How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day? (Psalm 13:1–2)
Does David strike a chord with you as he cries out in desperation? Is God permitting an agonizing wait for answers to your most urgent and heartfelt prayers?
Perhaps it’s physical healing you or a loved one most needs, or a child or family member who has unrepentantly turned from God. Maybe you have been waiting and longing for years for a spouse, or for the gift of children, or for a transformation of your marriage, or maybe simply for a job to support your family. Perhaps you have been in a spiritual desert such a long time you have begun to doubt God exists at all.
Not all waiting involves such agony, of course. A college applicant longs for a letter of acceptance. Children can’t wait for summer break. In Minnesota, during the seemingly unending winter months, we seriously long for spring. These longings are different, though, because we know an answer will come. When David prayed, he could not be sure if or when or in what way God would answer, and most of us face life issues equally serious and uncertain.
When God Seems Silent
Most of the years of my life have been pockmarked with struggles and heartaches that were simply beyond my power to change.
Close relatives who have faced life-threatening illnesses or some serious, persistent mental-health issues. Loved ones passing from this life inexplicably resistant to the promise of hope in the gospel. Agonizing, in some cases unending, challenges in the lives of my children for which I am helpless to provide solutions and must simply remain on my knees, crying out with David, “How long, O Lord?”
It may be tempting to believe God is cruel, or simply does not hear us when we pray. After all, why would God, who we have been told loves us, fail to address our pain and suffering? But everything in God’s word, the pinnacle of which is the suffering and death of his own Son for us, flies in the face of that accusation. God is not cruel. God’s love is everlasting and uniquely personal to each one of his children, and he does not permit one bit of suffering for which there is not a greater purpose.
Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29–31).
God’s silence never indicates that he does not care about us or is not listening. He simply knows, in ways that we cannot, that his waiting, or failing to respond in the way that we desire, is better than doing what we ask at that moment. He knows things that we do not know. Because he is perfect and holy, his ways are not our ways. They are far higher (Isaiah 55:8–9).
In Slavery and in Prison
We have a lot of biblical examples to help us understand the purposes God might have in waiting or even saying no.
I wonder how many times Joseph cried out to God to help him as his brothers sold him into slavery, as he was unfairly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and as he unjustly languished for years in prison. Yet God was using all of these experiences and others to prepare Joseph for leadership, and to deepen his faith and trust in the Lord. Joseph’s faithful willingness to suffer and wait upon the Lord helped him ultimately save his family, as well as the Hebrew and Egyptian nations, during years of famine.
At the end of his life, Joseph understood that what his brothers (and others) meant for evil in his life, God permitted and meant for good (Genesis 50:20). Joseph couldn’t see where it was all leading when it was happening any more than we can in our suffering, but he trusted, and God was faithful beyond his wildest dreams — as he will be for us.
His Thorn Strengthened Him
The apostle Paul prayed and prayed for the thorn in his side to be removed, but God said no. It is hard for us to understand, but pain and helplessness strengthened Paul’s ministry. The pain he suffered daily was a reminder that he was weak and dependent on God for everything. Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Our weakness is often a reminder and opportunity from God to stop trying to control our situation and “fix” everything by our own power and resources. It is God’s strength that we need. Look what God did through a weak and suffering servant like Paul. It’s impossible to imagine all that God might do through our willingness to persevere in faith, trusting in God’s strength and wisdom, and not our own.
Even Jesus prayed that the cup of the cross might pass from him, yet “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Make no mistake: Jesus did not want to suffer any more than we do, but he was willing to suffer if it would rescue us from sin and glorify the Father. Are we willing to suffer, believing God will use our suffering for a higher purpose?
What Might God Do?
You are probably thinking, What higher purpose could God have in mind for my suffering? Clearly, he is not using you or me to provide a means of salvation, as he did through Jesus. He is not using our suffering to inspire Scripture, as he did through Paul. He’s likely not using our suffering to pave the way for famine relief for nations, or any similar global-relief effort, as he did through Joseph.
He might, however, be using our faithful suffering as an example to inspire someone else to ask for the reason for our hope and come to believe (1 Peter 3:15). He might be using our waiting to give us a testimony that will encourage countless others who are experiencing discouragement (2 Corinthians 1:4). He might cause us to miss one opportunity because he has something better in store. He might simply want us to know him better and learn to be content with God as our companion, come what may.
We cannot possibly know all of the things God might be doing in and through our waiting and suffering, but as we cry out, “How long?” with David, there are some things God would have us know for sure.
What We Do Know
God loves you.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. (Jeremiah 31:3 NIV)
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4–5)
God hears you.
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. (1 John 5:13–14)
God is with you.
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:2–3)
God will help you.
For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Fear not,
I am the one who helps you.” (Isaiah 41:13)
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea. (Psalm 46:1–2)
The Spirit and Christ are interceding for you.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26–27)
He [Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. (Hebrews 7:25)
Your pain is an opportunity to draw closer to God.
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
You have all you really need.
My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:19)
Jesus is the incomparable answer to every prayer.
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:3–7)
God Has Dealt Bountifully
If you are crying out as David did in Psalm 13, desperate for the Lord to hear and answer your prayers, you are joining generations of saints who have persevered in faith through trials and persecutions every bit as serious as the ones you are facing.
Draw upon the gift of faith God has given you, remain in the word of God daily, continue to cry out to God in prayer, invite other trusted believers to cry out with you, and perhaps most importantly, remember God loves you, he is with you, the Spirit and Christ are interceding for you, and “this light momentary affliction” affliction will pass (2 Corinthians 4:17).
In Psalm 13, David does remember God’s goodness. He closes by rejoicing that God is sufficient for all of his needs:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5–6)
Take heart. If you are in Christ, the Lord is dealing bountifully with you too.