Knowing God through Suffering: Introduction, Part 2

If God has ordained my suffering, what can I do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Well, nothing about my circumstances, but I can do something about my heart. 

I only have three choices. First, I can cry out to God like the psalmists and cling to what I know to be true about God’s character and promises. I can, in great weakness and desperation cling to the sure and steadfast anchor (Heb. 6:19), the shepherd and overseer of my soul (1 Pet. 2:25) who has promised to never leave me or forsake me (Heb. 13:5).

Second, I can make the mistake of distorting the biblical picture of God into something more palatable. I can come to believe that God is not in control, that God does not will my suffering, and that he weeps with me in my agony, but cannot do anything about it. Those who choose this path often want to attribute suffering only to Satan, but certainly not to God. They may even come to believe that God only ever wills for his children to live in health and prosperity here and now, so that He could not possibly ever desire suffering, difficulty, or loss.

It is true that Satan can be an instrument of God to bring suffering (Job 1; Mark 1:13; 2 Cor. 12:7), but to attribute all suffering to him is to reduce God’s Lordship in the universe. So, God does not sit by helplessly as suffering happens, neither does he promise bliss and glory now. 

Third, I can grow bitter and ultimately reject God. This is actually an easier choice to make than the second one for some people. For those who cannot accept a diminished God or the false promises of the prosperity gospel, the realization that God controls their suffering is unbearable. They cannot see how their suffering could possibly be good. They cannot discern any justifiable reason for God allowing their circumstances. They surrender to the truth that God is control, but it does not lead to worship. Rather, it leads to resentment. This typically leads to an abandonment of the faith, at least for a while. The unfortunate thing is that such a response does not change the circumstances of their suffering. They continue to suffer as before, but now with no one to whom they can turn.

What is the solution for this dilemma? The solution lies in one of the purposes for suffering—to know God. That is, one of the reasons God ordains suffering in the life of his children is that we may be cast upon him in our desperation and come to know him more fully, richly, deeply, and truly. Paul connects suffering with knowing God when he says,

…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death… (Philippians 3:10)

It was through sharing in the sufferings of Christ, enduring incredible trials, pain, loneliness, and betrayal, that Paul came to understand more deeply the love that Christ has for his people. When we endure suffering, great or small, and taste its bitterness, we are reminded that Jesus suffered the infinite wrath of God for us. We come to appreciate the incomprehensible price Jesus paid out of love to bring us into the grace of God.

All our suffering should draw us into a desire to know God more. This does not mean that we will gain answers for the “why” of our suffering. It does mean that as we know God more fully we can trust him and rest in him in the midst of the pain. We can, with Paul, glory in our weakness and suffering because through them we come to know the sustaining grace of God better and God’s power works in us mightily (2 Cor. 12:9-10).

This series is meant to draw you into a deeper, personal knowledge of God through your suffering. The more we know the truth of God, the more we can accurately and transformatively worship God (John 4:24). Theology is not meant to be merely academic but should lead to worship. After Paul contemplates the inscrutable acts of God in history, he bursts forth in praise:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36)

The purpose of this series is to help you know the riches of the glory of God so you might worship him with an overflowing heart. Such worship in the midst of suffering is transformative. It moves us from a focus on our pain and circumstances to a focus on our glorious God who is greater than our pain and circumstances. It allows us to step out on the stormy waters with our eyes fixed on Jesus, rather than looking around at the storm and sinking beneath the waves. 

My prayer is that as you come to know God more fully, your suffering will be transformed. Whether your circumstances change any time soon or not, may you be changed by fixing your eyes on the one who has promised to never leave you nor forsake you.

Read Part 1.

Knowing God through Suffering: Introduction, Part 1

“So, this is it. This is how I’m going to die,” I thought as I kneeled over the toilet in my underwear, waves of pain slamming my stomach. For the sixth time in two weeks I was experiencing unbearable pain, caused by the lemon-size tumor in my small bowel. What I didn’t know was that it had almost completely blocked my intestine and that I would be in the hospital within the hour. It would be my first of four stays in the hospital, culminating two months later in emergency surgery to fix a perforated bowel.

All of this was happening in the middle of chemotherapy to treat the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had been diagnosed a few months before. And that followed the discovery of a brain tumor weeks prior to the cancer diagnosis. I felt for the first time like I understood completely what the Psalmist experienced when he cried out that God’s waves overwhelmed him (Ps. 88:7). It had been one blow after another and little did I know that it would continue this way for some time to come.

Like many believers who seek to grow mature in their faith, I knew that suffering is part of the Christian life. I knew through the study of the Scriptures that we should not be surprised when we encounter fiery trials, as though something foreign and improper were happening to us (1 Pet. 4:7). I knew through my studies in theology that the way of Christ and all his chosen servants in Scripture was “humiliation before exaltation.” I echoed Martin Luther’s rejection of a “theology of glory” that seeks trouble-free bliss and glory in this life. If the Bible taught a “theology of the cross,” with Jesus as our example, then I should not expect any different in this life as one of his disciples. I had heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous quote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” My hope for trouble-free bliss and glory should have been firmly rooted in my hope of eternal life with Christ, not in this short sojourn.

Yet, which of us hasn’t struggled with the same doubts about the worth of suffering loss now? Peter voiced the same wavering skepticism as I often feel: “Lord, what’s in it for us? Will it really be worth it?” (Mark 10:28-31). How often I have grappled with the thought that it will not be worth it, that nothing in eternity will be worth my pain and anguish now. And this internal agony devastates me. I know what I ought to believe, but the pain if it is not true, is too much to bear.

If God is not sovereign over my suffering, if he will not ensure that this light and momentary affliction is preparing for me an eternal weight of glory beyond compare (2 Cor. 4:17), then my only recourse is despair. There is either an all-powerful, perfectly loving God who directs my suffering for my eternal good and his glory, or there is only chance in an unguided, meaningless world. In that case suffering is pointless and will bear no fruit that will make it worthwhile.

Suffering, then, puts a believer between a rock and a hard place. If you reject the idea of a godless universe, or one in which the gods are too weak to help, you must accept that your suffering is orchestrated by God, and that until God is finished with his project of transforming you, you can do nothing to escape his hand. This realization is felt keenly in several psalms where the psalmist attributes his troubles to God.

Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. (Psalm 42:7)

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20)

For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. (Psalm 102:9-10)

I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Psalm 119:75)

Nowhere is God’s control of an individual’s suffering more keenly felt than in Psalm 88, often called the psalm of the Dark Night of the Soul.

You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; (Psalm 88:6–8)

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I am shut in so that I cannot escape. Hmmm. Ever feel that way? In the darkest moments of my trials with cancer and surgery, laying in the hospital bed during those long nights, unable to sleep because of pain, or alternately drifting in a nightmarish fog because of opioids, I felt profoundly trapped. Trapped by God. No way to run, like David in Psalm 139:

Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Psalm 139:7–12).

If God has ordained my suffering, what can I do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Well, nothing about my circumstances, but I can do something about my heart. We will look at that next time.