Christmas and the holiday season are not always times that are cheery and bright. Loneliness and loss can have a sharper edge in December because of the contrast of times remembered or the contrast of times hoped for, but seldom known. 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 so much where was God, as it is 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), we then 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 (I have more elsewhere here!). 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. That God would include the words of these men in His Word is a mark of His caring.
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. We are taken seriously by God. I think it’s very important to realize this.
Getting back to Job. At the end of the book, 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. Francis Andersen has these thoughts on verses 8-14:
…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 sus- tained 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.1
God calls us to trust; He will also comfort us in the midst of our tears. The word Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit in John 14:16 and in John 15:25 and John 16:7 can be translated as Comforter. The Greek word means, “lit., called to one’s side, i.e., to one’s aid.” In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes,
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort.Corinthians 1:3–7
When I write about suffering, these aren’t merely words. I have been 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.
A book that 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 again2.
This is what Guiness 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….3
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.4
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 when we will see and know:
“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
Depression-loss of loved one: I can no longer find the source, but I believe this photograph is in the Public Domain.
Miedo ajeno, RayNata: Public Domain.
Sunrise at Kfar Hanania Israel, cropped: original by shmulikg: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.
1Francis Andersen, Job (Inter-Varsity Press, England: 1976) 309–310.
2,3,4Os Guinness, Doubt (Lion Publishing plc, England: 1976; Third Edition,1987) 199–200, 202, 206; 206–208; 211–212.