This week I’ve been thinking about the people I know who have given up on God. The ones who are angry at him, the ones who have decided he’s not worth their time, and the ones who have declared that he simply doesn’t exist. Maybe this is you, or maybe it’s someone you love. Maybe you’ve been told by a well-meaning Christian that God is the only one who will never disappoint you…and then your child died, your spouse left, or you lost your job or your home. Where was God then?
There are so many things about this life that don’t make sense. One year, just before Christmas, my husband received a profound healing from multiple life-threatening allergies that had plagued him for years. He was desperate. We both were. It’s a long story, but there was no question that our prayers had finally been answered. Years of struggle were redeemed and my husband had a new lease on life. We rejoiced.
The same week he was healed, my husband drove a missionary from our church to Johns Hopkins for cancer treatment. This incredible man and his family had given so much in loving the people of Central Asia; and yet, he was home because of a devastating diagnosis. It didn’t seem fair. We prayed for Joe. We believed God would heal him. But it wasn’t to be, and this precious man’s death made no sense at all. Why had we received our miracle and Joe and his family hadn’t? I don’t think I’ll be able to answer that question on this side of heaven.
Life is like that. It’s full of joy and sorrow, wholeness and brokenness, gain and loss. When it feels like you’re shouldering more than your fair share of the pain, it’s natural to doubt God’s goodness or to question whether he exists at all. And it’s okay to ask the hard questions, to be honest in the struggle.
One man described his experience of grief like this:
Go to Him when your need is desperate when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double-bolting on the inside. After that, silence.
You might be surprised to learn that these very raw and real words were written by the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed. He expresses what many have felt in the midst of suffering. He goes on to say, “So the conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God is really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’”
But Lewis, like many before him, eventually stepped out of the confinement of grief. Reflecting on the experience, he observed that perhaps one’s “own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” Slowly, he awakened to an awareness of God’s presence. The quality of the silence began to change.
The question of human suffering is not easily answered, and we’re probably delusional if we think we’ve come up with all the answers. Human beings from countless faith traditions throughout history have wrestled with these questions, but at some level, we need to accept the limits to our understanding. We’re not meant to be omniscient, and there is an inherent tension in that. When the tension becomes more than we think we can bear, it’s reasonable to look for a way out. This can often take the form of anger or unbelief. But maybe the problem of suffering needs to be viewed from another angle.
I love what C.S. Lewis wrote 21 years earlier in The Problem of Pain:
The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the center of them. Man is not the center. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.
That is not to say that humans are insignificant to God, or that he does not care about our suffering. Just the contrary.
We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well pleased.’ To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: …What we would here and now call our ‘happiness’ is not the end God chiefly has in view: but when we are such as He can love without impediment, we shall, in fact, be happy.”
We were made to be vessels of his love and that is not an easy transformation for any of us. The process itself is uncomfortable and often fraught with pain. The beautiful thing is that God came in the flesh to suffer alongside us. He is no stranger to suffering. Not only did Jesus have the experience of crying out to his Father from the cross while enduring unfathomable pain, he also suffered the loss of people he loved. Do you know the shortest verse in the Bible? Jesus wept. (John 11:35) Jesus was deeply moved by the sorrow of Mary and Martha upon the death of their brother Lazarus, even knowing that resurrection was at hand. And when Jesus learned of the death of John the Baptist he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. (Matthew 14:13) Friends, Jesus understands our suffering.
Let me be clear, he doesn’t promise to remove the pain, but he helps us bear it. Again, sometimes there doesn’t seem to be a reason for the suffering we encounter in this life. It’s easy to tie ourselves up in knots trying to explain things, but sometimes there is no explanation. And it’s okay to cry out to God, to pound our fists, to confess our inability to understand.
The words of Lutheran pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer carry much truth. Only the suffering God can help. God himself has stood in our shoes. As Christmas approaches, stop and think about that for a moment. The creator of the universe chose to become human, to suffer and die because he loves us. Full stop. Not he loves us when… Or he loves us if… HE LOVES US. And he too has experienced sorrow and loss.
So if you find yourself in a dark place, if you’ve given up on God, know that he hasn’t given up on you. In Lewis’ experience the silence doesn’t last forever:
Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off — waves or windblown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he’s not in a cellar, but free, in the open air. Or it may be a much smaller sound close at hand — a chuckle of laughter. And if so there is a friend just beside him in the dark. Either way, a good, good sound.
God is willing to sit with you in the darkness and pain. And when the pain shouts so loudly that nothing else can compete, give yourself grace. Don’t beat yourself up for having doubts or feeling that the door has slammed in your face. Our doubts can’t change the nature of God. He is so much bigger than our unbelief. And he might just be the faint sound you’re beginning to hear in the darkness. Are you listening?
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Shay Mason