Finding Joy in the Clouds
A few months ago, I made a startling discovery.
In Scripture, clouds are associated with the very presence of God.
Before my surprising insight, my view of clouds had been entirely negative. I’d never liked cloudy days, especially when they were accompanied by storms. I like clear days and sunshine, blue skies and smooth sailing.
But as I was reading Exodus, I was amazed to see that clouds always brought with them God’s nearness. In the wilderness, the Israelites recognized the Lord in the cloud, as he spoke from it (Exodus 19:9), guided with it (Exodus 13:21) and revealed his glory through it (Exodus 16:10). And in the New Testament, God drew near to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration in a cloud.
My newfound Scriptural view of clouds gave me words to describe and understand a profoundly moving moment from my past when God himself came to me in the clouds. It was weeks after the unexpected death of our baby, Paul.
Nothing Felt Safe
Paul had been born with a heart defect, but after his surgery at birth, he was thriving. At two months old, we took him in for a checkup. The substitute cardiologist was so impressed with Paul’s progress that he took him off all his medications. They were unnecessary. At first I was elated. Paul was exceeding expectations. But the situation changed quickly. Three days later, when I got up to nurse him in the middle of the night, Paul screamed and went limp. We rushed him to the hospital but it was too late. Paul was dead.
I was stunned. I never thought something like this would happen to our baby. Or to me. I had had polio as an infant and lived in and out of the hospital throughout my childhood. I assumed that everyone had only one major crisis in their life, and I had been through mine. I expected the rest of my life to be easy.
With Paul’s death, my theology and my world were crumbling. It didn’t seem possible that the Lord would take the life of my precious son. God felt like a stranger to me. He couldn’t be trusted. Nothing was safe.
The Need for Nearness
Three weeks after I buried Paul, I was listening to worship music as I was driving. Though I felt distant from God, I knew I needed him. I had been crying nonstop since Paul’s death and felt an emptiness that wouldn’t go away, even for a second. I didn’t know how to cope. Storm clouds had enveloped me and the rain was pelting down. Every day.
As I drove, I surrendered everything I knew to God. I wanted to trust him, and I relinquished my demand to understand it all. I just needed Jesus. I needed him to draw near to me. To comfort me. To show me himself.
In an instant, I was overcome with an incredible joy and love for my Savior as God’s presence filled my car. It was almost more than I could take in. I knew this sacred moment was going to change me. I felt the Lord’s presence. Every joy or sorrow I had ever known paled in comparison. Indeed, one day in his courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
On that day, I felt as if I joined the Israelites who saw the glory of God on the mountain, shrouded in thick clouds and deep darkness.
Surpassing Every Storm
Through that experience 17 years ago, I learned that when life is sunny, I may have God’s blessings, but his presence is not as intense as in the struggle. It doesn’t feel like God draws as near without the clouds. There is an intimacy with him I have only experienced in the raging storm.
When pain engulfs me and my hope evaporates, I need to cry out to God. I need to praise him, to trust him in the blinding rain, to know that he is enough. And when I do, something extraordinary happens. God shows me his glory.
This glimpse of his glory overshadows my suffering. My focus is no longer on removing my trial; it is riveted on having more of him.
I still don’t like thick clouds. But the torrential downpours that have shaken my life have done deep work in me. And in the accompanying clouds, I find Jesus, and the glory of his presence far surpasses any storm.
More on God and suffering:
A Song for the Suffering (music from Shane & Shane)
20 Quotes from Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (post by Tony Reinke)
The Doctrine of Suffering (interview with David Platt)