Where Is God In The Midst of My Suffering?
Rev. Kit Billings
Feb. 19, 2006
True Christian Religion n. 126
For in temptations man, to appearance, is left to himself alone; and yet he is not left alone, for God is then most present in his inmost parts, and supports him.
Given certain events that have unfolded recently, such as the deadly mudslides in the Philippine province of Leyte, not to mention the continuing death tolls in Iraq, as well as the ongoing difficulties that our ministry is facing, I am moved this Sunday to talk with you about the vitally important subject of suffering. Where is God in the midst of my suffering, of your suffering, of parents who lose their children to disease or accident, and indeed the list can go on, can’t it?
I have found that there are many ways of trying to address this deeply challenging question, and indeed, God has many angles through which He deals with it by means of a vast number of inspired tools: through biblical stories, bits of wisdom (or short phrases), theological principles, and also an infinite number of fantastic real-life accounts going on all around us “24/7” so to speak. I would summarize the three avenues of trying to find and know the Lord in the midst of my own suffering as: His presence within the good that exists inside of the support and love between family and friends; and his promise that He will uphold His great covenant with us.
Recently I re-watched that amazing movie about the life of C.S. Lewis and his wife, Joy, titled, “Shadowlands.” That story reminds me so well that deep suffering and strife in life is something we can expect. The depth and sincerity of the love and longing expressed by the character Mr. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) was so touching to me when he says to his new bride, Joy, as she lays in her hospital bed suffering from cancer, “I love you, Joy. Don’t leave me. I never want to lose you.” And then not much longer into the film there was Joy’s body, lying in bed after losing her battle with cancer, and C.S. Lewis and Joy’s son wind up upstairs in his attic, coming to grips with her devastating death. The boy and his new father-figure share a few words of longing for her, and then they embrace each other in tears overflowing, letting their suffering and grief burst forth. And yes, while their suffering could not be magically made to vanish, I believe that one of God’s great tools for helping us with our pain and hardships was revealed: the mutual support we can find from family and friends. In a very deep way, one of the best ways that the Lord has to alleviate our sufferings is when we allow ourselves to break down and weep, which helps the Lord to heal us through the washing of our tears.
God in His infinite wisdom, who sees that in order for us to live on earth in spiritual freedom, must allow a great deal of suffering, tragedy and untimely temporary separations through death. In order for life to be just that—true, vital living—humanity must needs live in radical freedom, which ultimately produced the two opposing spiritual forces known as heaven and hell, good vs. evil, truth vs. falsity. And it is the mixing and movements of both heaven and hell within us and around us in this world that create this awesome and sometimes heart wrenching journey we are all having. It’s a journey of both goodness and evil, of light and darkness, and of healing and wounding all making stands at different times. And, while that is true, ours is also a journey that has been created out of God’s divine Spirit and Love, and which shall always therefore be moving in the direction of ultimate goodness for the salvation of everyone born from and into God’s divine Love. This is one of many great aspects of God’s eternal covenant of relationship with us, that all of life is being held and subtly brought by the Lord in the direction of what is GOOD. Suffering, heartache, serious disappointments, losses and physical death are the true and real heartbreaking dramas that must be a part of life in this world, of life in these “shadowlands,” of vital living right in the middle between heaven and hell, of our journeys of spiritual salvation and growth. But we can if we want to badly enough rise above the reality of suffering and pain just enough by using a “spiritual birds eye view of life,” and begin to see more and more that long, long ago our loving Creator (revealed most fully in Jesus Christ) made a COVENANT-RELATIONSHIP with us, which God simply never breaks, one founded upon love, commitment, and blessing.
Have you ever reflected seriously about the significance of your God establishing a BINDING contract with you (and with all people) that He never will break? Ever reflect about the impact that God’s covenantal promises have with you?
This is a major element of the Bible, of the story of Jehovah-God and Israel—the Lord’s covenant of LOVE with us, His contract of COMMITMENT. From early on in God’s Word we read that God remembered His people, those whom He loves. “But God remembered Noah and all the wild animals and all the domestic animals that were with him in the ark. As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you (said the Lord) and your descendants after you…. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” The story of Noah is one among a number in the Bible that we learn does not convey literal truth regarding a global-wide flood taking place, but instead it teaches universal spiritual truths that stand the stretch of time! For indeed, long, long ago humanity developed a spiritual flood of falsity from evil, which was drowning humanity its wake. So the Lord made a spiritual pact with our ancestors and with us, that never again would He allow such an eternally destructive “flood” to happen. He promised to not allow humanity to completely cut ourselves off from Him ever again.
Thus, in the midst of our suffering and travail, we can let God uphold us by remembering His covenant relationship with us, and that we are His beloved.
God made us, and we belong to Him. We all are the Lord’s chosen ones as our theology makes vividly clear. He wants us each to be deeply aware that He is pure, infinite, Divine love, wisdom and power Itself who creates us out of His love and goodness. And the Lord knew long, long ago that it would be crucial for us to learn and re-learn about His sacred covenantal relationship with us. Biblically, the core elements of the covenant between human beings and the Lord found in Scripture reveal that the Lord shall be the Sovereign Creator while we may respond to the Lord’s gracious offer to enjoy a binding spiritual agreement between He and us. The Lord’s binding covenant with us is given throughout the Holy Scriptures and has a core message, yet it also evolved through time. The covenants in Scripture are founded upon the message that God will always be God and we shall always be His finite creatures, His beloved. As time went on in the biblical account, the spiritual contract between the Lord and human beings evolved. It grew in its level of commitment on our part, as evidenced by the extensive Ten Commandments given on Mt. Sinai. But always, God’s divine commitment to us to help us, especially in our times of suffering, shows up. Our theology teaches that given the Lord’s nature (Divine Love itself), the Lord not only forever loves us unconditionally, but also that the Lord is constantly flowing into us, hoping that we will respond to God’s inflowing presence and return His commitment of love and healing with one of our own, which enables the Lord to spread His love and healing energies with more and more diversity.
We see in our Exodus Bible lesson this morning that indeed the Divine does hear with compassion the suffering and outcries of us all. Even though God’s then “chosen people”, the ancient Hebrews, chose to reject their relationship with God and the Lord-Jehovah’s command to leave Egypt once that famine was over, the Lord still compassionately heard the people’s cries and then intervened once again to help them find relief from their hardships. These words are so very important for us to take hold of as God’s eternal truth: “then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up and out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey….’”
And so indeed, God hears us. He remembers us! He responds to us…perhaps not always in the way we want, but yes, He (being Love) always is helping us.
Is there any other response that the Good Shepherd would have with us? Which, of course is the reason why David did pray, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”
Can you feel and hear God’s loving voice within these words flowing directly toward your own special heart? That great, steadfastly loving relationship God established with Moses and the Hebrews, which extended on through Joshua, the Judges, the ancient Prophets and then through God Himself in Jesus Christ, is yours as well. As King David wrote in Psalm 89, “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.”
Thus, whatever hardships, sufferings, pains or losses we encounter, we can always count on the Lord, and on His covenant-love with and for us, that indeed the Lord is in the midst of my suffering and will be working hard to lead me out of it toward what is good and true. For the ancient Hebrews, this meant sending them a savior-leader who was Moses, guiding them to grow and mature through life in the barren desert, founded upon their allegiance to God in the new covenant established at Sinai. When Moses found himself at that burning bush, he was still a very limited kind of man. But God pierced through Moses’ limitedness with His own divine Limitlessness! The mental-fortress forged around the mind and awareness of Moses had to be broken down and changed by God in order to help the suffering of His people.
I once read a story that illustrates God’s commitment or covenant with us to always respond to us when we suffer. This is a true story about Angie Crissman of Cocoa, Florida. She tells it like this: “On May 10th of 2003 I buried my four year old son, Ethan. His coffin was covered with flowers. As the service was going on at the cemetary I was sitting in the front row and all of a sudden these two beautiful and huge butterflies touched down on the casket. You could hear 400 people gasp as they lost their breath. And as quick as they were there they were gone. I have come to find out since then that they were Swallowtails...probably a male and female. They were gorgeous. Black and yellow and so big! Whenever I am down, which is a lot lately I ask Ethan to send me a butterfly...and by the end of the day I always get one...usually more...and mostly monarchs. My little boy was amazing and taken way too soon, I miss him with every inch of my being and I will never be the same. He missed out on meeting his little brother and I missed out on his life...but his mission was accomplished and it was time for him to go. Now my newest son has a personal and very special guardian Angel who sends us butterflies to make me smile.”
There are many, many ways that God addresses and helps us with our sufferings, with our woes. Clearly, another way He fulfills His covenant of love with us is simply to allow us to touch and feel the spiritual hem of His garments, and let Divine love and energy flow forth and into us (our lives), and touch our suffering directly. This is what cured the physical hemorrhaging of that woman long ago who touched the fringe of Jesus’ cloak—“…and immediately her hemorrhage stopped.”
Ultimately, through it all, through every difficulty we face, if we can work hard at not letting go of our deep commitment to God and of His ability to always draw us more and more into Himself, at last the regeneration He performs on our inward parts leads to an evolution in His covenant with us, revealed so beautifully and powerfully in Jeremiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”
May you find and know God’s loving support for you through your human brothers and sisters, and in the compassion they feel for you. May you find comfort in the truth and reality that as your pain and hardships increase, so does God’s internal spiritual embrace of you increase. And may we all rely deeply upon the deep, pervading covenant-trust that lives between the Lord and each one of us, in our faith that indeed, the Lord observes our lives warmly, and He feels for our misery. He hears our outcries for help and healing, and He knows our sufferings. Your God comes to deliver you, too, out of your hardships, into a way of life that flows with spiritual milk, with spiritual honey. Amen.