You may have noticed from my previous notes that I like analogies. I think a study of our world can be instructive, and analogies help me think about spiritual principles in a more concrete way. But as we close out the Lenten season, my thoughts go to those times for which no cute little analogy will ever suffice. Times, in short, of suffering.
I heard a story the other day of an adoptive family who had raised a boy from infancy, when at age 9 the biological father claimed custody, and this little boy was taken away from his adoptive parents to live with the father he did not know. I can think of nothing more gut wrenching – not even murder – than having your child taken away and having to simultaneously experience both your own pain and the pain endured by your child.
What does one say to anguish like that?
Mother Teresa once said that we can learn a great lesson about suffering from the women who stayed at the cross of Jesus as he was dying. I was struck by this thought, having always focused on the suffering of Jesus rather than the suffering of those who witnessed his agony. The response to suffering, Mother Teresa says, is to be present. And to share in the other person’s suffering just by being present. Just like the women who stayed at the cross of Jesus.
Think about that.
In this world, we are blessed not because we have no suffering, but because we do not suffer alone. God is present. And He is tough. He can take our anger, our fear, and our anguish. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel we can cry out again and again for his blessing (Genesis 32:22-31). We can beat our hand against the door asking for it to be opened unto us (Matthew 7:7). We can weep like Rachel (Matthew 2:17-18), argue like Abraham (Genesis 18:16-33), plead for rescue like David (Psalm 22), suffer like Job. We can even cry out like Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Matthew 27:46)?
The truth is, because of Jesus, God will never forsake us, even when it feels like He has. As Jesus bore our sins on the cross, the Father turned away so that He would never have to turn away from us. At Jesus’ death, the temple curtain tore in two, signifying the barrier between us and God was removed. Suffering was not removed, but God’s presence in our lives was restored.
Even when we don’t see him, even when we don’t feel him, even when we don’t believe in him, even when we suffer, God is present. God is I AM. Our anger, our suffering, our disbelief does not make him disappear. In fact, engaging with him will only draw him nearer.
In times of suffering, this may not make us feel better, but it is still true. Just as the presence of a friend does not actually remove our suffering, so the presence of God does not remove our suffering. Instead, it helps us endure. Rodney Atkins has a song called “If You’re Going Through Hell” that states: “If you’re going through hell, keep on moving. Face that fire. Walk right through it. You might get out ‘fore the devil even knows you’re there.” So too is our passage through suffering. In times of pain we need to reach out to God, to our church, to others – and we need to keep pushing forward. As dark as suffering can be, God has demonstrated to us that it will eventually dawn onto an Easter morning.
I will never leave you nor forsake you (Joshua 1:5). In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).