Two Truths for Deep Suffering
Sometimes silence is the hardest part. When those tears stream onto the pillowcase and you quietly beg God to take away the pain, but he doesn’t. When you throw in another load of laundry and your heavy heart asks him one more time for the request that has remained unanswered for years. When your eyes open up to another morning of suffering, and you wonder how the Lord will ever turn this darkness into good. And there is silence, and there is grief.
Anyone walking through periods of deep suffering knows the questions that surface amidst the fires. We wonder where God is and, in the most vulnerable of cries, we beg to know why he won’t make it all better.
These cries aren’t necessarily the jeers of the faithless, but can be the wails of the faithful. As Ligon Duncan once said, the reason Job lamented and questioned the Lord was because he knew who God was to begin with. He believed God was truly God. Like Job, we know our Lord is sovereign, all-powerful, and good to his children, so his seeming-silence deafens us in our grief. In our darkest moments we might wonder: Where is our Shepherd who is supposed to lead us? Where is our Father who is supposed to draw us close?
While there are many ways to answer these questions and give encouragement to a suffering saint, right now I want to direct the grieved to two overlooked, but mighty theological truths.
The first truth we can grip into during the pain of silence is the truth that God always works. Herman Bavinck called God the operative God. In John 5, Jesus himself proclaimed this reality after the Jews rebuked him for his healing of the man on the Sabbath. Jesus replied saying, “My Father is working up until now, and I am working” (John 5:17). Jesus revealed his oneness with the Father in their consistent and continued work in the world. This sentiment extends throughout Scripture, as Yahweh is described as a God who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Ps. 121:3-4). Our Lord works—always, consistently. “He cannot do otherwise than work,” Bavinck exclaims (p. 144).
This truth does so much more than simply add another attribute to a theological list. It’s the buoy we can cling to when we’re being tossed by the waves of hardship and feel alone in the sea of darkness. This truth reminds us God won’t work all things together for our good someday, but he’s working it out this very moment–even in the silence. We might not understand God’s timing or specific plan, but we can bet our life on the fact that he has never stopped working. He cannot do otherwise.
Not only can we revel in the fact that God works, but we can also find hope in the simple fact that nothing exists apart from the Father.
In the beginning God created the sunflowers, mourning doves, black bears, and great blue whales out of nothing. He fashioned man and woman from the dust of the ground and breathed life into their being. Yet our Lord didn’t end there. He didn’t create just to leave his creation alone. No, every single piece of matter on this earth continues to exist by the power of our Lord. As Bavinck noted, “The point is not that [God] lets the world exist but that he makes it exist” (p.160). Every butterfly that flits past your window and every blade of grass that brushes against the arch of your foot exists precisely because our Lord makes it. Colossians 1:17 says, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
Nothing moves, lives, or has being apart from the Lord’s sustaining hand—including you and I in the midst of our suffering. When we roll out of bed and trudge towards the bathroom after a night of tears and grief, the Lord himself enables us to take each of those steps. When we labor through another twelve-hour day of numbness, we do so only by the sustaining hand of the Lord himself.
God doesn’t work somewhere far off, but he draws near and actively gives us every single breath. Though our circumstances may not change and the pain may rage on, we can know for certain the Lord has never left us, for he enables our very existence. As you walk to the fridge, tumbling with questions, remember the Lord upholds you right there with each stretch of your muscle. As you pull on your shirt in the morning and feel the sorrow of despair, remember the arms that tug at that t-shirt are enabled to move by the very God you pray to. He never left you. The Lord is “present with all His excellences and with his whole being in the whole world and in all of his creatures” (Bavinck, p. 160). Even you. Even now.
These theological truths aren’t just for the days when we’re feeling studious. They aren’t solely for the seminarians or for eloquent teaching sessions in Sunday School. These are truths for the ugly and dejected parts of our lives. They’re for the saints who feel like they have no more tears left to cry—the ones gripping their bloodied knuckles into the promises of the Lord. They’re for the saints who wake up bludgeoned by the curse of sin. These truths are the hope for the broken and the stepping stones for the unstable. In our suffering we need their simplicity and the concrete reminder of who our God is even as we cry out to him amidst his silence.
Suffering saint, our Lord has not forgotten you. He always works. This very moment, in your very heartbeat, he sustains you, enables your existence, and demonstrates his care by his mighty and loving hand. He will today, and he will when you wake tomorrow. He cannot do otherwise.