When I suffer, I become certain of two things: 1. God exists, and 2. he is a traitor.
I didn’t always believe that. I accumulated experiences with God. In every unpleasant moment, in every tragedy, in every moment of confusion, a light and deceptive hand turns my mind’s gaze Godward:
“He did this.”
“He should have stopped this.”
“He wants you to think you can be happy . . . but he’s a mischief maker. A traitor.”
If we can’t identify those arguments in our hearts, they’ll own our thoughts, emotions, and actions. They will drive us as we process pain. Very easily, even subconsciously, we learn that God is a traitor.
I could be happy or I could be heartbroken.
God is in control.
God said he loved me.
One of these things cannot be true.
Therefore, I trust him a little less now.
Multiply that times a thousand losses, pains, or failures, and we can easily descend into a betrayed and victimized theology: God is a traitor.
During grief — during a breakup, after a funeral, after another failed attempt, another failed pregnancy — God pulls the rug out from under you. Again. And again. And again. What’s going on? Why exactly am I trusting you, again? In those moments, God has five things to say.
1. “I love you so much.”
In the 2011 movie Warrior, an abusive and distant father reunites with his son after the son fled with his mother fifteen years earlier. The father, now a Christian, tries to show compassion to his son, who is in trouble. The son says to him, “You’re trying? Now? Where were you when it mattered? I needed this guy back when I was a kid. I don’t need you now. It’s too late now. Everything’s already happened.” It’s difficult to find more apt words for feelings toward God during intense suffering.
But those feelings paint an illusion. They’re misleading. God is not absent. God is not abusive. God is not hands-off before, during, or after our suffering. It’s almost impossible to believe, especially when we feel betrayed by him. But it is possible to believe that God is not an abusive father. And even if you can’t believe it, God does love you. And that’s not just a feeling that he has. God’s love governs the way he acts — the way he plans your life, the way he makes you feel, the way your world works. It all screams, “I love you.” Everything about the Christian’s relationship with God can be summed up in a single phrase: “I love you so much. And I’m not going anywhere.”
If there’s one adjective that accompanies God’s love more than anything in Scripture, it’s this: steadfast (1 Kings 8:23; 2 Chronicles 6:42; Psalm 36:7; 42:8). He’s not inconsistent. He’s not unreliable. And he’s not removed. That is the most important thing to hear.
2. “I feel your pain.”
God feels our pain in two ways. First, God feels your pain. God’s emotional life is tied up in our every action and experience: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30; see also the emotional life of Jesus in John 11:35, for example). God knows the feeling you feel even more intimately than you do. He sustains the atoms that make up your uneasy stomach, your heightened nerves, your flowing tears — he knows the feeling (Acts 17:28).
Second, God was betrayed. In fact, he chose betrayal as the vehicle by which his love for you would be displayed — of all things, betrayal by a loved one. And because of this, “Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me’” (John 13:21). God has felt betrayal.
3. “I did ordain this.”
When I suffer, I want to loosen the theological screws that feel like they’re squeezing a clamp on my head: God couldn’t have ordained this, at least not if he’s good. But we must veto our heart’s inclination to outsource our authority from Scripture to our emotions. Emotions are important. But they never dictate external reality. Our passionate preference for how he should have conducted our life quickly becomes a conviction that God couldn’t have conducted it at all. Of course God would have done it my way.
“At the cross, God felt more abandoned by God than you ever will.”
Suffering forces us to come to terms with an emotionally unresolvable reality: “My hand laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I call to them, they stand forth together” (Isaiah 48:13). There is nothing that occurs outside his sustaining and intentional will. He blesses and curses. He gives and takes.
God’s sovereignty makes God an easy target for blame and accusation. And he, with compassionate understanding, returns love for accusation (Romans 2:4). Just as God receives our imperfect thanksgiving as a jovial father, he receives our imperfect grief as our patient counselor. He even ordains our imperfect grief: “for you have indeed done for us all our works” (Isaiah 26:12).
4. “The suffering may not end here.”
Every well-meaning Christian wants to make the promise to themselves, “This will end.” As Tim Keller once said, the notion that God will certainly end your suffering in this life is not only misinformed and incorrect, but an insult to the billions for whom God does not end many multiple forms of suffering.
The key in this life to decoding uncertain and unbearable circumstances is not spiritual assurance, but spiritual realism. We may wish Job’s friends were right, and God were a legalistic lever of retribution and reward. Then at least we’d have a little control over our suffering. Then at least we’d have a little hope for change in our helplessness. Then we could bring our innocence and our suffering to God and scream, “Traitor!”
But betrayal assumes broken terms. And as much as we want to include circumstantial comfort with God’s promises to us, it’s not what God said. We’ve been tricked by Western comfort and by our own flesh. The truth is, God has never given us terms of comfort or circumstantial peace in this life. God groans with us, “This is not how it’s supposed to be.”
Then what use is God to our suffering if he ordains it and doesn’t promise to end it? My response to suffering is typically either to take the world by charge — frantically doing anything and everything to fix things or relieve the pain — or to curl up in a ball of self-pity.
“God knows the pain, disappointment, and confusion you feel, even more intimately than you do.”
How should we face suffering? “Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword’” (Matthew 26:52). Put my sword away? But there’s a war to fight. There are diseases to cure. There is back pain to deal with. There’s debt to overcome. There’s heartbreak to be healed. We watch Demas’s departure with wanting eyes: “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10). That looks like an easy road out of suffering.
Thessalonica doesn’t sound so bad. But we must remember: Wherever we go, whether it’s Southern California, Thessalonica, or deeper inward into our shells of self-protecting bitterness toward God — anywhere but God’s face — we will take our tears with us. We will carry our suffering in our hearts. And we will find someone else to blame — ourselves, a friend, a boss, or a spouse. This life is a life of tears because we live in a world of sin. And one day, every Thessalonica will be burned up with the chaff, and God, the one we blame, will be the one — the only one — to wipe away our tears: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
5. “I will never leave you.”
God felt more abandoned by God than you or I ever will. Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Because of the death of Jesus on the cross, we will never experience the same abandonment that he experienced in that moment. We may experience Judas-like betrayal, even (or especially) by the church. Most people who struggle to believe God is good have been deeply hurt by the church. And the church has not necessarily been the most helpful in that kind of hurt.
Jesus never abandons us. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). That promise may feel a little flat in the moment. It feels like it flirts with belittling some serious feelings — minimizing or ignoring the pain of sufferers who have walked away from God because they felt abandoned. We rummage through our sin to find the reason why God has abandoned us. Or we present God with a deposition: Here are the facts. You have failed as a provider, a shepherd, a father. How could you possibly be here, with me, in this? You left me!
But he never leaves. He doesn’t go. He hasn’t failed. “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” (Luke 11:11). He stays. That’s why the steadfastness of his love is so important. He offers us only one perspective on our pain: the eternal perspective. And if he does change your circumstances for the worse, or for the better, that is from him, too. It’s both bitter and sweet. God scripts the bitter herbs into our diet on this earth. Some more than others. We can only wait and pray for mercy and the strength we need for whatever comes or remains today.
God has not betrayed us. We have broken our covenant with him many times. And in Christ, he never points the finger of accusation — he only offers his warm, undeserved embrace, again and again, even through unimaginably difficult circumstances. Lord, have mercy on us, sinners and sufferers.