Not long ago, a close friend of mine confided in me about a particularly difficult time through which she was struggling. In the depths of her darkness and despair she’d begun to question both her faith in God and the effectiveness of prayer. She wanted to know where God was, if there really was a God, in the midst of her suffering. I offered her a few of my typical thoughts on the subject—thoughts that I am now certain were marginally helpful at best—and then an awkward silence settled over us as we considered her suffering and feelings of rejection by God along with my somewhat perfunctory defense of God’s faithfulness. At last, my friend threw her hands in the air and demanded, “But don’t you ever doubt that God is really there?”
“Of course,” I said. “Sometimes on an hourly basis.” And that was the end of our conversation.
Looking back, I wish I’d dispensed with the conventional answers to the question of where God is when we suffer and instead shared with her about the time I had to take our oldest child to be tested for a sensory processing disorder. While in the waiting room, becoming increasingly more nervous and impatient with the therapist’s seeming indifference to the amount of time we’d spent waiting to be seen, I looked up from a mountain of paperwork to see my vulnerable 5 year old boy sitting on his hands, gingerly swinging his feet to and fro all the while quietly and bravely fighting back the tears in his eyes. Perhaps he wondered what was wrong with him. I know he feared what the doctors were about to do. Needless to say, the tears began welling up in my own eyes. I cannot seem to find the words to describe the pain I felt watching my sweet little boy feel so lost, confused and alone in his fear. All I wanted to do was to scoop him up into my arms, tell him everything was going to be just fine and run with a blind fury right out the door.
But I knew that it was in his best interest to let him go through the testing, no matter how scary it was for him or how difficult it was for me to watch. And though I desperately wanted to take away all of his pain and fear, my direct interference would not help him become all that he could be. My job as a parent, at this particular moment, was to comfort and reassure him and to make sure all the necessary elements to his success were in line. If he needed therapy, I would make certain that he received it. If he was afraid to go to therapy, I would hold his hand and help him through it. And if, at the end of the day, he wanted to cry over the fact that he was not like other children, I would cradle him and comfort him until there were no tears left to cry. No stone would be left unturned. No cost would be too high nor sacrifice too great to keep me from ensuring that in the end he prevailed as the victor.
I keep thinking that this is similar to how our Father, who loves us as a mother, so often feels for us—though much more profoundly and purely—as we struggle through life. He could take away all the pain and suffering we experience, but we could not then become the saints we were meant to be. It is not that the suffering in and of itself is good or holy, but that there are some truths that cannot be revealed, some sins that cannot be purged, and a part of Christ that cannot be known except through suffering. In fact, our suffering only finds meaning in light of the suffering and temptation of Christ. This is why a theology that refuses to contemplate the suffering of Christ, the very Son of God slowly and painfully dying upon the cross, is ultimately inconsequential.
In the depths of my own suffering and darkness, when all hope seems to be in vain and I am left in what appears to be an irrevocable silence I am often brought back to this scripture:
“Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you. See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name…those who hope in me shall never be disappointed.” Isaiah 49:15-16; 23b.
I pray that on this day, in the midst of your own suffering and pain, you may find comfort and strength in the unrelenting love of the Father who loves you with the tenderness of a mother for the child of her womb.
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