Where is God when we suffer greatly?
The biblical Christian knows at least two basic truths: suffering is a universal condition which none of us are exempt from, and God is sovereign over this world and what happens in it. Other core truths can also affirmed, such as the fact that we are all responsible and accountable for the choices that we make.
Sometimes these things appear to conflict. But often they seem rather clear cut. For example, if you smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and end up getting lung cancer, the immediate cause and fault of this was your own bad choices. A non-theist will also recognise that reality.
But besides various moral evils involving human choices, there are also natural evils. If an earthquake strikes a place resulting in much death and destruction, it is not really due to human culpability (although some might argue that the way we treat planet earth accounts for much of this). So we look for bigger causes, and in times gone by insurance companies would speak of these things as being an “act of God”.
Of course whole libraries are filled with the volumes that discuss all this. Here I want to narrow things down quite a bit, and also make things a bit more practical. For as long as I have been a Christian, I have been interested in the issue of suffering and evil, and how Christianity accounts for it.
The term ‘theodicy’ has to do with justifying the ways of God in the face of great evils and so much suffering. So there is a theological and philosophical level in which all this can be teased out. But when suffering hits home, then it really becomes real, and you want theory to match reality.
With my wife’s battle with terminal cancer my thoughts about all this have simply increased greatly. I still ask the big questions, but I of course also pray like mad, as would anyone else who goes through such things. And I continue to meditate on these matters and read heaps, be it books or articles. I also watch various videos and so on.
And I have shared our story fairly often and fairly far and wide. But I find this interesting: I know of other couples who are going through quite similar things, but I do not hear much from them on this – at least on public forums. As I wrote last night:
We are all different. Some folks in our situation seem to say nothing on the social media about what they are going through. But I have said quite a bit. Neither is right or wrong. All I can say is, I am weak and I need help, and I am happy to admit it. The more prayers I can get for our situation, the better. So that is why I talk a lot about it. But others might have good reasons not to.
When it seems like your whole world is in upheaval, all you can do at times is cry out to God. As I have said before, sometimes I can only pray: “Help, help, help.” And I for one so very much greatly value the prayers of others. I sure do need them.
BTW, one friend who saw what I just said above replied with this comment:
Bless you, Bill, and thanks for sharing. What I have found difficult is the Christian ‘friends’ who have a go at me when/if I share anything of a personal nature or needing prayer. They tell me I should only be calling out to God and not putting it out there, accusing me of a lack of faith. To me it’s the exact opposite. Why tell others what’s going on in my life and ask for prayer if I don’t have faith at all? It doesn’t make sense. My compromise is that I have selected a small group from amongst my FB friends and limit such posts and prayer requests to that group. Such support is valuable for those of us who live alone with minimal Christian support on the ground nearby.
As to what other sufferers are going through, I always appreciate what I come upon. Just today for example on the social media Owen Strachan shared a powerful quote from American pastor Heath Lambert who needs to undergo a fifth bout of brain surgery
When I think that my wife and I got it bad, it is always good to be reminded about others and what they are experiencing. While some folks seem to be doing pretty good – all things considered – there are of course others who are doing it really tough, and being aware of that helps to keep my own situation in perspective. Not to minimise anyone’s suffering of course, but some folks do seem to go through a whole lot more than others.
So, back to the quote that Owen had shared. It was this:
Suffering is the surgery a loving God does on our souls. My neurosurgeon is going to create significant pain with scalpels and drills to solve a problem that cannot be addressed any other way. In the same way, God sends painful circumstances into our life as the exclusive remedy for spiritual challenges we might not even know we face.
God is doing wonderful things in this trial. As the God of great love, he doesn’t know how to do anything other than good things. Though it can be hard to see the good things he’s doing, his ability to do them is not in doubt. God never intervenes in our life to harm us—only to help us.
I believe he is helping me now. I can’t see what that help is from here, but he will show me when it is time.
Amen and amen. You can read the full, brief piece here: https://fbcjax.com/first-thoughts/a-disappointing-health-update/
So this brings me back to my title. Where is God in all our suffering? Is he personally aware and involved? What comfort can we take from the biblical truths of God’s sovereignty in a time of crisis? Like Pastor Heath I do believe God is still on the throne, and he is still working out his purposes.
Sure, this side of eternity we see through a glass darkly, and we must just cling to God in faith. And as I and others have often said, it is not so much a case of my great faith in God, but my (often weak and failing) faith in a great God. We can only trust him, believing that he is with us in these dark times. And we can do that with confidence, since he promises he will ‘never leave us nor forsake us’ (Hebrews 13:5).
Another thing that transpired on the social media last night is also worth sharing here. I had posted something on some of the big political and cultural battles we are involved in. One good friend said this in response: “It is such a massive battle. Many are tiring. I have mostly decided I must pray as that’s all I can do (I have mito disease).”
I replied: “Bless you – praying for you – and ‘I can only pray’ may be the best thing any of us can say and do!” And I meant that. I often wonder what will happen one day when perhaps I lose my eyesight and my reading and writing ministry slows down to a crawl.
But I then think if I simply spend my remaining days in a prayer and intercession ministry, that might be a whole lot more effective than all the other things I have done! So we can only trust in a great God and know that he ‘does all things well’ (Mark 7:37).
There would be so many terrific quotes I could finish a piece like this with, but I have to keep falling back on an all-time favourite. Pastor Charles Spurgeon was one of the greatest English preachers we know of, yet he went through a lifetime of hardship and suffering. I have discussed this often before, as in this piece: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2018/08/03/spurgeon-and-suffering/
But one thing he said is always worth running with:
“God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart. When you are so weak that you cannot do much more than cry, you coin diamonds with both your eyes. The sweetest prayers God ever hears are the groans and sighs of those who have no hope in anything but his love.”