March 15, 1992

WHERE IS GOD WHEN I SUFFER?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22:1

Ted Turner stopped believing in God when he was twenty years old.  Turner, as you probably know, is the founder of CNN (the Cable News Network).  He’s also the owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, the husband of Jane Fonda, and Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1991.  During his youth, Ted Turner considered himself a Christian, and at age seventeen he even thought about becoming a missionary.  But by the time Ted was twenty, he found it impossible to believe in God any longer.

What happened?  When Ted was twenty, his seventeen-year-old sister Mary Jane died, and her death came after five years of suffering from a horrible disease.  As Ted watched Mary Jane suffer and finally die, in spite of all the pleas and prayers to God for healing, he decided that there really was no God.  How could such a thing happen if an all-powerful and loving God was in control of the universe?  If God could not answer prayers or prevent suffering, figured Ted, then there was no God.

Like Ted Turner, I’ve watched the excruciating suffering of someone I loved.  My wife and I had a baby who suffered in the hospital for more than five months, and it seemed God did nothing to help that little girl.  Rebekah went through the painful process of having a respirator inserted down her throat at least nine different times during her illness, and she endured several surgeries.  She received so many medications and feedings through intravenous needles that after a while the nurses had a very hard time finding a new vein that would work for the next intravenous.  Sometimes they would spend more than an hour jabbing a needle into Rebekah’s wrists and ankles and scalp before they could find a satisfactory vein.  You can imagine what it must have been like for that little baby.  We never saw Rebekah smile.  She knew almost nothing but pain her entire life.  And then she died.

So where was God during all this?  Where was God while baby Rebekah was crying and bleeding and gasping for breath?  Where was God when Ted Turner’s sister wasted away and died?  Ted believes that God was nowhere–he doesn’t exist.  I, on the other hand, still believe in God.  I believe that he is perfectly good and that he is all-powerful.  I don’t know all the answers about my daughter’s illness and death, and I certainly don’t understand the sufferings of so many others.  But I still believe in God.

Almost everyone, at one time or another, has to face the question, “Where is God when I suffer?”  An encounter with pain and grief changes a person’s relationship to God.  When your mind is reeling and your heart is aching, something happens.  You either fall into God’s arms, or else you fall away from him.  It all depends on whether you know what God is really like.

If you think of God only as the supreme ruler of the universe who sits in his plush throne room in heaven, maintaining a safe distance from your suffering and refusing to do anything about it, then it will be very hard not to join Ted Turner.  You may either stop believing in God altogether, or else hate him for permitting such terrible pain to afflict you and those you love.

However, if you know God as he really is, as he has revealed himself at the cross of Jesus Christ, you will keep trusting him no matter what, even when you endure pain you can’t escape and struggle with questions you can’t answer.  If you know the Christ of the cross, you know that God loves you, and you know that he understands your suffering.  Whatever else may be true of God, he doesn’t just sit in the safe confines of the heavenly control room, oblivious to your suffering.

We could spend our time in philosophy and logic and ask ourselves,  Is it logically possible for God to exist in a world that includes such dreadful suffering?  Some argue that a perfectly good God would want to prevent suffering, and an omnipotent, absolutely powerful God would be able to prevent it.  Therefore, goes the reasoning, if God existed, suffering would not exist.  But since suffering obviously does exist, God does not.

Now, that’s an interesting and difficult problem for philosophers, and having received a degree in philosophy, I’ve thought about it very carefully.  I’ve seen how Christian philosophers have suggested some reasonable answers to this intellectual puzzle.  Some of these arguments are quite convincing, but I’m not going to go into them right now.  That’s because I’ve found that answers to an intellectual puzzle, no matter how logical they are, aren’t very helpful during the actual experience of suffering.  It was one thing for me to be a philosopher analyzing the problem of suffering;  it was quite another to be a father, watching my child die.

Let’s face it.  Logic really isn’t the main issue when you come face to face with anguish:  when someone you love is caught in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, or wasting away from cancer, or killed by a drunk driver–at such times you don’t simply need a logical argument that God exists.  So what if God exists?  What you need to know is, Where is he when I suffer, and what is he doing about it?

The Bible shows us at least four important ways that God is involved in the suffering of his people:  First, he shares in our suffering.  Second, he is sovereign over our suffering.  Third, he sustains us during our suffering.  And fourth, he saves us from suffering.

Let’s begin with the fact that God shares in our suffering.

Some people seem to have the idea that God is far removed from our pain.  To them God is like a general who keeps sending troops to the front line with no concern for how many casualties there are.  He doesn’t care how much his troops have to suffer as long as they accomplish his objectives.  He himself is protected from any pain or danger in his safe, comfortable headquarters.

The author of a brief drama called “The Long Silence” forces us to take another look at how we think about God.

At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.

Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them.  But some groups near the front talked heatedly–not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us?  How can he know about suffering?” snapped a pert young brunette.  She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp.  “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”

In another group, a boy lowered his collar.  “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn.  “Lynched … for no crime but being black!”

In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes.  “Why should I suffer?” she murmured, “It wasn’t my fault.

Far out across the plain, there were hundreds of such groups.  Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world.  How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred.  What did God know of all that man had been forced to endure in this world?  For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most.  A Jew, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child.  In the center of the plain they consulted with each other.  At last they were ready to present their case.  It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured.  Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth–as a man!

“Let him be born a Jew.  Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted.  Give him work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it.  Let him be betrayed by his closest friends.  Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge.  Let him be tortured.

“At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone.  Then let him die.  Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died.  Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.”

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.

And when the last had finished pronouncing the sentence, there was a long silence.  No one uttered another word.  No one moved.  For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.  (In Scott, The Cross of Christ, p. 336-337).

There are many things we don’t understand about God, but one thing we can never say is that God has no idea what it is like to suffer.  At the cross, we discover a God whose suffering goes beyond anything we can ever imagine.  Jesus suffered the horrors of hell.  He felt completely abandoned by his Father in heaven.  He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Even before Jesus came to earth and took the world’s pain upon himself, God shared in the suffering of his people.  There are several hints of this in the Old Testament part of the Bible.  For example, after describing the oppression that God’s people were enduring because of their sin, Judges 10:16 says, “The Lord could bear Israel’s misery no longer.”  Their pain was his pain, and he couldn’t stand it anymore!  Or look at Isaiah 63:9, where it says, “In all their distress, he too was distressed.”  Did you catch that?  “In all their distress he too was distressed.”  When God’s people suffer, he suffers with them.

That was true in Old Testament times, it was supremely true at the cross, and it is true throughout the New Testament and still today:  The Lord suffers with his people.  Saul of Tarsus, later to become the apostle Paul, was a persecutor of Christians until one day Jesus appeared to him in dazzling light and said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”  In other words, when Jesus’ followers were being persecuted, Jesus himself was being persecuted.  He identified with their suffering and called it his own.

The fact that the Lord continues to identify with the suffering of his people is also shown in one of Jesus’ parables about the last judgment.  Jesus will say, “I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a stranger, I needed clothes, I was sick, I was in prison” (Matthew 25:31-46). And when does all this happen to Jesus?  When it’s happening to the least of his people.  So where is God when his people suffer?  According to the Bible, he is suffering too.

But of course, that’s not all the Bible says.  It shows not only that God shares in our suffering, but also that he is sovereign over our suffering.  There is no event, no matter how shocking or painful, that catches God by surprise.  God is in control, and he can take even the most tragic circumstances and use them to advance his plans and promote our well-being.

In the popular book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner suggests that much of what is wrong with the world is simply beyond God’s control.  God is very kind, and it hurts him to see us suffer, but sometimes he can’t do very much about it.  According to Kushner, God is as frustrated and outraged about the situation as anyone, but he lacks the power to change it.    One noted thinker, Elie Wiesel, responded to Kushner’s picture of God by saying, “If that’s who God is, why doesn’t he resign and let someone more competent take his place?”

According to the Bible, whatever the reason for suffering may be, it is not because God is too weak to prevent it.  God is sovereign over all things, including suffering.  He is in control even in the most horrifying circumstances.  The cross proves it.

Jesus did not die because God was helpless to prevent his death.  According to Acts 2:23, Jesus was handed over to be crucified “by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge.”  God was in control of the situation, and Jesus chose the path of suffering, knowing that God was sovereign.  In his sovereignty, God used the most horrible injustice the world has ever known, the crucifixion of his own Son, to bring about the salvation of the world.

Now, if God was in control even at the cross, and if, from something so horrible, he could bring about the salvation of the world, we can be certain that he is also sovereign over our suffering.  In light of the cross, we can echo the words of Romans 8:28 with even greater certainty, “We know that in all things Yes, all things, even the most painful and perplexing things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).  This doesn’t mean we should pretend to enjoy our suffering, or think that God is the direct cause of all of it, but we can expect God to use even the worst things to bring about something good.  We may not always know or understand what God’s purpose is, but we can be sure that he is in control at every moment.  God is sovereign even over suffering, and he will use it to serve his purpose in the lives of his people.

Where is God when I suffer?  He shares in my suffering;  he is sovereign over my suffering;  and he sustains me during my suffering.  God promises that he will sustain, he will support and carry his people during their difficult times.  In Isaiah 46 the Bible says, “I have upheld you since you were conceived, and have carried you since your birth.  Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you, and I will carry you.  I will sustain you, and I will rescue you (v. 3-4).

You may be familiar with a little story called “Footprints.”  It’s not in the Bible, but the point it makes is true to what the Bible says.

One night a man had a dream.  He was walking along the beach with the Lord.  Across the sky flashed scenes from his life.  For each scene he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand:  one set belonged to him, the other to the Lord.

Looking back at the footprints, he noticed that at many times during his life, there was just one set of footprints.  He also noticed that this always happened at the lowest, saddest times of his life.

This bothered him greatly, so he spoke to Jesus about it:  “Lord, you said that if I gave my life to you, you would walk with me all the way.  But I see that at the hardest times in my life, when I needed you most, you left me to walk alone.”

The Savior replied, “My precious child, I would never leave you.  In those terrible times where you see one set of footprints–it was then that I carried you.”

The Bible says, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27).  The Lord says to each of his people, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5).  Even when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we don’t have to be afraid, because he is with us (Psalm 23:4).  Because Jesus himself endured being forsaken by his heavenly Father, because he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” those who trust in Jesus will never be forsaken by God.  The Lord is there to support us and carry us, and even when we seem utterly and completely abandoned, God’s grace is sufficient to sustain us.

Where is God when I suffer?  He is sharing my suffering;  he is sovereign over my suffering;  he is sustaining me during my suffering; and last but not least, he saves me from suffering.  Here again, the cross of Jesus is the focus of our hope.  As the Bible says in Hebrews 12, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him;  he knew he would win in the end.  His suffering soon gave way to the glory of the resurrection.  On Easter Jesus rose to life in his glorious, immortal body, and someday all his people, and indeed the whole creation, will share in his victory over suffering and death.

When that day comes, we will be able to say, as the Bible does in Revelation 21,

“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

This great hope helped me to deal with the pain and confusion when my daughter died.  At first I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “From the moment Rebekah was born, all she did was suffer.  Nothing but suffering for five and a half months–and then death.  What did she do to deserve this?”  But then I asked myself another question:  “This little girl is now living in perfect happiness in the glorious presence of Jesus, not just for five months, but for all eternity.  What did she do to deserve that?”

When we trust in the great salvation that Jesus provides, when we fix our minds on him and on the joy of eternal life, then our painful questions are overwhelmed by wonder.  We may not be able to answer all our questions about suffering, but we can echo the apostle Paul:  “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).  We believe in a God who saves from suffering, and his salvation is so great and glorious than none of our sufferings now are worth comparing to it.

So where is God when his people suffer?  He shares our suffering;  he is sovereign over our suffering;  he sustains us during our suffering;  and ultimately he saves us from our suffering.  These four great truths don’t answer all our questions, of course–the Bible doesn’t always give us the exact reasons for our suffering.  However, it does tell us enough about God to show that he is worthy of our confidence.  Even when we don’t understand everything, we understand enough to know that at the cross of Jesus, we are meeting a God we can trust.  The God of the cross is a God we can believe in, no matter what.

PRAYER

Lord, words alone cannot comfort those who are terribly wounded right now.  I pray that by your Holy Spirit, you will draw those in pain to the cross of Jesus, to discover there not only cleansing from their sins, but also the consolation that you are a God who walks with us through suffering on the path to glory.

O love that will not let us go, we rest our weary souls in thee.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.