You have heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. During times of intense crisis, many people who have never had a religious thought are suddenly, with all humility, praying, reciting the Lord’s prayer, and remembering, “The Lord is my shepherd … ” as if these things were encoded in all human DNA.
But if the problems soon disappear, so do thoughts about God. The warrior goes on his or her way without a word of thanks, let alone long-term faithfulness.
But what if the battle continues and circumstances don’t change? The humble pleas become questions that might not be angry but at least are bold. “Why, God, are you doing this to me? What have I ever done to you?”
Suffering nags us with questions about God in a way that comfort never could.
Feeling like an “atheistic believer”
When dire circumstances continue their assault, you might notice the paradox of being an “atheistic believer.” If you were pushed to decide, you would say that God exists, yet you feel increasingly isolated and alone. The more extreme the suffering, the more intense is the sense of aloneness. If God exists, you think, it certainly doesn’t feel like He does.
At its very roots, life is about God. Whether you shake your fist at Him, consider Him so distant that His existence is irrelevant, or tremble before Him because you feel that you are under His judgment, the reality is this: The basic questions of life and the fundamental issues of the human heart are about God.
Life is about knowing Him or avoiding Him. It is about spiritual allegiances. Whom will you trust in the midst of pain? Whom will you worship?
As you consider God, expect to find fallacies in your thinking about yourself and God. In other words, although you may think that you know all you need to know about God—or all you want to know—you don’t. If you resist such an offer, you are probably angry with God, in which case it is all the more reason to consider who He is. He invites angry people to come and be surprised.
Surprise #1: Jesus shared in our sufferings. If you invented a religious system, it’s unlikely that you would imagine a god who became like the people He created. But God did even more. He became like His creatures and willingly suffered a horrifying death so that they could be spared. Even the men and women who studied Scripture didn’t anticipate that God would come this close. They never guessed that the Messiah, God Himself, would suffer in the way He did.
If you think God is far away and indifferent, here is the surprising revelation. From the foundation of the world, God knew your sufferings and declared that He Himself would take human form and participate in them (which means that we, too, could share in His). This is not a distant, indifferent God.
One chapter of Scripture (Mark 14), chronicling only one day, reveals the extent to which Jesus shared our sufferings:
- The chief priests and teachers of the law were looking for a sly way to arrest Jesus and kill Him.
- Judas agreed to betray Jesus for a fee.
- Jesus predicted that one of His followers would deny any knowledge of Him.
- Jesus predicted that His other followers would abandon Him.
- The leaders arrested him.
- He was spit on.
- He was struck with fists and beaten to the point where He could have died from the lashings alone.
And this was before He was shamed and crucified.
He was called “man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3). He was oppressed, afflicted, despised and rejected, to the point where people would turn away to avoid seeing His face. You know these things about Jesus, but now that you, too, are familiar with suffering, it should shock you that anyone would voluntarily take such suffering on himself.
Sufferers should be able to recognize other sufferers. As a sufferer, you should recognize Jesus’ sufferings; He certainly recognizes yours. A deep sigh gives it away. When Jesus healed a deaf man, he let out a deep sigh as he looked up to heaven (Mark 7:34). He was moved by the suffering He saw around Him, and as the risen Lord He continues to be moved by ours today.
Have you noticed that sometimes, in the presence of someone whose suffering seems greater than our own, our suffering seems lighter, less intense? It is as if the suffering of another can temporarily take us out of ourselves. The sufferings of Jesus can, indeed, elevate us and take us out of ourselves.
The cross says that life will not be easy. If Jesus serves, we will serve. If Jesus suffers, we too will experience hardships. No servant is greater than the master. Yet things are not always the way they appear. Suffering is part of the path that leads to glory and beauty. “He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him” (Psalm 126:6).
Suffering has a purpose. It is changing us so that we look more and more like Jesus Himself.
Surprise #2: God is good and generous. It is hard to argue when we are reminded that Jesus shared in our sufferings and has compassion for those who suffer. It is easier to protest, however, when we hear the proposition that God is both good and generous. If He takes your suffering away, you are persuaded. If not, you remain a doubter.
But remember what you already know. First, Jesus suffered, and Jesus was dearly loved as the only Son of the Father. When we suffer what seems like endless pain, it is hard to believe that God loves us, but Jesus’ suffering proves that it can be true. That doesn’t mean that we always understand what is going on behind the scenes, but it is true nonetheless. Somehow, temporary suffering and love can go together.
Second, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also, along with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). The cross is the only evidence that can fully persuade you that God is, at all times, good and generous. There is no arguing with someone who is willing to make this ultimate sacrifice. If someone gives his only child for you, you can’t doubt that person’s love.
When the memory of such a costly sacrifice becomes distant, and life’s frustrations tempt us to doubt, all we need is a quick reminder. Our God says, “If I have sacrificed my Son for you, do you really think I am going to be stingy and withhold my love now?”
When children don’t get what they want when they want it, they have a hard time believing that their parents truly love them. After all, what could be better than satisfying all their wants?
But parents know about a more sophisticated love. They know that catering to their children’s wishes is not always in their children’s best interests. Sometimes they should eat broccoli. Sometimes it is best for them to go to bed, even though their friends are still outside playing. But just try to persuade children of your love at those times! All you can do is remind them that you love them.
God is good and He is generous. He is not stingy. He commands His people not to covet because it is a form of denying His generosity. He is not trying to hold out on you until you are whipped into shape. Demons would have you believe such things. Instead, He says, “Open wide your mouth and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10). He invites us to the most lavish of banquets, and all He requires is that we are hungry and bring nothing (Isaiah 55:1-3).
Are you a fair-weather friend?
What have been your responses to these ideas? Indifference? Ambivalence? A glimmer of hope? Hostility? Does it seem like talk about stars and galaxies when all you want is to get your car fixed?
What is your response saying? What is it revealing about you?
Are you a fair-weather friend who trusts God during the good times but becomes more suspicious in the hard times? If so, welcome to the human race. Set your sights on someone like St. Basil, about whom Gregory of Nyssa remarked that his faith was “ambidextrous”—he welcomed pleasure on one hand and affliction on the other.
Seek the Lord. If there is any guarantee in Scripture, it is that He will reveal more and more of Himself to those who seek Him.