Suffering and the Closeness of God
The problem of suffering fosters some of the most difficult and pressing questions about the nature of God. Why, if God is all powerful and good, would he permit so much evil and pain in the world? And, if God and suffering can coexist, does he even care about our personal struggles?
I used to think that I understood why we must suffer, and questions of pain were no more to me than an intellectual exercise in theology. In many cases, I have found that the farther removed I am from pain, the more I am able to philosophize about it. When we have lived most of our lives in safety and comfort, it can be easy to believe in a good and loving God and to offer reasons for why he allows pain to afflict others.
But comfort has an insidious way of making a comfortable Christian like me very vulnerable to doubt. Because I have been content with my life for so long now, it doesn’t take much in the way of personal suffering to test my faith in the goodness—or even the existence—of God.
That is why in recent months, a sudden bout of physical and mental illness has forced me to reexamine what it means to believe in God regardless of circumstance. For the first time in a long time, I’ve had to seriously reflect on the goodness of a God who, for me, has been so easy to revere during seasons of prosperity.
About a year ago, I started showing early signs of neuropathy, a condition characterized by pain and tingling in the feet and hands. These symptoms became more debilitating over time, as the constant sensations in my limbs made it difficult for me to focus on daily activities. Because of my physical pain, I also began experiencing depression, anxiety, and regular panic attacks, each of which severely inhibited my ability to interact with people. Gradually, I started to isolate myself from friends and family and became excessively self-conscious about my physical condition.
After countless doctors’ appointments and medical examinations, modern medicine was surprisingly unable to treat my physical symptoms. “There’s nothing we can do” became a regular response from neurologists, podiatrists, and other numerous physicians whom I’ve seen in the past year. Never before had I been so eager to get well, but felt so helpless knowing that I could do nothing except wait for a breakthrough that wasn’t anywhere in sight.
At first, these struggles drew me to God in prayer. As a Christian, I believed that God really did heal people, based on Jesus’ miracles in the Scriptures and the testimonies of friends, family, and others throughout world who had been cured of all sorts of diseases and afflictions in the Lord’s name. Since I had never personally received healing, I initially thought of my illness as an opportunity for God to reveal himself to me. If God heals me, my faith will grow and I’ll have a great testimony to tell others! I thought.
But weeks and then months of prayer passed with no alleviation of my physical symptoms. I prayed for myself every day, friends and family did the same, and I even attended several “healing prayer” sessions in which those who supposedly had the gift of healing lifted me up in prayer. If anything, my symptoms seemed to be getting worse, not better.
Pain, I learned, has a unique way of getting my attention. C.S. Lewis once famously said that God whispers to us in our pleasures but shouts in our pains. Lewis called pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” After months of pain and no evident results from prayer, I began to wonder whether God was using his megaphone of pain to tell me something.
My first thought was that God was trying to teach me about the biblical truths that fundamentally rely on the need for suffering on the part of the believer. I was reminded that my suffering should not seem unusual to me—despite the fact that everybody around me seemed healthy and happy—since God has promised that we will experience pain. For instance, in the final moments leading up to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, he tells his disciples that they will inevitably encounter trouble in this life (Jn 16:33).
Moreover, Scripture is clear that Christians may suffer even more than those who do not follow Christ. Peter tells believers to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal” that befalls them, as though it were something strange (1 Pet 4:12). The author of Hebrews similarly acknowledges that the “Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son” (Heb 12:6). If, also, some of the most righteous and God-fearing biblical characters such as Job, David, and Jeremiah suffered so tremendously, I recognized that I should emulate their faith amidst pain rather than claim the “right” to immunity from it.
After I accepted the inevitability of my suffering, I explored why God might be prolonging it. Why couldn’t God just allow me to suffer for a week or two, allow me to learn my lesson, and then to get on with life? Why was he dragging this on for so long?
Again Scripture came to my aid; specifically, I was reminded of the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul pleaded with God three times to remove the thorn in his flesh (2 Cor 12:8). Paul does not indicate that God removed this thorn as requested, but rather that God’s grace is sufficient and his power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Paul expresses his delight in weaknesses and difficulties, because, as I think he would suggest, when we find it the hardest to rely on ourselves, we provide an avenue for God to work powerfully in a way that urges us to come to terms with our finitude as human beings. Consequently, we then come to recognize our desperate need for something—or someone—beyond ourselves.
Another possibility, I thought, was that God was trying to develop my perseverance and steadfastness, qualities which can only come through extended trial. James instructs believers to “consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (Jas 1:2-3). Peter also exhorts us to remain firm in our sufferings, for “after you have suffered a little while, [God] himself will restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast” (1 Pet 5:9-11).
So that was that, I thought. I had found potential biblical reasons for my suffering, and I was once again content with my pain on an intellectual level.
But weeks later, as my pain and discomfort increased and as I fell deeper into depression, I realized that I had vastly overestimated myself. As much as these Scriptures nourished my mind, I began distancing myself from God emotionally and spiritually. Prayer became increasingly difficult for me, and it seemed hopeless and purposeless to pray knowing that God wouldn’t answer.
I soon began doubting God himself. Do you hear me? Are you real? These became questions that I would ask on a daily basis. Doubt then morphed into anger. Why don’t you say something? Do you even care?
The more questions I asked, the more I seriously began to doubt whether God, if real, genuinely cared about my wellbeing. For me, the explanations “God has a plan for me” (Jer 29:11) and “His ways are higher than my ways” (Isa 55:9) no longer sufficed. These verses, as comforting as they may be for some, portrayed for me an enigmatic God too far removed from my personal struggle to fully understand it. I could no longer accept that God was far away in heaven executing a “plan” for my life that included suffering as a precursor to some distant and amorphous gift. The suffering was just too much for me to bear.
At that point, I needed to know that God was with me here and now—that he understood my pain, despised it as much as I did, and could show me evidence that he really cared.
And it is during times like these—when Scripture seems meaningless, when prayer seems ineffective, and when God seems absent—that I must turn back to the central image of the Christian faith, which encapsulates the character of the Christian God and shatters the notion that he is unconcerned about our suffering: God on a cross.
In some ways, it is understandable why Nietzsche would refer to the notion of God on a cross as a “ghastly paradox.” For what sense does it make for God, in all his majesty, splendor, holiness, power, and perfection, to choose to reveal himself as a poor, humble vagrant, willing to be tortured and killed by the very ones for whom he possesses a fierce and unquenchable love?
Why would God, who created the universe and dwells where there is no pain or suffering, opt to put on human flesh and spend thirty odd years on our groaning planet so that he may feel all that we feel: hunger, thirst, anger, betrayal, grief, temptation, chastisement, mockery, fear, hurt?
If the Christian God is real and actually drew near to us in the person of Jesus, then that is good news for anyone questioning God in the midst of suffering.
“Jesus never gave a poor or suffering person a speech about ‘accepting your lot in life,’ or ‘taking the medicine that God has given you’,” wrote the journalist Philip Yancey. “He seemed unusually sensitive to the groans of suffering people, and set about remedying them.”
But it is not simply Jesus’ social response to pain and suffering that astounds me. I am even more amazed when I contemplate Jesus’ own emotional response to it. In one instance, Jesus was informed that Lazarus, “the one he loves” (Jn 11:3), was sick. Following Lazarus’ death, Jesus himself wept. In another case, Jesus wept over the fate of Jerusalem, on the day when its enemies would eventually overtake its inhabitants (Lk 19:41-44). And, when confronted with his own impending fate at Calvary, Jesus prayed that God would “take the cup [of suffering]” from him (Lk 22:42). In fact, Jesus experienced such anguish before his death on the cross that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk 22:44).
I sometimes forget that God, like us, has personality. He is not an inanimate cosmic force, or a machine programmed to operate according to our fancies. In Jesus, we see that suffering elicits a response from God that is unusually similar to ours. God himself is averse to it.
Of course, this is not to say that God fears pain, or that he is unable to overcome evil. Rather, it shows that Jesus empathizes with our grief and our fear. He knows what it feels like to suffer, and perhaps more so than many of us ever will. Even though I still do not know why I must suffer, when I remember how Jesus responded to his own pain and that of others, my confusion becomes more bearable.
Perhaps like many who are currently experiencing some unrelenting trial, I do not know why God continues to withhold his hand of healing. Maybe we’ll never know in this lifetime. Sometimes, explanations for suffering become futile. Often they fail to speak to the person who has been diagnosed with cancer, the child who has become bedridden for life, the parent who has been laid off, the community who has experienced a natural or moral disaster.
I know that I cannot begin to speak for those who have encountered much worse pain in this life than I have, and it is not my intention to try to do so here. Rather, I hope to express through my narrative that when little has made sense about my suffering and God’s place within it, the person of Christ and the cross he bore assures me that I am not carrying my burdens alone. I firmly believe that whatever its cause, course, or purpose, our suffering will ultimately be redeemed by God, who, as promised, will one day wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rev 21:4). However, until that day, we are called to lay our burdens on a God who calls himself “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps 46:1).
And during those times when we can’t help but return to asking the dreaded “why me?” question, we may rest assured knowing, as Yancey puts it, that “suffering can never ultimately be meaningless, because God himself has shared it.”
anxiety, comfort, CS Lewis, death, depression, doubt, evil, faith, God, goodness, joy, love, Nietzsche, pain, paradox, Philip Yancey, prayer, sickness, suffering, theodicy