To nothing else is the name of God so often linked in our human discourse as to suffering and deliverance. This locus is a huge and complicated intersection of our existence.
In this area of life, the man who has received the gift of faith in God experiences something that the one who has refused this gift knows nothing of. Those who believe and proclaim a good and loving God find themselves thrown into an unknown world, in which the most unexpected and excruciating element is the mismatch between their expectations of God and the harsh reality of their experience. How can a good, all-powerful, and loving God look at a desperate situation without intervening?
I, a mere human made in His image and likeness, would give my life in exchange for the life of a loved one. How can I then survive the contrast between the fact that He gave His life for me so that I may have eternal life, but He does not give me a moment of respite in my present life? “Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?”. How can my faith in His love and power still stand? Did I get it wrong? What about my testimony of Him?
My neighbour is confined to bed, consumed by an aggressive stomach cancer—he who was a zealous and energetic promoter of the “gospel of health”, as he called a certain lifestyle that he enthusiastically recommended to colleagues, friends, family, and which had become, as Leo Tolstoy said, part of “the fabric of his life”. And it wasn’t all just words. He made his short life a convincing incarnation of this message. Now he gently touches the diseased area with his hand and asks me: “What will people say?”
Suffering is and remains the most complex and deadly weapon of the eternal fighter against faith and “against all tyrants, including God!” (in the words of famous atheist biologist Richard Dawkins referring to Christopher Hitchens, one of the prominent militant atheists, who died of cancer in 2011).
Apparently, the same God who teaches me not to be a stumbling block for anyone by my conduct or life, seems to make no effort to avoid or remove the danger of having someone stumble because of the way He chooses to respond and act in relation to people.
Jesus says: “But so that we may not cause offence, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours”. However, at the same time He Himself knows that He is a potential stumbling block for some people. Therefore, He says with compassion: “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me”. This text clarifies the role of human perception: the same Jesus is a stumbling block for some, but not for others.
Prayer and duty
Baptist author John Piper captures an often overlooked yet painfully necessary aspect of ministry in the experience of suffering on this earth: “One of my duties as your pastor is to preach and pray in such a way that you are prepared in mind and heart not to curse God in the day of your calamity. But even more: that instead of cursing, you might worship God and bless him as your free and sovereign Father no matter how intense the grief or deep the pain he brings into your life”.
Those who wish to encourage others who are suffering must fight on two fronts simultaneously. On the one hand, they themselves must be prepared to worship with confidence and peace on the day of calamity. On the other hand, they must be able to inspire the same attitude in those who are suffering, in the wide variety of situations and conditions in which the latter find themselves. They should not be surprised if they have to preach and inspire not by words, but by the embodiment of suffering and, if necessary, by illustrating what they claim to live out. “Only a cancer patient can really pray for another cancer patient!” a truly wise person once told me. Ezekiel is instructed by God and placed in the position of illustrating one of his piercing prophecies through the very death of his wife: “Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears”.
The people had to be told: “What you saw happening to Ezekiel with the apple of his eye, the same thing will happen to you, with the apple of your eye” (the Temple —ed.). Ezekiel was thus to remain speechless before the means chosen by God to illustrate his sermon: “I am not even to mourn?”. “No,” the Lord says. “It is very important not to mourn. You will see and understand why. This element is an integral part of your sermon illustration. It’s a horrifying argument for an almost hopeless situation.”
Incarnate preaching did not appear with Ezekiel. God Himself preached through His incarnation. What other argument could be brought before the monumental statement: “God so loved the world”? No theory would have been believed; no miracle would have convinced anyone. Such a statement from a God suspected and accused of the suffering of the world could not be demonstrated scientifically or through miracles, but only through sacrifice— “and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”—that is, forgiveness cannot be believed otherwise.
God, who in His love broke Himself for us, chose the “foolishness of the cross” to meet our suicidal crisis of confidence. To deny God’s love and ignore the warning “Be careful that no one entices you by riches; do not let a large bribe turn you aside”, is not a simple response in the face of suffering or misunderstanding. This has a much deeper meaning. The one who, despite the supreme evidence of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, will still deny God’s love to the end is the one “who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace”.
To reject the truth of God’s love consistently and to the end means, in fact, “crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace”. Such an attitude of opposition to the illustration of divine love leaves the human in the abysmal situation of separation from God: “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgement and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God”.
Worshipping in times of suffering
Suffering thus divides those who believe in God into two large categories: those who judge God and those who worship Him. Job’s home and case host both categories sitting at the same table. Job hears the news of the calamities that have befallen his possessions and children. Although it is impossible for him to integrate what is happening into his vision of God, the first thing he does is not to attempt to process what is happening, but to worship and confess his complete submission to God in the midst of total darkness. “At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised’”.
While suffering led Job to worship and confession, it had a very different effect on his wife. On the one hand, she confirms his righteousness, and on the other, she curses God. To her mind, God should have behaved differently with a righteous man: “His wife said to him, ‘Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!’”.
The victorious struggle with suffering does not begin with questions or answers, but on one’s knees, in worship. It does not begin by letting the unknown, the unexpected, and the incomprehensible alienate us from God, but by letting sincere and deep love draw us closer to Him. The strongest commitment in the face of the incomprehensible, the unknown, and the unexpected consists of making our situation known to God, not to inform Him, but as a form of anchoring in Him. The anchor is cast and it clings firmly to the Rock of Ages—Christ Jesus.
I was far from home, engaged in a complex evangelistic effort. Just when I was struggling to find the resources to be able to continue the work, my wife sent me a disturbing message regarding the state of her health. Caught in such a moment, I felt like I was losing my balance and, like Job (“Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress” – Job 30:24), I reacted almost uncontrollably. I got down on my knees and, in a prayer consisting more of silence and sighing, I took the suffering of my wife upon myself. I didn’t ask God for healing, just confirmation that He knows what’s going on, asking Him to take this pain upon Himself, as He promised. Then I witnessed the miracle that we still experience today with reverence.
Our true illness is not physical suffering, but accusing or suspecting God for the harm suffered in the body or in life. This is the real disease of our soul that constantly prompts us to throw ourselves into an unequal battle with such a powerful enemy. The most painful aspect of suffering always remains the same—the discrepancy between what you expect from God and what you experience and suffer: “I thought, ‘I will die in my own house, my days as numerous as the grains of sand. My roots will reach to the water, and the dew will lie all night on my branches. My glory will not fade; the bow will be ever new in my hand’”.
“For what is our lot from God above, our heritage from the Almighty on high?” Is this not our cry in suffering? Aren’t these words the logical conclusion of the deep disappointment that often haunts us? As justified as such conclusions may seem, they are just as far from the truth as they could be. Job repented of all these “words without knowledge” that “obscured” God’s plans. It was not the understanding of the situation that he or us lack, but the personal encounter with God: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you”.
In view of Scripture’s revelation, it is good and wise to begin with the end. Are my expectations realistic? Can my image of God withstand deep investigation? Will the image of the One I have “heard of” match with the image of the One I “will see”?
Our true suffering
Our real suffering is not sickness, pain, or loss, but our little faith in God. Knowing or understanding the human drama does not eliminate suffering. The way to acquire a correct view of the latter is rather sincere faith in God. Greater than the suffering of our body or life is the suffering of our faith. Jesus does not ask Peter, “You of little faith, why did you sink?”, but “You of little faith, why did you doubt”?
The element that plays a crucial role in the progress of our faith is the image we have of God and, more importantly, the source of this image. Where does my image of God come from: from humans or from Jesus? What does the fact that God is almighty mean to me? Do I expect Him to do anything, anytime, anywhere, however, with anyone? Do I look at God’s omnipotence as a bank from which I can withdraw anything, anytime, anywhere? Isn’t the fall precisely a consequence of this way of thinking? Have life and history proven that such thinking is valid? Did the life of Jesus prove such a thing? If not, then am I not asking or expecting to be treated differently than the Son of God Himself was treated?
Christian tradition tells us that Peter avoided this temptation. He supposedly said, “I don’t feel I am worthy enough to be crucified right-side up like my Lord. I ask to be crucified upside down!” Did the three young men in the book of Daniel rely on a God who would breathe into the fire and put it out? Did Daniel believe that God would miraculously extract the lions’ teeth? Well, no. Jesus, the three young men and a multitude of people “of suffering, and familiar with pain” believed and understood God’s omnipotence in the sense that “our God is able”, but not robbing God of the freedom to take them out of the fire of trials or not, according to His love and wisdom. They served not only a God who is able, but also One who is wise, loving, and sacrificial, committing “themselves to their faithful Creator”.
One taken and one left
Our egalitarian ideas often plunge us into a form of rebellion against God. It is hard to say “Amen” when someone tells how their child was saved while yours was not. It is hard to listen to the jubilant experience of someone who has been cured of cancer while you are in excruciating pain. It is almost impossible not to ask: “But still, why?”, “Why me?”, “Why this or why so long or why now?”, “Why is my experience different from the others’?”, “Why, why?”
It’s as if a “gentle whisper” is heard uttering: “You can bear only a little, so I can’t tell you many things I’d like to tell you. If you knew more than I’m revealing to you, you wouldn’t be safe anymore. If you saw Me as you wish, you could no longer live. Can you let Me carry for you that which I cannot reveal to you? Can you trust Me to choose the ways, the timing, and the way things will work out in your life? Can you lean on My arm in all respects?”
King Hezekiah agreed with God’s plan for his life, but he did not agree with God’s chosen time for the fulfilment of this plan. Many years later, when he saw the consequences of his disagreement, he would have very much liked to have adjusted his personal timing to God’s, and perhaps he did later, constrained not by faith but by evidence. But at what cost?
Leave to God the right to “take one and leave another.” Don’t try to draft a plan for the Most High. He let James, the brother of John, to be put to death by the sword, but when Herod tried to continue the fun, an angel entered the prison and, a few hours before another execution, prodded Peter in the side. Why so? Why then? Why him and not another, right? There is an answer to all these questions and any other that will ever come to mind, but I keep those answers in a safe place—in God’s mind. It is such a safe and peaceful place for my soul and yours that we feel like we are finally home. This is actually the Place our soul longed and still longs for. Someone is asking you to enter the House.