How do you recover after your friends and family are murdered in church one Sunday morning, as happened on November 5 at First Baptist Church, Sutherland Springs, Texas? How do you recover from the devastating hurricanes or wildfires of this Fall? How do you recover from the shootings of Las Vegas? How do you recover from the sudden loss of a loved one? How do you deal with a diagnosis of terminal illness? How do you recover from a failed marriage? How do you recover from the mess that is your life? There is no end to the pain, and the circumstances don’t look as though they are going to change for the better. We may look for reasons why these things have happened.
“We want a world that is predictable – that has rational explanations for everything that happens and therefore is manageable. Explanations give an illusion of control, as if, by understanding why a thing has happened, I will be able to stop it from happening again. Maybe. But, for most of us, life is not so simple and certainly not under our control. Accidents happen, storms break out, diseases erupt, and irreversible damage occurs to our bodies, our relationship, and our plans….what I want to know now is how to live with God when things don’t get better.” (Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.22)
The Psalms are full of those questions and wrestle with the realities of suffering in life. In Psalm 13 David peppers God with the questions that trouble him.
First, the suffering caused by absence and silence of God.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
He experiences a spiritual desert. He feels alone, abandoned in the face of his suffering. He cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. He is impatient for an answer. He complains that God is not available to him when he needs him. He is demanding that God pay attention to him. He is treating God as a service provider. His attitude is presumptuous. He expects God to jump to it, to fix his problem, to respond to his request. He is frustrated and irritated that he isn’t being treated with consideration. Perhaps he needs a personal injury lawyer who will not settle for less than he deserves? It took 37 chapters before God speaks to Job. How long are we prepared to wait for God to speak to us? He is questioning God’s integrity. God does not forget us. It is impossible for God to abandon us. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa 49:15).
Second, the suffering caused by our inmost consciousness.
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and every day have sorrow in my heart?
Each of us has to carry in our thoughts and hearts the experiences of life: our hopes and fears, our achievements and failures, our joys and sorrows, our memories and dreams, our pains and our pleasures, our courage and our cowardice, our resentments and our acceptances, our selfishness and our sacrifices. We wrestle with our waves of memory as we stand on the beach of time.
Their murmuring music sobbed and sought a way into my soul,
The perfect past was present there, and I could see it whole,
Its beauty and its ugliness, its sorrow and its sin,
Its splendor and its sordidness, as wave on wave rolled in.
(G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, Judgment)
We revisit those memories, we replay the tapes, we reconstruct the conversations, we wonder what could be changed and how we could have acted differently. If only we could forget, forgive, and move on without our consciousness haunting us, and reminding us of the pain. There is the temptation to try to escape through medication, through alcohol or drugs, through mindless entertainment, to fill the hours with television or other activities. Instead, the Gospel offers to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Jesus can win the battle over our thoughts if we submit our lives to his Lordship. He can take our painful memories prisoner and has the power to demolish their power over us. He can banish them and replace them with purity of heart.
Third, the suffering caused by the enemy of our souls.
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, ‘I have overcome him,’
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
The agent of Job’s suffering was Satan. He leads the whole world astray and makes war against the saints (Rev 12). Much suffering comes from outside of us. There are many people who become tools of Satan, do much evil in the world and cause indescribable suffering to millions. They are agents of terror, political leaders driven mad with the lust for power, abusive parents, and demonically possessed individuals acting out their tormented rage on innocent people. To protect us we are given the armor of God so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes. We are engaged in a struggle against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:10ff.). We need the armor of truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith in Christ and his salvation, the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God, and prayer in the Spirit. Without them we are vulnerable to attack and defeat. With them we can stand our ground and be victorious.
These three questions will trouble us throughout our lives. There will always be suffering in this life. We cannot escape pain. Each of us has our portion to endure. We are all called to take up our cross when we follow Christ. But we do not do it alone, or in our own strength. David was able to process his cry for recovery from suffering with his declaration of faith.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD,
for he has been good to me.
Despite our experience of suffering, whatever it is, we believe that God is love, and that his love cannot fail us. He has shown that in Jesus, in his sacrifice for us on the Cross, his life of hope and healing, his victory over death and the devil. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
We can rejoice in that salvation that is given to us for this life and the life to come. For “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). We can worship and sing to the Lord for he is good and is good to us. “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…Who shall separate us from the love of Christ…Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:28,35,39). Trust in Jesus.