SUFFERING: Are you a suffering saint? Get hope from guest writer Joshua Waulk of Baylight Counseling, whose article appeared first here on his counseling website. This is part one of two parts. Used with permission.
What follows is part one of a two-part series on an admittedly difficult topic. As a biblical counseling ministry, we regularly work with those who suffer in some of the most profound ways. Sometimes, we’re pressed to give unfiltered, theological answers to life’s hardest questions. We don’t resolve the problem of evil with this post, but we attempt to provide a faithful witness to the hope of the Gospel in the form of a letter. We pray it blesses and extends hope, even as it speaks frankly to the issue of suffering.
An Open Letter to a Suffering Saint
This letter is my response to the questions you sent me. The trial you currently face led you to search the Scriptures in hope of understanding why God does or doesn’t work in and through your suffering. You’re searching for meaning, purpose, and value in suffering, begging God that it wouldn’t be in vain. I believe God will honor that search, at least in part, because He’s promised to draw near to us as we draw near to Him (James 4:8).
You’ve recently come to the conclusion that somehow and in some way, God is involved in your ordeal. Your instincts are correct, I do believe. But you should know that they’re in contradiction to much of today’s Christian teaching which seeks to vindicate God’s holiness by dampening His providence and sovereignty. Now, you’ve asked me to weigh in.
What follows is my humble attempt at answering some of your questions according to Scripture and, secondarily, through an appeal to what the church has taught since at least the time of the Reformation. That is, until the most recent doctrinal downgrade in American evangelicalism.
I should preface all I’m about to say by acknowledging that it’s not in any way exhaustive. I own the possibility of error. But, I will strive to honor the Lord and your request. I’ll try to neither sweeten God’s providence where it’s bitter, or embitter it where it’s graciously sweet. My sincere desire is to speak the truth in love to your immense pain (Eph. 4:15).
Your Suffering Is Real
My dear friend, I’m deeply saddened by your trial. I can only imagine the heartache of what you’re experiencing. I can understand why you’ve been tempted to consider that God has abandoned you to these dreadful circumstances. The underlying notion of the counsel you’ve already received from some within the church led you to conclude that this trial was beyond the scope of God’s control.
If God is impotent, what kind of God have we? Or did He, in His omniscience, know your suffering but refuse to act, like a father who looks out of his window and passively watches as his child plays in the highway? I can’t understand why we imprison a man for this sort of thing, while charging God with this very form of neglectful parenting, thinking that we’re shielding Him from somehow being the author of sin.
Perhaps God is not truly omniscient. Maybe there was a time in eternity when He had to look down through a supposed “tunnel of time” in order to learn that which He didn’t previously know. This is the assertion made by open theists. If they’re correct, how can we know that God now knows all that’s needed to address your suffering? If God ever learned anything, what was His source and what do we know about its fidelity to the truth?
Also, the underlying assumptions involved in these questions leave us in grave doubt. Many well-intended Christians are advancing them as matters of fact, wrongly thinking that they’ve resolved the theological dilemma of the problem of evil. Fortunately, these ideas don’t express the heart of biblical Christianity or 2,000 years of orthodox Church history. While our theology won’t always provide the immediate comfort our hearts naturally desire, rightly dividing the word of God promises to deliver a hope that transcends our hopeless circumstances.
Your Fears Are Understandable
Friend, I do believe I understand something of your fears. You fear that God isn’t involved in your suffering. You fear that He’s “asleep at the wheel,” or disinterested in your life, or incapable of fulfilling His promises. Or else you fear that He’s a malevolent God who perniciously or randomly selects us to suffer for no reason other than His own good pleasure.
Doubts about His character have crept in, and at least some of this is owing to the downgrade in robust biblical truth throughout the church. Walls of theological plaster have been erected in people’s lives, but those walls prove to be porous to the driving winds and rain of tribulation which all of us should expect (Jn. 16:33; Acts 14:22).
Desperately needed in the church today, and in our hearts when we suffer is the firm foundation of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1). Sadly, it’s been woefully neglected, and I regret that you’ve been forced to undertake this search for truth now that your hour of suffering has come. Still, God doesn’t require that we possess all truth in order to suffer well and in hope. Even when we’re deficient, and we’re all deficient in more ways than we can count, God is for His children (Rom. 8:31).
I can’t even begin to fully know the countless purposes of God in your suffering, but this I do know: Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases (Ps. 115:3).
Your brother in Christ,