Out of the ashes: God’s presence in our pain

Many presumed that “Life is full of misery, loneliness and suffering, and it’s all over much too soon.” Pain and suffering are woven into our common human experience. Suffering erupts globally through war, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, typhoons. It expresses itself personally, loss of relationship, loss of health, loss of a child, loss of a marriage, loss of a job. It affects us personally, emotionally, relationally, spiritually.

In suffering, we slam up against a nameless, faceless, heartless enemy. And that enemy evokes questions for which we have inadequate answers.

Yet, difficult as they are, those very questions compel our search for better answers. We read books. We consult thinkers, philosophers, theologians and teachers. We argue and debate explanations of the problem of suffering. But no matter how high our expectations or how promising those sources appear, they leave us with unanswered questions – maddening mysteries that either drive us away from God or draw us near to Him.

There are few questions around this difficult issue. What is suffering like? How do we respond when suffering calls our name? How can God be found in the midst of life’s darkest moments?

There is no better starting point from which to view suffering than through the experiences of a man named Job. His story is told in the oldest book of the Bible.

Job lived in the land of Uz in the earliest times recorded in human history. He is introduced as a man who lived in relationship to God and is described as “blameless”, “upright” and a man who “shunned evil”. (Job 1:1) He sought to do right and to please God. Yet a rapid series of cataclysmic events shattered his world and threatened that relationship.

It is telling that the oldest book in the Bible focuses on the common denominator of human experience – the problem of pain and suffering. Though Job’s story is familiar to many, it has more to say than we might imagine. More about our world, more about us, and more about God.

Suffering Feels Mysterious. (Job 1:1-12) Because of the fall of the human race through its sin, suffering is a common experience to all people. While we experience suffering in different degrees and in different forms, suffering is a universal human experience. That is why stories of perseverance are so powerful.

Suffering Feels Overwhelming. (Job 1:13-19) “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” This was certainly true of Job’s experience, one messenger after another came bringing him news of devastating loss. Rapid-fire reports of devastating loss ripped into Job’s heart. Servants practically tripped over each other as they arrived with more bad news. In job’s world, wealth was measured in terms of servants and property. Both were weapons in the assault on Job’s heart. First, it was the loss of donkeys and oxen and the death of servants. Then came word that the “fire of God fell from heaven,” consuming Job’s sheep and more servants. Next came the message that Chaldean raiders had stolen the camels and killed even more servants. With each announcement, the stakes rose as the losses became greater and greater. But the greatest loss came when the messenger arrived with the heart-wrenching news that Job’s sons and daughters had been killed.

When waves of heartache wash over us, whether single spies or whole battalions, their sheer weight and relentless nature can be suffocating. Suffering simply overwhelms us.

When news of tragedy first reached Job, he responded with profound faith and confidence. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21)

The solution to suffering and the doubt it raises is not found in argument. It is found in learning to rest in God’s grace and to trust in His power – even when the suffering is mysterious and overwhelming.

God loves us with an everlasting love. Followers of Christ can embrace this with hope and confidence and can offer it to a world suffering with more than we can imagine. In the end, we need Jesus, God-who-suffers-with-us.