For I know that the Lord is great,
and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:5,6)
I write this post with a heavy heart, because we are neck-deep in this particular season of suffering. It’s not showing any signs of letting up, at least for now. It’s only bearable because God no longer seems like a stranger.
Of all the effects of suffering, this is one of the most disquieting: the God I meet in suffering is different from the God I thought I knew. It’s as if you turn to a friend and catch an expression on their face that you never expected to see there. Your wife of twenty years does something so completely out of character that you wonder if you really know her. Your father turns out to be fundamentally different to the man you loved and respected all these years.
The fault, of course, doesn’t lie with God. It never did. It’s that we live with unconscious assumptions about God and his dealings towards us, beliefs that would probably horrify us if we pulled them into the light (“I am exempt.” “God will do what I ask.” “That would never happen to me.”). So we leave our assumptions hidden and unquestioned, where they lend us a kind of empty comfort. The worst will never come, because… (here we fill in our own A, B and C).
This can happen even if we are well-prepared, our theology of suffering carefully laid down. In my early 20s, I read How Long O Lord, because we were told that those who read this book would be ready for suffering when it came. There was great truth in that. I still repeat this lesson to those younger than me. I don’t know how I would have weathered this storm without a strong doctrine of God’s sovereignty and goodness in suffering. But it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, suffering always comes as a surprise.
The storm front approaches, but you don’t see it coming. The world crumbles, the earth shakes, and you cry out in shock. Cracks appear in your theology. Suffering forces its way in and wedges them apart. They grow bigger and bigger, until your view of God threatens to collapse like a house on the sand. Suffering shows you the weak points. It enlarges them and says, “There!”.
I’m sure the weak points are different for everyone, but in my case, as I watch my son trudge through days of pain, it doesn’t take long to realise there’s something odd about my view of God’s providence. I can’t understand why medicine helps but God, it seems, doesn’t. Is it that he can’t? Or that he won’t? I know it’s not the first, but I can’t quite get my head around the second.
My son’s doctors, on the other hand, seem eager to help. They can’t do much, but what they can do, they do. It’s the same with the people around me. So why does God seem so unwilling? Why is he depending on medicine, when he could heal with a single thought? At some level, a level I barely dare to acknowledge, I ask, “Doesn’t he want to? Is he powerless? Does he care?”
So I turn to the same place I turned to all those years ago. I open How Long O Lord and struggle through those last, difficult chapters on God’s providence. I begin to read Joni Tada Eareckson and Stephen Estes’ When God Weeps, and Paul Grimmond’s Suffering Well. I search the Scriptures, and painstakingly rebuild my theology, brick by brick, starting with these words by Don Carson:
A miracle is not an instance of God doing something for a change; it is an instance of God doing something out of the ordinary. That God normally operates the universe consistently makes science possible; that he does not always do so ought to keep science humble.1
An odd paragraph to bring so much comfort; but comfort me it does. I begin to see that the God who made and sustains the universe works through medicine as well as what we call “miracles”: they are both gifts direct from his hands. Health slowly and painstakingly regained, or never regained at all, is as much an indication of his love as instant healing. What he wants to do in us may take time and hardship. His plans for us are bigger and better than the ones we make for ourselves.
The God I am getting to know is no cheap-and-easy vending machine: put in a dollar, get out a chocolate bar. He’s our Father, wise beyond knowing. His mercy is severe and his love relentless. He may never give us what we ask for, and we may never know why; but this God, who gave his only Son to die for us, who knows suffering from the inside out, can be trusted to be just and loving and good. As my knowledge of him deepens, he no longer seems like a stranger. I run into his arms and find comfort and strength and a secure refuge (Ps 46:1).
The God I meet in suffering isn’t the God I thought I knew. He’s better.
- Don Carson, How Long O Lord, Baker Academic, 2006, p. 217. ↩