Suffering

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. -Job 38:1

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for many people when it comes to the reality of God is something deeply personal that affects us all to one degree or another: suffering. It comes unwelcomed, uninvited, and out of our control. It strikes at the heart of all we hold dear and alters our lives forever. It is a relentless intruder and endlessly haunts us with when it will strike and to what degree it will inflict pain, stealing from us that which is good.

Why would a good God allow suffering? Why does an all-powerful God allow evil when he could stop it? Where is God in suffering? Why does God seem so distant, cold, uncaring, and silent, especially during times of distress? Is God even real? Why doesn’t He do something? The reality of evil and suffering is one of the deepest and oldest of human struggles. The book of Job, the oldest book in the Bible, is a relentless and raw wrestling with God over this very issue. And it is something I saw recently in the book of Job that leads me to write this article on suffering.

What I want to share is an insight into suffering and God that I never thought about before. It is a thought that I have personally never heard anyone quite approach this way when discussing suffering and the seeming silence and absence of God. Many have written extensively on suffering and why God allows it and how it does not disprove his reality. But I want to come at the issue of suffering a little differently.

I won’t be sharing any insights on why God allows suffering or evil, but I do want to speak to God’s behavior amid suffering. While many people testify to a sense of God’s presence in an unusually profound way during suffering, others testify to the opposite. Some feel they are drawn closer to God during suffering while others feel God draws apart from them when they need him most in their suffering.

One of the maddening things about suffering is God’s seeming silence. Why is God so silent in our suffering? While God does eventually speak to Job, we forget there are 37 chapters before where God is completely silent! Repeatedly Job cries out to God with the infamous “why” question and wanting to state his innocence and apparent injustice he was experiencing. But there is only silence from heaven for chapter after chapter. God seems absent. Disengaged. Unmoved. Uncaring.

But consider this. While there was only silence from heaven, there was no end of talk from earth. Job’s friends initially just sat with him and grieved along with him. They were present in his pain and let him know he was not alone. But then, they began to speak. One after another, they began to question and accuse Job of having sinned. Their explanations and theological insights were not completely wrong in and of itself, but they were totally misguided and misapplied to Job’s situation. In this way, they began to add to Job’s suffering by talking rather than continuing to sit with him in silence while he struggled through his pain.

And this is where my insight into suffering and God’s seeming silence and absence enters. I think we have confused God’s silence with God’s absence. I think his silence is evidence of His mercy rather than evidence of his absence. I think we have this all backward!

Think about it. What do we most want from friends in times of suffering and grief? Is it their well-meaning words which often ring so shallow, unhelpful and frustrating, or only their presence with us during sorrow and confusion? Job’s friends were a comfort to him when they just sat with him and entered his grief. Job’s friends added to his suffering when they opened their mouths and began to try to give explanations.

Even when God does eventually address Job and break his silence, he never gives Job a reason for his suffering. He never explains why Job was suffering or throws out nervous clichés to try to make him feel better. Sure, we are given insight at the beginning of Job into the behind the scenes spiritual drama being played out between Satan and God. But can you imagine if God simply told Job this was the reason for all his suffering? Do you think this would have made all Job’s suffering better?

Sure, Job’s later part of his life was blessed more than even his first part of his life. Sure, Job’s suffering was just a short season compared to the totality of his life. But God didn’t remind him to “count his blessings” or say things like “Don’t worry, things will get better.” God simply told Job of who he was and who Job was considering that reality. He reminds him that He was God and Job was not, and there are some things for which we can’t understand, and even if we did, it wouldn’t make things better or alleviate our suffering.

See, the reality is we aren’t really looking for answers in our suffering. We are crying out for relief. We are expressing our anguish and wishing the nightmare would not be true and that things would somehow go back to what was before our suffering. When Jesus cried out on the cross the universal cry of anguish in his distress, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22) he wasn’t asking for a theological explanation of the cross and what was happening. He already knew why this was happening! Instead, it was something much deeper; the anguish of the seeming absence of God and cry for relief from his suffering.

God knows what we most need in suffering is not answers but God himself. We want answers; God reveals himself. The problem, however, is that we mistake his silence for absence. But nothing could be further from the truth. God’s silence in suffering is evidence of his deep compassion for us; not evidence of his lack of empathy.

God is sitting with you in your suffering. He is right there with you. In his grace, he allows us space to wrestle, to struggle with our emotions, to grieve and even lash out. His silence is not absence; it is God absorbing our pain. Answers won’t alleviate. Silence may be deafening as all we hear is our own anguish but spoken too soon words will only add to our suffering not ease our pain. There will come a time when God speaks, but it won’t be what you may think you are looking for. God hears not only our words but our hearts. He knows what we most need is God himself. Immanuel, God with us. And that is where Jesus, our faithful Friend, enters our world and suffers with us and for us. It is where the Spirit of God comes and comforts us with his presence as only his presence can do.

Sometimes his presence, however, is the misunderstood grace and gift of silence. Other religions may offer reasons; Jesus however offers himself, along with the promise that one day he will right every wrong, wipe away every tear, and undo all that is wrong (Revelation 21). 

Where is God? He is right there in the very silence itself. He is the silent friend we most need even if we think it is not what we most want.