“My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.”
Psalm 42:3, 5, 7 ESV
IN THE UTTER BLACKNESS OF BITTER SORROW, THE FOUNDATIONS OF EVEN THE STRONGEST OF CHRISTIANS ARE SHAKEN. Unbroken Christians often struggle to relate to the psalms of lament and to the grieving. I do not mean that they are unbroken, but that they have yet to come to grips with the reality of the full depth of their need. As such, it is impossible for them to have discovered the path to healing, having never traveled it themselves. They are still in denial about the human condition. These are often the first to offer advice to “Cheer up,” “Smile,” and “Show the joy of Christ.” In their limited, relatively blissful experience, they have forgotten that there is a time to weep. Many of us know all too well that there is a time when it seems all we can do is to weep, and amidst the weeping to wonder, “Why?”
There are times recorded in scripture where prophets of God were sent to answer that question. They would explain the sin of the people and the repentance God demanded. At the root of all human suffering is the problem of sin. Sin caused the world to fall into its state of gradual decline. Yet, it is grievous error to assume that suffering people are being directly punished for their sin. One of the most devastating words of counsel one could give the one who is deeply wounded is one of blame. It is devastating because it may be entirely wrong. Such twisted theology only serves to further confuse the hearts of people already floundering in an emotional state of chaos.
Scripture reveals 3 reasons people suffer.
1. Trial of time and chance. Sometimes there is simply no reason for what happened to you other than time and chance. In other words, it is simply the result of living in a fallen world. Yes, the fall was caused by sin. In a round about way, we are all to blame. But faithful, forgiven Christians often suffer deeply by no fault of their own. They are certainly not being punished. It may not be immediately comforting, but it is possible that your suffering is random in cause–but not in purpose.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. Ecclesiastes 9:11
2. Test of faith and fortitude. It is possible that you are being tested, as Job was, because you are righteous. God allows the faithful to endure temptation and loss, sometimes catastrophically, so that they may be purified and strengthened. Peter describes this as a refining process by which precious metals are separated from the dross by intense heat.
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 1:6, 7
3. Trouble of sorrow and sin. Sometimes your suffering is a direct and obvious consequence of your sin. The evil doer should not be perplexed when he faces imprisonment or other serious repercussions of his poor choices.
But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 1 Peter 4:15, 16
So there is suffering for sin and there is suffering for righteousness’ sake. Yet, even when we suffer as a result of our own sin, good may come of it. The Lord does not desire to destroy us, but seeks to save us by his discipline.
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. Proverbs 3:11, 12
There are 2 basic responses to suffering. Though scripture reveals 3 reasons people suffer, we do not appear to have prophets today who can directly relate to us what is happening in the spirit realm and why. That may be immediately frustrating. How are we to know how to respond to our pain? And how are we to understand it? We may never fully understand why things happen in this world, but we do have a choice in how we will respond. That choice will make all the difference in the world.
1. Draw near to God. Our first choice is to lean in hard on the Lord with all we have, even to fall into his arms. We may do this in prayer. Even if we cannot find the words to pray, others may pray with us and for us. We may garner the strength to worship. We may surround ourselves with Christians who will live through the struggle with us. We may read and meditate on the word of God. We may examine ourselves and resolve to repent of anything that is amiss. And finally, we may choose to simply trust that God is faithful to his promises. If we will choose to draw near to God when we suffer, then no matter the cause, we will have chosen that better path that leads us to the deliverance and healing of a loving Father.
The psalmist wrote:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works. Psalm 73:23-28
2. Turn from God to self, sin, secularism, and Satan. It may seem overly simplistic, but these are essentially our choices. When we choose to withdraw, to isolate, to seek to escape reality through vices, to allow resentment to brew within, or to blatantly abandon our faith, we have chosen to allow the battle to take us out. As I write these words, I am intimately aware of how difficult it can be to take the first path and how naturally the second may come to us. It is far easier to isolate and dwell on negative thoughts than it is to seek out a support group of Christians and wise counselors. To surrender to refining fire is not a painless process. To draw near to God requires us to face and feel our pain, possibly to admit our own sin, and to let God work out our healing. This can be a long and difficult journey–but it is worth it!
There is 1 divine purpose for your pain. God desires to rescue your soul from destruction and usher you into an eternal home of love, joy, and life where the gentle hand of the Savior will wipe away every tear from your eyes. Believe it. God’s redemptive purpose is real, and salvation is available to you. There is also a counter-purpose to separate you from God forever–this is the purpose of Satan. Resist it with every fiber of your being. It is the problem of pain that prompts us to seek its solution–Jesus. I pray that you may find the strength and healing of Jesus through your pain.
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Katherine von Schlegel (1752), tr. Jane L. Borthwick (1855)