Does God feel near to you in suffering?
Sufferers often lament the struggle to experience and believe in the companionship of God. While people may encounter moments of surprising joy, the ever-present intensity of sorrow and grief can overwhelm the heart and create a sense of spiritual isolation.
Finding joy in Christ in the midst of suffering happens when we rediscover the presence of God in suffering. In a sense, joy is a gift from God to reassure us of the truth of his promises and the reality of his presence. Finding this joy, however, can be easy in theory and hard in practice.
The Loss of My Son
After the loss of my son, I discovered that so many of the common images of life that possessed no emotional associations in the past become emblems of sadness. The playground on the drive to work now provokes painful memories. The fire station that you never noticed now carries a daunting reminder of the paramedics who carried him to the hospital. The emergency room entrance at the Children’s Hospital previously did not matter, but now you drive miles out of the way to avoid ever seeing it again.
The optics of tragedy make seeing a fearful challenge in daily life. While we may conceptually accept that God is a deliverer, all of the visual wreckage and debris that surrounds our lives undermines the notion of God’s goodness. For most of us, images of our worst pervade our lives.
How does one find joy, and, therein, the companionship of God, when all of the images around us exacerbate our pain and feed our doubts?
Finding Joy in Tragedy
The second half of Isaiah speaks to a future audience suffering in exile. The Babylonians would conquer the Jews and carry them away from their land into captivity. Isaiah prophetically speaks words of hope to this people, who certainly would experience great spiritual isolation. The ordinary circumstances of their new lives would not naturally elicit joy.
In Isaiah 51, God calls the people to turn from images of their present tragedy and to look back to pictures and memories of his faithful redemption to his people. He cries, “Look to the rock from which you were hewn,” and, “Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you” (Isaiah 51:1–2). God calls them to remember his covenant grace in previous generations.
The faithfulness of God in his covenant to Abraham and the Israelites was a concrete memory. God does not first recall abstractions and principles; he first points the people to stories from time and space. They could remember a baby named Isaac, and a land called Canaan.
God brought to mind a once-desperate couple, Abraham and Sarah, beleaguered with despair in infertility, whom he carried to a place of great joy through the fulfillment of his promises. He offers the encouragement of hope and joy through the real-life stories of Scripture and redemptive history.
Present Joy from the Past
From these memories, God reminded the people of the joy that flows out of his faithfulness. Isaiah wrote,
For the Lord comforts Zion;
he comforts all her waste places
and makes her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song. (Isaiah 51:3)
God then calls the exiles to “lift up [their] eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath; for the heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment” (Isaiah 51:6). He reminds them of the temporality of the earth and of their circumstances. He declares that his “salvation will be forever.”
By looking back to his real, redemptive work in time and space, God offered a source of present joy for the exiles. He juxtaposes the eternal, steadfast nature of his grace with the fleeting nature of the trials of this life in a way that engenders a hopefulness and joyfulness.
The Joy That Lies Behind
When you are suffering and feeling distant from God, there is generally nothing which you can draw from present circumstances that will bring you joy and reassure you of his presence. In these moments, looking retrospectively to the faithfulness of God in his word and in our own lives can be the most helpful, joy-inducing way to process our pain.
I remember a bleak evening about one month after my son died, where my wife and I lamented the depressing state of our lives. We decided to close our eyes and praise God by remembering his faithfulness as seen in the stories of the Old Testament:
Thank you, Lord, for delivering Joseph. Thank you, Lord, for the Passover. Thank you, Lord, for parting the Red Sea. Thank you, Lord, for providing manna in the desert. Thank you, Lord, for handing over Jericho. Thank you, Lord, for providing Ruth for Naomi.
We remembered the faithfulness of the coming of Jesus:
Thank you, Lord, for sending Jesus. Thank you, Jesus, for healing the sick and the blind. Thank you, Jesus, for teaching your people. Thank you, Jesus, for dying on the cross. Thank you, Jesus, for rising from the grave. Thank you, Jesus, for sending the Holy Spirit.
We must not forget that these incidents of God’s work were deeply personal to God’s people. The faithfulness of God in past generations was seen as a personal love to the exiles in the present. And God’s provision in Christ felt directly personal to my wife and me. Therefore, we found it helpful to thank him for ways we had seen him provide for and heal us in past seasons of our own lives.
Joy Doesn’t Solve Everything
In those moments, a joy came into my heart. It was not a joy that solved all of my problems, but it was a joy that provided reassurance of the presence of God and the reality of the gospel.
When we recall the past faithfulness of God, as he directs us to in Isaiah 51, there is a reawakening to the reality, “My God is a faithful Redeemer.” And he’s not just a faithful Redeemer; he is my faithful Redeemer. Out of this joy comes a remembrance that he was with us in the past and he is still with us in the present.
Remembering these stories shows us that the healing of Christ does not reside in abstraction but in the real lives of real people like you and me. In remembering these stories of God’s faithfulness, we not only recall his redemptive and healing nature; we also remember that we are a part of that story. God’s faithfulness to the Israelites, and to his new covenant people in Christ, is the faithfulness with which he loves us.