There’s something about certain Christian books on suffering that bugs me. I’m just going to come out and say it. The writer tells you how suffering deepened his feelings of closeness to God. How a sense of God’s presence never really left her. They imply, and sometimes even promise, you’ll feel the same. I’ve finished paragraphs like that with tears running down my cheeks, longing for what I’m reading about, angry at God for failing to deliver, wondering what’s missing in me.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord!
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy! ...
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope.
(Psalm 130:1-2, 5)
I want to tell you the truth about suffering, and most people who have experienced pain will know this. At the time, it doesn’t often feel joyful. It doesn’t feel peaceful. It feels messy and agonizing and endless. You tumble from wave to wave. Your doubt everything: yourself, those around you, your God. There is darkness and a roaring confusion and no voice, not even a whisper, in the dark.
God’s word is more honest about this than we often dare to be. In the book of Job, Lamentations, the Psalms, we find agony and questions and a cry to God – “Why?”. The writers could be us, they know so well how we feel:
Deep calls to deepWhat will we cling to when we are tossed to and fro and there is no solid ground? When the Bible’s words about joy in suffering are a world away from what we feel?1 When every word we read about “what God did for me” seems to mock our experience?
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
Late last year, at the end of the hardest year, I sat at a table in a cafe and poured questions into my journal. Where were you, God? Why didn’t I feel this? Why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you come through for me?
If you could read those pages (and I’m glad you can’t!) you would come to these words, written at the moment when I grasped what I have gained:
There have been no visions, no sudden healings, no firework displays in the dark. I don’t feel like I’ve got some extra glimpse into the heart of God.How often I begged for feelings! How much I longed for a miracle! And how wise God was to say "no" to my prayers! For as I wrote those words I realized that he has given me a greater gift. He has given me two unchanging things, like hands holding me:
But I have learned what I can rely on – the promises of God, the bedrock truths of his word. I have dug down to them, because there was nothing else. The cross of Christ: that one inarguable fact. That he has the answers even when he doesn’t give them to me.
I may not feel it. But I know it. And I am still here, still holding on.
That is the miracle.
- God’s word. “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (Psalm 130:5). Again and again I have gone back to God’s word and reminded myself of his his character. He will never leave me or forsake me (Heb 13:5). He will bring good out of this (Rom 8:28). Nothing can separate me from his love (Rom 8:38-39). His promises are true even when I don’t felt them.
- The cross. Jesus knew physical agony. He knew what it was to be deserted and shamed. He knew the horror of the silent sky. He is our merciful High Priest, seasoned by pain, loving with tender sympathy (Heb. 4:14-16). All the big questions about suffering find their answer in this: Jesus died for us. He isn’t indifferent to our pain. He endured suffering so he could deal with suffering. He is bringing it to an end.
At that moment in the cafe, stripped of the things I usually rely on – emotions, experience, deliverance – I came to see that these two unchanging things have been solid ground under my feet, tested and proven to be strong.
You dig. The dirt flies round your ears. You dig. It’s dark down here, the air is musty, and the ground shifts beneath your feet. You dig. Your arms jar, and there’s a ringing sound as your spade hits rock. You can’t dig any deeper. You’re not going anywhere. This rock is immoveable.
What I once saw as a curse was actually a severe mercy, for I have learned what I can rely on. Without feelings, I have been taught, instead, to trust.
1. Romans 5:3-4; James 1:2-4. I’d like to write more about these verses in a later post.
This post was first published at The Briefing.