RESPONDING TO SUFFERING
How would you like to be Ashlyn Blocker? I read an interesting story about her. Ashlyn comes from a small town in the US state of Georgia. Even as a young child, she was fearless. It didn’t bother her to go to the doctor or dentist, for she was not at all afraid of their needles and drills. Climbing to the top of a tall tree, or doing somersaults off the jungle gym did not scare her because she was not afraid of falling
Why was little Ashlyn so fearless? It wasn’t because she can take the pain. Rather it was because she is incapable of feeling pain. She was born with a rare genetic disorder that makes her unable to feel pain. There probably are times when we would like to be like her. It would be fun to go the dentist, and when told that you need a root canal, you could respond, “Just skip the novocaine. I don’t need it!”
But in reality, life is challenging and even dangerous for Ashyln because she cannot feel pain. When her baby teeth came in, she would chew her lips bloody in her sleep, for there was no sensation of pain to awaken her. When eating she would bite through her tongue. When she was three she put her hand on a hot pressure washer in their backyard. Afterwards her mother found her simply staring at her red, blistered palm. And so each day after recess, she had to be examined by the school nurse to make sure she did not hurt herself, because Ashlyn would not know if she did.
Regarding Ashlyn’s condition, her mother stated in the article, “Some people would say that’s a good thing. But no, it’s not. Pain’s there for a reason. It lets your body know something’s wrong and it needs to be fixed. I’d give anything for her to feel pain.”
I’m sure it goes without saying that none of us like pain – be it physical pain, emotional pain, or any other kind of pain. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if there were no pain and suffering? Wouldn’t our lives be more pleasant and enjoyable if we didn’t have to deal with pain, suffering, and disappointment? Well, maybe, but maybe not.
Today I’d like us to consider the painful experiences we all face. More precisely, I’d like us to consider our response to the painful experiences that strike our lives. And I want to say at the outset that I will speak today only in general terms. I won’t try to answer all the questions that may arise regarding particular experiences of suffering – why did God let this happen – and so forth. It’s probably not possible to answer all our questions anyway. There is always something unique and personal about experiences of suffering. But there are some general principles that help us deal with suffering in a positive way.
There are two times we can talk about suffering. One is when we are in the midst of suffering. But at those times we are not likely to be interested in answers and reasons. We don’t want answers; we just want relief when we are going through a painful experience.
A far better time to think about suffering is before it strikes our lives. As followers of Jesus we are not immune to suffering. Physical illness, the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, being treated unfairly – these and countless other examples are simply part of life in this fallen world. We can count on such experiences invading our lives. When they do, we will be able to deal with them better if we have given some thought and reflection to suffering and its possible purposes long before they strike.
One of the questions that is often asked is: Does God send suffering our way? Or does God merely allow it? We need to be careful when we try to speak for God, but I would guess either can be true. I don’t think God has scripted out every event that happens, so I don’t think it is right to say that anytime we go through a painful experience it is because God sent it our way. For sometimes we bring it on ourselves. Poor health habits will lead to illness. Poor work habits may get us fired. Poor budgeting habits may lead to financial loss. We can’t blame God for the pain and sorrow we experience when those things happen. Other times another person is the source of it. And sometimes it’s simply part of living in a fallen world, a world that has separated itself from God and God’s ways, and thus reflects the brokenness and pain that accompany a world bent on its own way.
It is accurate, though, to say that sometimes God directs suffering our way. But that is only when there is a higher purpose or greater good that requires it.
Consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh. He doesn’t say what it was, but he says he prayed that God would remove it. So obviously it was something that caused Paul great difficulty. But God did not remove it. As he writes in II Cor. 12, Paul came to realize that because he was granted visions of heaven and understanding of God that had not been revealed to anyone else – all of which he needed to plant many of the churches in the Roman world and to write much of the New Testament – he needed this thorn in the flesh to help keep him humble. For it would have been easy for him to start to think that he was better than anyone else, or to begin to think that God’s power working in and through him was evidence of his greater status. This thorn in the flesh reminded Paul that he was but a human being subject to the same challenges as anyone else and just as dependent on God’s grace to get him through each and every day.
And so sometimes, as a part of our spiritual formation and growth into the likeness of Christ, God, in His perfect wisdom, may see that some experience of suffering is necessary to shape us into His people, to deepen our faith, or to prepare and equip us for some future ministry.
But as I said, often suffering comes to us for reasons other than God sending it; suffering is just part of life in this fallen world. But even then, there are always things we can gain from such an experience. It may make us more compassionate toward others who have had similar experiences. It may teach us to depend on God more. It may open our eyes to the fleeting nature of this world. It may help us rearrange some priorities. It could be any number of things.
In Psalm 42 we read of someone who was going through a very painful experience. The writer of this psalm is not identified by name, although it says this was written by one of the Sons of Korah. The descendants of Korah played a central role in leading the Israelites in worship. In both the tabernacle in the wilderness and the temple in Jerusalem the descendants of Korah produced and performed the temple music used in the worship of God. This is what one of the Sons of Korah wrote:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon – from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.
By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.
I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?”
My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
Have you even been in a situation where you felt God had forgotten you? Abandoned you? That’s how this writer felt. He even put the question to God in vs. 9: “Why have you forgotten me?” His soul was downcast, as he said several times. In other words, not only was there the experience of suffering itself he had to deal with, but along with that, or even as a result of that, depression had sunk in. He was in the pits of despair, without hope. And so he said that his tears had been his food day and night.
What was the experience of suffering that led to the writer’s deep depression? He doesn’t say directly, but he implies that he is being led away from Jerusalem as a captive, perhaps to Babylon. For he says that he was oppressed by the enemy and that he will remember God from the land of the Jordan and the heights of Mt. Hermon – which would be over one hundred miles from Jerusalem.
As one journeyed east toward Babylon – as either a traveler or a captive – this area of Jordan and Mt. Hermon is probably the last point at which one could look back and still see the mountains surrounding Jerusalem. He says that as he looks back on Jerusalem, probably for the last time, he will remember God, he will remember Jerusalem.
So it seems that the writer had been taken captive and was being relocated to Babylon, as happened to many Israelites after Babylon conquered Israel. Consider all the suffering that was thrust upon him as a result. He had to deal with the loss of his freedom for he was now a captive. He didn’t know if he would survive this long march as a prisoner. And if he did survive, all he could look forward to was being a prisoner or a slave in a foreign land.
As one of the descendants of Korah, his life had been centered on the worship of God in the temple in Jerusalem. Think of what that was like for him. His days were filled with celebration and worship, and he was leading the people. Now that was ripped away from him. In vs. 4 he remembered how with shouts of joy and thanksgiving he used to lead the processions of worshipers to the temple. That was but a memory now, and so without his vocation his sense of usefulness and purpose evaporated.
Besides all this, his captors taunted him, demanding of him, “Where is your God? Isn’t He able to deliver you? Can’t He come through for you when you need Him most? What kind of God is that.” And you can just hear them laughing and sneering. The writer experienced suffering at every level – physical, emotional, spiritual, mental.
No wonder his soul was downcast, for accompanying all his suffering was the sense of the absence of God. The mocking question of his enemies – “Where is your God?” – now became his own question – “Where are you, God? Why have you forgotten me?” And probably we have all asked that question, and maybe some of us are asking it now.
Yet as deep and real as his suffering was, in one sense it was almost as a gift to him. For while at times he felt abandoned by God, the truth is that this experience led him into a deeper experience with God. The opening of this psalm is really its conclusion. “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.” If we stop reading the psalm here, perhaps we think of someone on a spiritual high, in the midst of a mountaintop experience with God. God seems so close to him. The love of God envelops him and he just wants more and more.
But that is not the case. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The author writes out of his suffering and despair and a sense of God’s absence. That’s why he longs for God – because he doesn’t sense the presence of God. But his suffering and despair directed the writer not simply to an answer to his questioning as to why God had forgotten him. Rather it led him to seek after God alone. Now, more than the worship festivals he used to lead and celebrations he took part in, what he longed for most of all was simply God Himself. When he was stripped of everything else in life, what he longed for was not to have those things replaced, but rather to have a deep experience of God in His life.
“My soul thirsts for God, for the living God,” he wrote in vs. 2. It wasn’t his former role as a worship leader that he longed for. It wasn’t life in his home country. It wasn’t even his freedom. Not that he would not have welcomed those things, but he now realized those could not satisfy the deep longings in his soul. Only God could satisfy him. His profound suffering led him to desire an intimacy with God that far surpassed whatever happiness or satisfaction he received from all that characterized his former way of life.
One of the purposes of suffering is that it can bring to light all the things we look to in order to supply ourselves with joy and meaning, but which ultimately are incapable of delivering. And this can apply to good things. The psalmist realized that his role as a worship leader, which obviously was a good thing, was not a substitute for a deep and vital relationship with God Himself. In fact, his role could actually deceive him. He could easily conclude that because he was leading the people in worshiping God, his life was in order and his relationship with God was as it should be. But that could all be a deception if it was just religious activity without God at the center of it.
How easily other things, including good things, wrongly come to occupy first place in our lives. In so doing they rob God of His rightful place in our lives. And as a result, we are left trusting in things that are temporary, living for things that let us down or even hurt us because we are asking more of them than what they can provide. We end up pursuing things that draw us away from our only true source of fulfillment – a deep and abiding relationship with God.
That’s what we all struggle with, isn’t it? It’s not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy things like meaningful work, satisfying relationships, good health, and things that bring us pleasure such as hobbies, recreation, entertainment, and so on. It’s just that such things can easily come to dominate our lives. We find ourselves living for them, and God gets pushed to the background.
But we were made for a far higher purpose than anything this world can provide. We were made to experience a life-changing, joy-producing relationship with God. Everything else must be seen as secondary to that. The mother of Ashlyn Blocker said she came to realize and appreciate that physical pain is good for it lets our bodies know that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. In a similar way, any experience of suffering can show us if something is wrong spiritually, if something is out of order at the core of our lives, if we need to reorder our priorities, if we’ve pushed God to the background of our lives and trusted and even lived for things that aren’t worthy of being first in our hearts.
Our response to suffering reveals the quality of our relationship with God, as well as what our true values and attitudes are. This is not to suggest that anytime we go through a painful experience it is because God sent it and sent it for this purpose. But suffering can always serve this purpose. It lets us know where our true hope lies, what we value most, what we would hate most to lose, and how deep our faith in God is. If we let it, suffering can lead us into a more authentic hunger for God and a deeper experience of God as we realize that only God will never fail us. Anything else can be taken from us – our health, our job, our loved ones, our dreams, our reputation. Only God will never leave us or forsake us. This is just the psalmist came to know firsthand.
We can be sure that even in our darkest moments, God is with us. As the writer declared in vs. 8: “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me.”
In his darkest hour, when everything was taken from him, the psalmist was set free to seek God with all his heart. And in the night of his suffering, he heard the Lord’s song. In other words, he had the assurance of God’s presence and love. As difficult as his experience was, what he gained was worth far more than what he lost. What he gained was the understanding that God had not been at the center of his life, but now that his what he pursued and what he came to experience.
Suffering can remove the things we cling to, even though they actually block our experience of God’s love because we are so centered on them.
That is what the psalmist experienced. Everything was taken from him – his freedom, his homeland, his vocation, and even his religious role in the community. But in the midst of his suffering he experienced a deeper sense of God’s presence and God’s love as his supreme desire became for God Himself. In the darkness of his suffering he heard the Lord’s song.
We seek to live with God at the center of our lives not only so we have a sure foundation to support us amidst pain and suffering, although obviously it is great to have that sure foundation. But we also seek to live with God at the center of our lives so we can live all of life in relationship with God, so each day we can be firmly rooted in the reality of God’s love and the assurance of His faithfulness. We strive to live with God at the center of our lives so we can fulfill God’s purpose for us as we follow His leading.
Then, as God is at the center of our lives, all these other aspects of life – relationships, our career, family, etc. – take their rightful place and we can experience and enjoy them as God meant for them to be experienced and enjoyed. When God is at the center of our lives we come to experience God in all His goodness and faithfulness, mercy and love. And this is what we can experience if our soul thirsts for God.