It is little wonder that his self-defense is a demonstration mixed with doubt….
Job’s friends believed that God in his justice pays every man his desserts in this life, and therefore they presupposed a one-to-one ratio between sin and suffering: Job was suffering; Job must have sinned. Job roundly denies this. But in the absence of any knowledge of a final judgement after death he has no way to deny it. So in defending himself he demands from God a one-to- one ratio between suffering and explanation, between pain and meaning. Thus Job and his friends press reason too far and make judgements they have no right to. The two errors lead in opposite directions, but they are both minted from the same coin.
But how can one learn to trust God? And leave vindication and justice in His hands?
A Christian doesn’t know why…, but (and here alone is the difference) he knows why he trusts God who knows why.
And how is this? …a Jew not in his youth, but in his prime…suffering in our place he might restore us to his Father, that then we might be sure that God is there, and God is good.
…Not surprisingly it is those whose faith in God is anchored in the incarnation—God become flesh, crucified, risen—whose faith can pass through the fires of suffering. For there is no question however deep or painful which cannot be trusted with the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ.
This is why I as a Christian trust God. He sent His Son to suffer in my place. Such great love for me, brings me to continue to trust when I don’t know why.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?”John 11:25
For all of you who have Christmas tears this year, may you know God’s love and comfort.
And remember, Christ was born that day so that one day there will come a day:
“Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”Revelation 21:3b–4