Recently, I went through the most difficult period in my entire life. I can’t adequately describe the depth of heartache and upheaval I experienced, and on many levels am still experiencing. However, in the midst of all this, some foundational theological principles helped me keep not only my faith, but my sanity.
First, God didn’t make suffering happen. The hard fact of things is that, as a result of the Fall, the universe is set toward entropy. Things move from order to chaos, not the other way around. Therefore, bad things just happen. Car wrecks, earthquakes, cancer. They’re not part of some diabolical scheme on the part of the forces of darkness, nor are they proof of an uncaring and inattentive God. They’re part and parcel of living in a universe that’s become fundamentally broken because of sin. So, with this in mind, anger toward God seems a little misplaced. Now, the comforting part of all this is that God has the ability to bring redemption to these situations if we let Him. We can grow to be stronger individuals, and have a better picture of who God is. It’s not that God wants us to suffer just so He can teach us. The fact is, suffering comes naturally as the outgrowth of living in a fallen world.
Moreover, we’re veritably assured to go through hard times. Jesus makes many promises to us when it comes to our state of mind. He promises us peace, joy, assurance. But, one of the only life situations He promises will come our way is suffering. He tells us the world will give us trouble. We’ll experience trials. So, when suffering comes our way, we shouldn’t be surprised. Jesus already told us it would.
Both of these ideas may seem fatalistic, but they’re actually quite proactive. They prepare us to face suffering, and to keep a proper perspective in the midst of it.
Vocational ministry in no way excuses us from going through the crucible of suffering—if anything, it intensifies it. After all, those in vocational ministry tend to live their lives under the scrutiny of the public eye. So suffering in the midst of ministering can be a tricky thing, as that suffering is made uncomfortably public. Congregants can make the experience worse, with skewed theology giving way to questioning the righteousness of the suffering. If the leader is going through this trial, he must have done something to bring it on himself. This attitude is nothing new.
Thankfully, or perhaps frustratingly, the Bible devotes an entire book to examining the problem of suffering. Job asks the most fundamental question in the human experience: Why do the innocent suffer? Job’s friends accuse him of bringing it on himself, while Job insists upon his innocence and demands an answer from God. After chapter upon chapter of this tug-of-war, God shows up on the scene. Finally, an answer to Job’s perfectly legitimate question. But God isn’t forthcoming an answer. Instead, He points to the majesty of His creation, effectively dodging Job’s query. You would think this would leave Job a little indignant. Instead, he says this:
“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6 TNIV).
One wouldn’t be able to blame Job if he were a little miffed at not having a response for the most profound philosophical conundrum in history. Yet, for Job, the manifest presence of God is enough. God’s bigness makes Job’s questions seem irrelevant. When he’s brought in contact with a full understanding of the goodness and majesty of God, everything else seems trivial by comparison.
This means that our questions about suffering also melt in the presence of an infinitely good and loving God. It’s not that the questions aren’t valid. Rather, Job shows us that answers aren’t really what we’re looking for. What we’re seeking is an experience with a God who we know is good and just. This isn’t just blind faith. It’s also imminently logical and theologically sound. We don’t just believe God is good because that’s what we’re told. If we believe in a creator, then that very belief implies goodness. You see, the act of creation in itself is inherently a loving act. By that rationale, it tells us that the intrinsic nature of the creator of the universe is one of love. Of goodness.
Sometimes, that’s the only thing we can hang onto. We have to stay firm in the fact that God is good, in spite of the circumstances that seem to point to the contrary. If we do hold to this, what a testimony we are to those around us. There’s tremendous power in a leader publicly bearing up under trials, holding fast to God’s goodness. We may never understand suffering. We may never understand why God doesn’t intervene. What we do know is that God is good. And, ultimately, that makes every other question seem irrelevant.
Now, the sad reality is that this doesn’t always pan out in day-to-day experience. There are days when none of this seems real to me. There are days when all I can see is despair, and I can’t feel the goodness of God. These are the times when I hold onto a truth larger than experience. I mentally reaffirm to myself what I know of God’s character even when everything in my emotions screams that it isn’t true. It’s a road marked with pitfalls, daily stumbling and mad groping toward anything that seems like hope. It’s not the road I wanted, but it’s the one I’m on. My only choice is to cling fervently to what Hunter S. Thompson described as “the desperate assumption that someone—or at least some force—[is] tending the light at the end of the tunnel.” I don’t feel it, but I must believe it.
It may not sound like much, but most days it’s all I have.
This article originally appeared in Volume 2 of Neue Quarterly.