I don’t have an answer to “if there is a God, why is there suffering?”. It is a question I repeatedly struggle with, but it is a question that I do try to engage with. In recent years I have had a few extremely painful experiences that have left me asking exactly that: where is God right now, when I am hurting more than I ever have before?
While I don’t have a definitive answer to the suffering question, I do have moments where I have understood in retrospect that God was definitely not absent in my life, even if I thought so at the time.
Please know that I don’t assume that each of these points will apply to every single moment of suffering someone will experience in their life, I am simply sharing them in the hope that one or some of them will resonate with you. If you’re suffering and God seems silent, here are four suggestions of what God might actually be up to in this moment.
1. He is Honoring What is Broken
At one time my only prayer for many months was “Lord, I just want this to stop hurting.”
I still look back on myself at that time and part of me wishes that yes, God could have just waved a magic wand and made all the pain go away. But later on, I felt very strongly that God had been honoring what had been broken. Not at all in a sadistic way, but in a way that understood very deeply, and with a lot of patience, that the suffering had changed me, and that God would do whatever it took, at my own pace, to creatively and carefully rebuild our relationship.
As much as I wished this suffering had not changed my life, He respected that it had, and the suffering had dented my relationship with Him. Undaunted, God stood back at a respectful distance, but never once took His eye off of me. He waited, like someone might lovingly do with a scared and frightened animal until trust was rebuilt. He did not rush in to fix, fix, fix (as I might have wanted to happen) but instead patiently and carefully allowed healing to occur. “Behold, I make all things new”. (Rev 21:5)
2. He Is On The Cross
Can a song change your life? It did mine. When I first heard Matt Maher’s You Were on the Cross, it answered a question that I had been asking God for a long time: where were you when I was suffering? While I believed God had been with me all my life and cared for me, there was one occasion when I truly believed that God had turned His back on me.
Within moments of hearing the song, I was in tears. Christ had matched my own suffering over and above with His moment of complete abandonment and abject loneliness on the cross, where He Himself had cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Where was God in my suffering? He was on the cross, suffering with me.
3. He Is in the People Around You Offering Help
When will we stop undervaluing this?! When I look back on the times I felt that I was truly alone and suffering, I realize that God never once left me alone in it, because He surrounded me with people who could help me both practically and emotionally.
I saw that these people were immense gifts in my life, and though I was not in a happy situation, my gratitude towards them made me see that tiny miracles were occurring in a very painful place. Saint Theresa of Avila wrote words to the effect that God has no hands but ours with which to do His work. In your suffering, He may very well be doing all that He can through the people around you.
4. He is Letting You Be Truly Honest With Him
I got really mad at God because I thought He wasn’t there when I wanted Him. I was mad, and bitter, and angry, for months. And then it came to me:
God’s love isn’t conditional on us coming before Him presenting ourselves as we think He’d like us to be: holy and quiet, or cheerful and energetic. God’s love isn’t conditional on us coming before Him with everything figured out, suffering enormously well as through grief, bereavement, heartache or betrayal isn’t hurting us. It is entirely natural – humanity being humanity at its realest – to be hurting from these things.
So I realized that God was still with me, standing protectively over me as I finally raged and was angry and expressed all my bitterness. It had been exhausting pretending before God that everything was fine when it wasn’t. Finally, I knew. God does not patronize us by breaking through our temper tantrums with well-meaning words we do not want to hear at the time.
He does not patronize us by telling us everything would be ok when we are mid-rage at the deep unfairness of life. He respects our feelings, even when they are not the best feelings we could offer Him. We can be truly honest with Him in every situation, and He will not desert us. We can tell Him exactly how we feel and He still will not let us down. We can rage and He will not run away. And when we are done, He will still be there to comfort us.
Behold me, my beloved Jesus,
weighed down under the burden of my trials and sufferings,
I cast myself at Your feet,
that You may renew my strength and my courage,
while I rest here in Your Presence.
Permit me to lay down my cross in Your Sacred Heart,
for only Your infinite goodness can sustain me;
only Your love can help me bear my cross;
only Your powerful hand can lighten its weight.
O Divine King, Jesus,
whose heart is so compassionate to the afflicted,
I wish to live in You;
suffer and die in You.
During my life be to me my model and my support;
At the hour of my death,
be my hope and my refuge.
Featured Image Source: Flickr.com, Lee Haywood