(This is a draft I wrote to prepare for a talk that I gave on this topic.)
Last year about now I was probably lying in bed pretty depressed with some Switchfoot music playing on my iPod. Jon Foreman has pretty much become my personal therapist. In December of 2013 I was prescribed a medication that lead to unforeseen side effects. Coming off of it was even worse than being on it. Coming off lead to some withdrawal. I was perpetually tired, I had weird tingling sensations and occasionally things that felt like electric shocks and I felt extremely weak. I can remember not being able to open a water bottle because my hands felt weird. Without knowing how long this would last I decided to take medical leave for the semester. Looking back I probably would have been fine coming back as the withdrawal only lasted a couple of weeks, but I had no idea how long they would last.
Okay so it is probably important to mention the fact that the reason that I was prescribed this medication is that I have been diagnosed with a “mood disorder.” It basically means it is a mix of depression, anxiety, and OCD. I was diagnosed my sophomore year of high school but my parents and I realize that it has been around much longer than that. I can recognize repetitive compulsive behaviors and intrusive thoughts going back years, but it was at this time that it got so overwhelming that I had to seek help. School, running (I ran cross country and track in high school and my freshman/and part of my sophomore year in college.) and God all stressed me out greatly. I had periods where I went on diets of very unhealthily restrictive eating because I thought the skinnier I was the better I would be at running. I would weigh myself daily and freak out if I gained a pound. There were times when I read a chapter of the Bible over and over again and prayed long mechanical prayers over and over again in order to appease God. None of this was because I loved God or wanted to get closer to Him, but because I felt I had to. I had perpetual condemning thoughts and was sure I was on my way to hell, if in fact God existed at all.
Back to last year. I was still constantly preoccupied with my running performance. After the symptoms of withdrawal ended, I had all the time in the world to do whatever it was that I wanted so I spent it all focused all on running. I ran as much as I could without getting injured and then I used the stationary bike to burn more calories, all the while borderline starving myself. Eventually I reached the point where I just crumbled under the weight of the pressure. Sometime in February of last year I decided that I had to quit competitive running. It was destroying my life physically, spiritually, socially, and mentally. At that point I decided I was going to transfer from Denison because I felt uncomfortable coming back. I did not have any close friends outside of cross country and track really and I was not even really close with many people on the team either. I had no clue what I was going to do with my future. After losing running, the biggest idol in my life, my life felt pointless. My entire identity was based upon my running performance and I did not have that anymore. I spent countless nights confused and wondering if God even cared or if He heard my cries. I could not even pray. All I could do was cry. I literally thought any life would better than mine. If it were not for my friend Sam, who was the only one I felt comfortable talking to at this point, I have no clue what I would have done. Luckily he had enough patience to respond to all my dumb questions with empathy and love. When I felt hopeless, he showed me the hope I have in Christ, when I felt my life was meaningless, he should me the meaning I have in Christ, when I hated myself, he showed me how loved I am by Christ. He force-fed me the gospel. He shoved it down my throat. Eventually he actually convinced me not to transfer or drop out. I still did not want to come back, but monetarily it was the best decision. I had no common sense at the time so I kind of just did whatever he told me that was the best thing to do.
I would love to tell you that I was miraculously healed and no longer had any OCD symptoms, but that is not what happened. We are obsessed with Christian success stories. We never here of stories of Christians who are not completely fixed up and are not singing “Shine Jesus Shine” with a fake smile. I am on a medication that helps and I am pretty stable. I do not experience many compulsive behavioral habits, but I do still have many obsessive and intrusive thoughts that haunt me. I still often think God hates me, I have overly-scrupulous thoughts and I doubt my salvation on a daily basis. I often only see condemnation. I have a hard time seeing grace in anything. Sometimes I still have just to go lie in bed and listen to Switchfoot to forget about everything. I pray for healing still, but at the same time I realize that if this is what God is using to lead me to the end of myself and to rely completely on Him, I will try to see that He is good despite my circumstances. If this His chosen way of pushing me to despair so that I may lean on Him then I will try to trust Him through the pain. In 2 Corinthians 12 Paul talks about a thorn in his flesh. He asks God to remove it three times, but each time God says no. We are unsure what the actual affliction that Paul experienced, but that is not important. J. I. Packer says that Paul left out details about his thorn in the flesh because it represents something all Christians have. There is something in all of our lives that we would love to get rid of, but God is saying my grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). It may be physical, psychological, social, or anything else, but we all have one. If OCD it the thorn in my flesh that God refuses to remove, then I will try to see that His grace is sufficient. I often fail at this, but will continue to strive to have joy amidst suffering.
Before I look at that God says about suffering, I want to look at how the American church approaches suffering. In the American church we react differently to suffering than the church has throughout history. When we suffer we sense that something is not right. We think that God is not good, but we see throughout history that affliction is often God’s chosen vehicle for reaching us. The Psalms are divided into praise and lament. I heard Soong Chan Rah mention a study that found that American churches disproportionally focus on the Psalms of praise than the Psalms of lament, which include struggling and suffering. We have no context for suffering and have not place to fit our experiences of suffering into the narrative of God’s work in our life. We are obsessed with the idea of turning around a disastrous life, of healing and of prosperity. This has largely been done with good intentions, though not always (some just want money), but has created an unnecessary burden and false hope for myself and others. If I had just a little bit more faith I would be healed. If I just read the bible and prayed 15 minutes more per day then I would be fine. (Though I probably did need to read the bible and pray more.) We tell people that God has a great plan for your life, and if you are in Christ He does, but we need to redefine what a good plan means. Maybe he wants you to live a long, healthy, happy, and successful life, but He might also want to allow your life to fall apart and show you through this that His grace is enough. In the only book that has ever brought me close to tears, Gospel Wakefulness, Jared Wilson says,
“it’s possible God’s plan for us is littleness. His plan for us might be personal failure. It’s possible that when another door closes, it’s not because He plans to open a window, but He plans to have the whole building fall down on us. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Will Christ be enough?”
When I look at Christian heroes of the past I do not find highly peaceful lives full of tranquility. Often I find the complete opposite. Often I find great suffering and affliction. Just a couple examples. John Owen, one of the greatest British theologians of all time watched all eleven of his children die. William Cowper the poet and hymnist who wrote “God Moves in Mysterious Ways” lived under paralyzing depression his entire life. He had to live with friends because he was unable to function on his own. He was at least once sent to a psych ward and unsuccessfully attempted suicide three times. Charles Spurgeon, regarded by many as the greatest preacher ever was described by his biographer as a “walking theology of suffering” due to all of his physical ailments combined with severe depression.
Now I want to look at what God says about suffering. The way I have organized what I am going to say mirrors Psalm 22. Just a little bit of context, Psalm 22 was written by David, but also quoted from by Jesus on the cross. He at least quoted the beginning part which is “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (v 1), but some scholars believe He may have recited the entire Psalm. This was a common practice of first century Jews. The layout of Psalm 22 is also a good way to pray amidst suffering. First there is lament and anguish at the suffering David is experiencing. Then there is remembering at what God has done in the past. David wrestles with this tension for the first 21 verses, going back and forth between the acknowledgement of pain and the remembrance of what God has done in the past, and finally from verse 22-31 he looks forward. There is hope to what God has promised in the future.
Read Psalm 22.
As we can see David, who was the man after God’s own heart experienced great suffering. God actually promises suffering. He does not say you might suffer. He says you will suffer. God promises us many great things, but he also promises trials and pain while we are in this world. In John 16: 33 Jesus says “I have told you these things so that you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Referring to persecution, a type of suffering all Christians will experience at some level, whether that is ridicule or martyrdom, Peter says “dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4: 12) Some suffer more than others, but all experience suffering.
So why is there suffering at all is something you may ask. The easy answer is sin. Suffering is a result of sin, but it is often not a direct result of your sin. It may be, but this is often not the case. Scripture is clear that pain and suffering is not supposed to exist. It is a result of the fall, when Adam first sinned. At the same time I have seen people try to link every instance of suffering to something. This is perhaps one of the cruelest and most insensitive things I have ever seen. All you have to do is look at the book of Job to see that this is a complete lie. Job is an Old Testament character who literally loses everything. All of his family and all of his property. Job’s friends heap guilt upon him as his life is falling apart, but God makes it clear that his suffering was not a result of his sin. So we must acknowledge that suffering is a result of sin in general, but we must not connect all suffering to specific sins. We are all born sinners, but sometimes suffering is not fair. Tim Keller says
“when suffering comes upon us inexplicably, as it did with Job, it means that we can indeed cry out in our confusion. We have a warrant for being in deep distress, and there is truth in our feeling that we are suffering unjustly.”
I have often felt that that the suffering in my life was due to some unrepentant sin. I know for a fact that this has happened to many others as well. This is a lie of Satan.
What does God use suffering for?
First, God uses suffering for His own glory. This tends to make people (including me) uncomfortable. Why does God need to use pain for his glory? I am not sure. I would much rather God use my pleasure and prosperity for His glory, but often He does not. God is glorified when we experience joy from the knowledge we are untied with him despite the fact that we experience suffering and He chooses to use suffering to usher in His kingdom rather that force. Suffering is God’s power on display. In Philippians Paul says that all of his suffering has been used by God to spread the gospel (Philippians 1 12-18). Joy in suffering draws people to Christianity like nothing else.
Second, God uses suffering to provide us with ministry opportunities. When we experience suffering we have an ability to connect with people in a way that nothing else allows us to connect with people. Shared suffering is one of the greatest ways for human beings to bond together. I urge you not to hide your scars because God’s work through our brokenness is beautiful.
Third, God works suffering for the good of all those who are in Christ (Romans8:28). Suffering in itself is not good, but God has the ability to work out all suffering so that it may be used to our benefit. John Piper said “the thorn is not just the work of Satan to destroy. It is the work of God to save.” God often uses suffering to draw people to himself. He uses it to sanctify us. (If you do not know what sanctification is, it is the process of making us more holy between the time we are saved and we die. We will never experience perfect holiness in this life. We will continue to battle sin, but as we walk with God longer we do progress in holiness.) Suffering causes us to desire heaven and the new earth and these may be better because we have experienced suffering on earth. Paul says that our suffering will be far outweighed by the glory of heaven and the new earth, so much that it is not even worth comparing (Romans 8:18). Paul even uses the word “achieve” to describe the relation of our suffering to our future glory (2 Corinthians 4:17) Often only suffering provides us opportunities for the beliefs that we hold to become real for us. Sometimes as Christians all of our beliefs are purely intellectual, but when we go through suffering we find out if they really hold up or not.
So now we know that we are going to suffer. We also know we have an infinitely holy and transcendent God. Often we think of God kind of out in the distance and unconcerned with the suffering humanity. We have taken the God of Christianity and replaced him with the god of deism. (If you do not know what Deism is, it is the belief that there is an impersonal god who created the universe, but then kind of got out of the way.) There is little more antithetical to Christianity than an impersonal God.
When God’s people suffer, God acts. Back to Psalm 22. Amidst suffering David remembers what God has done in the past.
David can look back to how God has delivered His people while they were suffering, but we have something even better. We have the cross to look back on which is God’s once and for all answer to sin and suffering. On the cross God suffered wrath for all of the sins of those that are His people. He experienced greater suffering than any of us who are in Christ have ever experienced or ever will experience. The cross is Christianity’s greatest answer to theodicy, which is a fancy word for the problem of evil. The cross shatters any notion that God does not care about our suffering.
I do not know how anyone could get through life with an unconcerned god who just looks on as humanity suffers John Stott writes ,
“I myself could never believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully at the statue of Buddah, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through the hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged into Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings became more manageable in the light of this. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ…is God’s only self-justification in such a world’ as ours.”
God does not always explain our suffering, but he shares I n it. Philosophical answers will not suffice in suffering though they can help, but we do know that we have a God who suffered for us and is still suffering with us and we have the community of believers to mourn with us and comfort us. We must judge God’s compassion by the cross, not our present circumstances.
A dying God does not give us much hope in and of itself. The cross is actually quite a hopeless scene taken by itself, void of the resurrection. Without the resurrection and the assurance that God is in control of every atom in the universe there would be no use having any hope or joy in our suffering. This would be blind faith, but blind faith is not what the bible advocates. If Jesus didn’t resurrect we are hopeless and have no reason for joy, but if Jesus did resurrect from the dead then it is proof that He can turn any suffering into glory. We must use this logic when we are suffering. We do not have a baseless hope. We must not judge God’s power by our circumstances but by Christ’s resurrection. As Corrie ten Boom says, we may not know the future but we know the God who holds the future. In the same way that Jesus’ sufferings may have seemed senseless, our sufferings may seem senseless, but they will lead to greater life. Our sufferings may never make sense until heaven. God is sovereign in our suffering. Though God is not the author of our suffering, he is in complete control.
So back to Psalm 22. David does not end with looking back on God’s past work. He looks to the future.
We can too look back to the cross and the resurrection and see that God’s promises have been trustworthy and thus His future promises are worth believing. We can look ahead to what God has promised: a day where God will wipe away every tear and suffering will be no more. We can look to the new heavens and the new earth. Because God has been faithful in the past, we are able to have faith that God’s promises are trustworthy.
So while we don’t understand our suffering, it is okay to mourn and ask God “Why?” as long as it is in a humble way and does not assume God doesn’t know how to handle our lives better than we do. Look at the Psalms. Look at Job. Look at Jesus. We should be distraught but not despair. Tim Keller points out that we as Christians are in fact encouraged to ask questions and cry out. Sometimes that is all we can do, but that is okay. In Romans 8, the greatest piece of literature ever composed, Paul writes “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” (v. 26).
I want to encourage you to continue to explore and wrestle with the issues of pain and suffering, whether that is through reading or more preferably discussions with other people, whether you are in a season of suffering or not. If you are not in a season of suffering now I am sure you know someone who is. I suggest discussions and community because sometimes being alone with your bible in moments of suffering can be dangerous. Reading scripture and individual prayer are necessary parts of every Christian’s life, but I have often found that when I am in a period of despair I only find condemnation in the bible. I am unable to see the grace and hope. Suffering is something that has caused me great doubt and I am sure that I am not alone. I also want to encourage you to be more open about the pain you experience, however that may look for you. I am obviously not encouraging you to share everything with everyone. That would be stupid, but exposing our scars and brokenness is both healthy for us and can encourage our brothers and sisters in Christ, while simultaneously displaying the power of God to nonbelievers.
I want to end by sharing a quote that I have written on an index card and taped above the desk in my dorm room. It is from Trevin Wax, a Christian blogger soon after the death of his grandfather. If you are in Christ you can confidently say along with him that “Today will be hard. But today does not have the final word…Tears and laughter today. Only laughter tomorrow.”