Humility in Suffering

Jacob’s favorite son was dead. Parents aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jacob did, and now his son was no more. He was killed by a wild animal while searching for his brothers. All that remained was a tattered, blood-stained coat. Jacob would never see his son again, he was sure of it. However, in an odd turn of events, his son’s “death” was actually a cover up by his brothers. They wanted to kill him out of jealous rage, but in the end they decided to sell him into slavery. Years later when all this would come to light, Jacob would be reunited with his son Joseph, saying, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also” (Genesis 48:11).

In the midst of his grief, Jacob was unaware of so much of God’s activity. He didn’t know his son was alive. He didn’t know his son had children. He didn’t know that he would get to see his grandchildren. Beyond the immediate circumstances, Jacob didn’t know that God was going to use Joseph to bring Israel, a nation in its infancy, into the powerful Egyptian empire. He didn’t know that God would demonstrate his glory to the nations by freeing the Israelites from the oppressive rule of Egypt. He didn’t know that a prostitute living in a distant land would hear about this glorious God and submit herself to the sovereign Lord. Indeed, Rahab would proclaim, “For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt… for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” (Joshua 2:10-11). He didn’t know that this exodus of Israel would point forward to a greater deliverance found in Jesus Christ. He didn’t know. 

Jacob was right to marvel that God was good in ways he could have never anticipated. He was also right to grieve deeply at the apparent loss of his child. That is the point, that in the middle of suffering we are called to simultaneously grieve and exercise humility in the way we view God. A stoic response to suffering denies the honest outpouring of grief and complaint that we find in the Psalms. There is nothing spiritual about pretending like suffering doesn’t shake us to the core. On the other hand, we are not then justified in our anger towards God or free to attack his goodness. We are commanded to suffer in humility. 

The book of Job illustrates the necessity of humility in suffering. Job had the worst day anyone has ever experienced. He lost nearly everything precious to him in a few minutes’ time. All but his wife and his own life perished in a moment (Job 1). Initially, Job responded quite well, even rebuffing his wife’s counsel to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9). However, as the story unfolds Job demanded an audience with God. He summoned God to trial where Job will serve as the prosecutor and God as the defendant. The Lord arrived and quickly took over the court proceedings. God quickly offered his opening defense, a shotgun blast of questions for Job that drove home the point that God is God and Job is not. His defense was loud and clear, even if it wasn’t what Job was expecting: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:3). And, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2). Job had no rebuttal and would eventually forfeit his case. Job received the message: when life doesn’t make sense, trust God’s nature and character. Or, as I heard a sister in Christ put it recently, “God answers our ‘why’ questions with ‘who’ answers.”

Whether it is our personal suffering or we are observing the suffering of someone we love, we should resolve to walk in humility before God and others–acknowledging life doesn’t always make sense, while relentlessly clinging to the character of God. After all, he is up to good that we may not be privy to on this side of eternity. 

Admittedly, this article is preparatory in nature. By that I mean that this may not be the place to send someone in the middle of heart-wrenching grief. Begin by weeping with them. Michael Horton helps us here: “Even comforting truths can be an irritation when our nerves are raw. Understanding who God is, who we are, and God’s ways in creation, providence, and redemption–at least as much as Scripture reveals to us–is to the trials of life what preparing for the LSAT is to the practice of law.” Like a lawyer who prepares for his or her practice by intense study and training, so we study theology, at least in part, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable day when suffering arrives. We are wise to consider the goodness, sovereignty, wisdom, and plan of God before suffering beats down our door and overwhelms us. Only then will we be prepared to walk through suffering with a humble trust in God.

Credits

Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

Michael Horton,  A Place for Weakness: Preparing Yourself for Suffering (Gran Rapids, Zondervan, 2006) P. 19.

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Genesis 48:11 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

The Lord Will Not Cast Off Forever

God desires that His mercy be felt by those who are enduring seasons of uninterrupted suffering. Unfortunately it is difficult for us to see this mercy when we are the ones who are in the valley. In seasons of suffering there are particular Scriptures that rise to the surface and keep us afloat.

Perhaps the most common Scripture we turn to is Lamentations 3:22-24 where God declares His mercies are “new every morning.” Suffering can become especially difficult when the encouraging phone calls, texts, and check-ups dwindle and it feels as though all that remains is ourselves and our anguish. In these moments we need to know that God’s mercies are new every morning. Although our family and friends may grow fatigue in their compassion, God’s compassion never grows weary. How could we ever grow tired of hearing such merciful words?

While Lamentations 3:22-24 gets a lot of our attention it should be no surprise that the entirety of Lamentations 3 is well-supplied with other truths to anchor our souls during times of suffering. Time and space will not allow us to fully expose all of the truth which can be found in Lamentations 3 but we do well to at least consider three truths from Lamentations 3:25-33.  

It is Good to Wait Quietly on the LORD

Lamentations is a series of laments before God. To lament is to cry out to God in honesty with what you are thinking and feeling. Because lamenting is often something we do in our hearts it isn’t necessarily audible to others but it is always vocal before the LORD. In fact, Jeremiah urges Jerusalem to “cry out in the night” and to “pour out your heart like water” (2:19). But how do we reconcile these statements and the nature of a lament with God telling us that it is good for us “wait quietly” (v.26) and to “sit alone in silence” (v.28)?

Commentator Robin A. Parry suggests that one way to understand this confusing message is by understanding that “it is not a literal silence that the man is recommending but an attitude of expectant trust.” Lamenting to God is not literally silent but it is grounded by a certain confidence in God’s character. When we hurt we must we cry out to God we pour out our hearts and we tell Him what is on our mind but all the while those emotions and thoughts are governed by who Scripture reveals God to be.  We see this happening in Jeremiah’s lament when he calls to mind particular theological truths starting in v.21(“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope”) after speaking rather freely in 3:1-18. This is not an easy balance but it is what God calls us to.

The Lord Will Not Cast Off Forever

One reason we wait quietly on the LORD is because He “will not cast off forever” (v. 31). Although the LORD is the one who caused or allowed our suffering, He will eventually have mercy on us (v.32). In other words, our suffering has an expiration date. Even though it can feel as though the suffering looming over us will never relent, this is typically not the case. 

However, sometimes God doesn’t deliver us from our suffering. Sometimes the cancer is terminal and sometimes the hurt of losing a loved one persists. Is God still faithful to His promise to not cast us off forever? Certainly! Even when God allows our suffering to continue in this life God is faithful to His Word because when we enter into eternity with God He will deliver us from every hurt and heartache. Nevertheless, our hope is that God will deliver us from our suffering in this life but even if He doesn’t we know the day is coming when our suffering has a conclusion. 

The LORD Does Not Afflict From His Heart

While God is revealed to be sovereign over our grief (“though he cause grief” – v.32) Jeremiah is careful to point out that “he does not afflict from his heart” (v.33). This means that God does not delight in causing or allowing us to experience suffering. In a sense it is as if God brings suffering to our doorsteps reluctantly only because it is “necessary” for some divine purpose. God does not waste suffering. If we are enduring something painful God is up to something. We are not privy to what that something is but we know that God does not delight in our suffering and that only in eternity will we get our questions answered.

In Conclusion

These truths do not take away all of our suffering, but they do change the way that we endure suffering. Mark Vroegop wrote a wonderful book on the grace of lamenting called Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy and he makes the comment that we “live through suffering by what [we] believe, not by what [we] see or feel” (pg. 110). In the midst of suffering the one who is in Christ is never alone. God is always there in the midst of suffering and what we believe about God makes the difference.  

Credits

Photo by Igor Goryachev on Unsplash

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Obadiah 3 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Parry, Robin. (2010). Lamentations (p. 104). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Vroegop, Mark. (2019). Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy (p. 110). Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Sickness and Suffering: How to Pray

Prayer request time in any church can devolve into a long list of distant relatives (or relatives of relatives) with relatively (pun intended) minor ailments. Though it can make us laugh when we are asked to pray for Aunt Loraine’s cousin’s friend’s colonoscopy, we are often faced with far more serious, and close to home, requests.

My wife recently spent the better part of a week in the hospital with a severe infection. As I sought to pray for her, it got me thinking about how exactly I should pray for those who are sick. The following is not the only four things we can pray for a sick person but can serve as a guide to get us moving in the right direction.

How should we pray for those with some kind of physical illness or weakness?

Appeal to the Lord for healing

Most Bible scholars agree that Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12 was some kind of physical ailment. Paul prayed to God multiple times, asking him to take away this thorn in the flesh. Likewise, the Apostle John prays for the health of the recipients of his 3rd letter, “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 2).

As part of our prayer for those who are sick, we ought to ask God to grant them healing.

Ask the Lord for sustaining grace so that the sick might suffer well

God, for his own purposes and will, chose not to take away Paul’s thorn in the flesh. Three times Paul asked for it to be removed. Jesus’ answer finally came, “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” Paul concluded thenTherefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weakness, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus promised sufficient grace for Paul to endure his physical suffering for the glory of God.

God is faithful and will always grant his children one of the two things: 1) healing or 2) sufficient grace to walk through physical sickness to the glory of God.

Admit that God’s will is superior to ours

On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus pleaded with the Father to spare him from the impending suffering of the cross, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me–nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). It was the will of the Father for Christ to suffer and it brought about immeasurable good. Similarly, If God chooses not to heal, we must trust God’s good and sovereign will. God is so good, wise, and loving that even when we don’t understand, we trust that his plan is the better than ours. Tim Keller says it this way, “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.”

Anticipate the suffering-free glories of heaven

As we pray for others we can anticipate a day where we won’t hear words like “cancer” or “death.” Sickness and suffering are both temporary aspects of our broken world. Revelation 21:3-4 remind us, “… ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore…” We long for that day. Come quickly, Lord Jesus.

Credits

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (2 Corinthians 12:7ff and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Tim Keller. Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Penguin: New York, 2014) 228.