The woman he loved so deeply left him because he began to lose his sight. The two had been engaged to marry. George Matheson (1842–1906) went completely blind before his twenty-first birthday. He lived and ministered in Scotland for decades, and never married.
His eldest sister cared for him for more than twenty years after he lost his sight, until she herself married on June 6, 1882. He had depended on her, in almost every way, for all those years, and then even her eyes were taken away from him. The night of her wedding, he wrote the sorrow-filled lines he may be most remembered for today:
O love that will not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee.
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine oceans depths its flow.
May richer fuller be. . . .
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee.
I chase the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain.
That morn shall tearless be.
“The question is not whether we will suffer, but whether we will suffer with God.”
When the rain of all he lost threatened to drown the love he’d known — and he might have wondered if God had utterly abandoned him — Matheson instead wrapped his fingers all the tighter around the promises of heaven. He ran for the tearless wedding to come. His blind eyes, filled with joy, pressed into the tension so many of us feel in suffering: Intense and abiding pain often seem to cast serious doubt on the Father’s love for us.
Fear Can Inflame Suffering
Matheson’s hymn “O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go” has been recently revived, with new music, by Indelible Grace. When the group introduced the song at a live recording, the lead singer paraphrased a Puritan, saying, “If you don’t understand justification by faith, it makes every trial a double trial, because not only are you enduring the trial, but you’re having to wonder if God hates you.”
How often have you wondered, in the pain and confusion of hardship, if God might actually hate you? In the sensitive, sore, and exhausting moments of life, we have an even harder time discerning whether our pain is the discipline of a loving Father or the wrath of a righteous Judge. And we know enough of our own guilt to sometimes suspect the latter.
But suffering alone should not make anyone conclude that they are not loved by God — that they are not being loved, right now, through these trials. No one loved by God lives without the discomfort of discipline. God himself says, through another wise father,
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline
or be weary of his reproof,
for the Lord reproves him whom he loves,
as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:11–12)
The deepest, purest, most sincere love you ever experience will not always feel like love in the moment. It may even feel like hatred.
One of the most precious anthems for fragile and confusing moments like these comes in one of the most familiar chapters in all the Bible:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
“If we are in Christ, we cannot count the ways God will use suffering to love us.”
Is it fair to say that most Christians know these twelve words by heart, even if by accident? And yet how few feel — day in and day out, deep in the corners of their soul — the freedom these words describe? How many pray and sing “no condemnation” while secretly doubting God’s love for them, suspecting all the verses and promises and hymns were meant for someone else?
We know that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus — that he suffered horribly on the cross so that sinners like us would never taste the wrath of God — but many of us still wrestle with whether we are in Christ Jesus. And all the more when life seems to reinforce our fears, when wave after wave of pain and conflict and sorrow beat against any confidence that we are truly his.
The promise of no condemnation, however, is far stronger than any wave in the Pacific Ocean, and it was specifically made to believers in the throes of suffering (Romans 8:18). The reassurance was not meant for comfortable, secure, peacetime Christians, who always feel the warmth of God’s favor, but for those bearing a heavy cross — those groaning inwardly, waiting for a new body, a new home, a new world (Romans 8:20–23). In fact, we cannot be children, nor heirs, nor truly loved by God unless we suffer with Christ (Romans 8:17). That makes the experience of suffering with God crucial, even precious, for our confidence in his love.
The question, then, is not whether we will suffer, but whether we will suffer with God.
Fatherly Love or Furious Wrath?
When Paul wrote to the church in Rome, he knew the faithful would struggle to believe that their suffering wasn’t condemnation. He knew the deep, deep love of God would often feel like wrath. So, after declaring, “There is therefore now no condemnation,” he turns to our haunting question: Who are the children of God, and who are his enemies? Who are the saved, the secure, the forever loved, and who are the condemned? And who am I?
“The deepest, purest, most sincere love you ever experience will not always feel like love in the moment.”
His answer culminates with this summary: “If you live according to the flesh you will die” — you are condemned — “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13) — you may suffer, even severely, for a lifetime, but in Christ you will never again taste the wrath of God. Any pain you receive can only serve you in that one great war against sin — revealing, reminding, refining, purifying. No inch or minute of your suffering is tinged with wrath anymore. No shadow in your life can even begin to dim the floodlight of the Father’s love for you — and no trial or loss can separate you from that love (Romans 8:39).
If you are in Christ by faith, any pain you experience is the discipline of heaven, not the heat of hell. “God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons” (Hebrews 12:7–8). We really ought to fear a life without the precious pangs that train and purify every son or daughter of God.
Wrath That Leads to Life
God disciplines every child he loves, but that does not mean all pain is evidence of his love. Suffering alone does not confirm that the sufferer belongs to God. Some suffering does not lead to life, because no matter how much it hurts, the sufferer still refuses to repent and believe.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians whose selfishness, greed, and carelessness were defiling the Lord’s Supper. And not only were they acting sinfully, but they were unaware of the evil they were doing. Because of their persistent sin, they became physically weak and ill, some even died (1 Corinthians 11:30). God was screaming to them in their pain, warning them about the wrath to come, but they preferred their sin, and persisted in it.
Paul tells them that the sicknesses were meant by God to lead them to healing, the weaknesses meant to awaken them to their sin, even the deaths meant to keep some alive. “If we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:31–32). God will go to extraordinary, even painful lengths, sometimes applying fierce discipline, to save us from condemnation — if we will be done with sin.
The difference between sons and enemies, between discipline and condemnation — in every instance of our suffering — is whether we will renew our trust in Christ and repent of whatever sin he exposes.
Loved by God in Suffering
“No condemnation in Christ” does not mean there is now no pain for those who are in Christ Jesus. In fact, to be forever loved by the Father often means greater sorrow and loss in this life — but only in this life. And only to make us all the more fruitful in this life. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). When suffering comes — any suffering — we all should ask what, if any, sin we see in ourselves — what new or deeper fruit might this trial yield. None of us are ever too righteous to ask that question this side of heaven.
“If you are in Christ by faith, any pain you experience is the discipline of heaven, not the heat of hell.”
Sometimes we may be weak or ill or anxious or exhausted because we have refused to be done with some particular sin. God is sounding the alarm to wake us up to finally fight temptation and walk by faith, but we keep pressing snooze — and then wondering why we still suffer. If this is you, let this trial become the day of repentance. Flee from the awful wrath of condemnation into the arms of a loving Father. He is calling to you, with severe mercy, in your suffering, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Other times, the faithful suffer because, in God’s wisdom, our pain, though not tied to any particular sin, is somehow vital to our good. Maybe the suffering refines or softens some still dark edge of our renewed hearts. Maybe the suffering prepares us to love another sufferer well. Maybe our suffering, and how we respond to it, will cause someone to ask about Jesus and be saved. If we are in Christ, we cannot count the ways God will use suffering to sanctify us, to equip us, to provide for us, to draw us near — in short, to love us, with a love that will never let us go.