At some point in our lives we will all experience a tragedy, a physical illness, the death of a loved one, or the loss of a dream. In these moments, doubts and questions will arise. How could this happen? Why me? What did I do to deserve this? How am I ever going to survive this? Where is God in all of this?
I have been there. Three times, in fact. My father suddenly died in his 40’s, leaving me to pick up the pieces of my shattered teenage heart. In college, I battled a dark depression that threatened to undermine my faith, my mind, and my emotional well being. And recently, with the rapid decline of my physical health and diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. Did I really trust God to take care of me? Could I really depend on Him to provide what I needed? If He really cared about me, why was He letting me suffer? I knew He could heal me, but could I keep my faith even if He chose not to? Do I still believe God is good and loving even when He doesn’t step in to relieve my suffering? These questions haunted me.
But these questions saved my life.
When you are in pain long enough, you get desperate. Desperate for relief. Desperate for answers. Desperate for God. Sometimes God seems silent when we suffer. But His silence is not apathy. He is still moving. And sometimes He waits until we are ready to listen, when our attempts to numb our pain no longer satisfy.
When we suffer, our faith gets stronger. When we suffer, we learn to trust God more. When we suffer, we gain new perspective.
Suffering is not pointless, but it can be wasted. When a doctor performs surgery, he causes pain and suffering in exchange for complete healing and restoration. He goes into surgery with a reason and purpose, for the good of the patient. While the surgery and recovery are unpleasant, the outcome far outweighs the pain. In the same way, God has a purpose in mind when He allows suffering in our lives. Keeping this in mind in the midst of painful circumstances gives direction and keeps hopelessness and despair from setting up shop in our hearts.
Unfortunately, we don’t always pay attention to our suffering. We try to numb or control our pain with busyness, accomplishments, family matters, romance, food, social media, etc. In doing so we waste the opportunity. Too often we focus on changing our circumstances because we’re uncomfortable. But what if by working to get out of our circumstances, we lose the opportunity to learn something from them? Instead, we have the chance to look past our hurt and see the bigger picture, asking ourselves what is being accomplished through our pain. More often than not, if we allow suffering to have its way in us, it can bring about lasting change and peace.
Suffering reveals the condition of my heart and soul. Each season of suffering peels back the layers of our hearts to reveal our deepest doubts, insecurities, and fears. If ignored, these doubts and fears will continue to play out in our lives. However if we pay attention to them and allow ourselves to wrestle with them, suffering can become the tool used in our lives to overcome them.
Suffering calls the character of God into question. When we find ourselves in enough pain, we might ask God, Why? Why are You doing this to me? What did I do to deserve this? And when we don’t get relief, we begin to question God’s character. Maybe God really isn’t who I thought He was. When we can’t reconcile God’s character with our circumstances, our suffering reaches a crucial turning point.
God is big enough to handle our doubts. And when our trials begin to affect our relationship with Him, God takes that matter seriously. God’s response to this crossroad, as well as ours, is vital to our faith and surviving our season of suffering. This is best seen in the story of Job.
In the Bible, Job had the same underlying problem. He had lost his family and his entire livelihood all in one moment. As if that wasn’t enough, he was then infected with a form of leprosy and sores. He continued to cry out, Why God? What did I do to deserve this?
Job couldn’t understand why a God who is good and just would allow such a good man to suffer so unfairly. As time dragged on, Job began to draw wrong conclusions about God. He resigned himself to believe that God’s justice must be arbitrary, with no rhyme or reason. God could do whatever He wanted and there was no telling who was next. In other words, He couldn’t be trusted.
He began judging God for His decision to allow him, a righteous man, to suffer unjustly. In his hopelessness and despair, Job demanded an audience with God so that he could argue his case of innocence. Job’s suffering had affected his relationship with his Creator.
At this crucial moment, God shows up.
God responds to our suffering, but not in the way we might expect. It’s important to note how God responds to Job. He doesn’t show up, fix his problems, apologize, and explain to Job why He allowed him to suffer. In fact, God doesn’t give Job a reason at all (though the reader is let in on it). Instead of giving Job an audience like he demanded, God gives Job what he really needs. An experience of Himself.
When we are suffering with doubts and questions, God’s answer is Himself. God responds by reminding us of who He is. He reminds us of His character. God’s character doesn’t change even when our circumstances do. He continues to remain true to who He is in spite of what we believe or experience. Only a personal encounter with God and rightly understanding who He is can give us the strength, peace, and courage we need to face our circumstances.
This was the answer I needed. I needed to be reminded of who God is: that He is faithful (2 Tim 2:13), good (Ps 34:8), loving (1 John 4:19), compassionate (Ps 145:8), holy (1 Sam 2:2), forgiving (Ps 103:12), merciful (Lam 3:22-23), patient (2 Pet 3:9), and kind (Ps 117:2). That God is for me, not against me (Rom 8:31) and that He has a good plan for me (Jer 29:11). But the most important reminder of all is that God is bigger than me. He is in control (Ps 22:28). He holds the entire universe in the palm of His hand. He has the ability to both see and govern all the affairs of the world and yet still hears my little prayers, cares about the affairs of my little life, and is intimately working to bring about my good and His glory. Like Job, when I experience the character of God it reminds me of who I am and puts my suffering in perspective.
After his encounter with God, Job was fully restored. God did change his circumstances and blessed him with more than he had to begin with. Sometimes this is our story. And sometimes it’s not.
Regardless, when facing the crossroads we have two choices. We can either allow our doubts, pain, and suffering to lead us toward God or away from Him. The choice is ours. But either way our circumstances will continue to be hard. So if that’s the case, I think I’d rather suffer with God rather than without Him.
Unlike Job, my situation hasn’t changed. But I no longer need it to. I can be content and live well regardless of my circumstances because I have a God I can trust, who I know is good.