Have you ever felt like God didn’t protect you, and the result was that you were completely crushed? Have you ever asked the age-old question, “Why God?” In reality, this is not an uncommon human dilemma. As biblical counselors, we regularly encounter those who have suffered in this way and bring these painful questions to counseling. How can we speak to this kind of suffering? How is the Bible sufficient to answer these kinds of questions? How can we help people see God in the midst of their pain?
We find throughout the scriptures, the stories of people who, as a result of intense sorrow and suffering, are crying out to God with these same questions. The Psalms are filled with statements like “Why have you forgotten me? My bones suffer mortal agony…” (Ps. 42:9-10). And “Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground” (Ps. 44:24-25). Jeremiah, writer of Lamentations, and Job both describe their experience as having been the target of God’s poisonous arrows. Jeremiah laments, “He has turned his hand against me,” and “All that I had hoped for from the Lord…is gone” (Lam. 3:3, 18). Our Lord Jesus Himself cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Some of our counselees have asked these same questions. They have experienced something they never dreamed of and were totally unprepared for. Sometimes they are laden down with feelings of guilt and condemnation because these questions have emerged from their heart in a time of intense suffering. Their response to the pain could even be one of distancing themselves from God in mistrust. They may have asked, “Why God?” Or cried out, “Please God, not this,” and even, “How could you allow this in my life?” They need to know that to this the Bible speaks, and that God in His infinite kindness has provided the stories of people with these questions for our benefit.
In times of our soul’s deepest anguish, we can come to believe that God has disappointed us, not kept His word, turned His back on us, or even wronged us. Some come to believe that they would have to forgive God, excuse Him or even alter what they believe about Him in order to accept Him. They have forgotten that “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made” (Ps. 145:17). They wrestle with the thought that their circumstances have proven otherwise. They develop an attitude toward God that could be described as an unforgiving resentment. It is at these times when we come to a crossroads. Do we turn away from God in an attitude of resentment and bitterness, or do we turn toward Him with our honest questions?
Behind a spirit of unforgiving resentment is always a crisis of belief. Therefore, holding onto an unforgiving resentment toward God is actually and sadly a decision not to trust Him. As compassionate counselors, we need to remember that grief can be blinding, fear can be crippling, and hearts can be numb with pain. As we uncover the treasure that our counselee can’t bear to trust God with, we need to gently guide them to a renewed understanding of who God is, and the Truth that His beautiful Word invites their troubled heart to embrace. They need to know that God’s righteous holiness and unfailing love never require us to forgive Him, excuse Him or adjust who He is, but rather to trust who He is…the Alpha and the Omega; the Beginning and the End.
As a counselor and more importantly a fellow sojourner, I can relate. I found myself in a similar situation struggling to understand how my unexpected loss fit in my understanding of God. But, the question God posed to my hurting heart was, “Do you trust me? Can you trust me even with this?” Sometimes my answer was, “Lord, I do believe – help me overcome my unbelief” (Mk. 9:24). Sometimes, it was as Simon Peter said, “Lord to whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life. [I] believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69). I knew that I was being presented with a decision. Would I hide from God by distancing myself in mistrust, or would I look to Him with my questions and cling to His promises? By His grace, it was at this point that I turned to God’s Word and there found the words of the Psalmist whose writing affirmed my state of mind.
“My heart is in anguish within me;
The terrors of death assail me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
Horror has overwhelmed me.
I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest –
I would flee far away
And stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
Far from the tempest and storm.”
Hearing scripture acknowledge pain just like my own verified my suffering and drew me in. I thirsted for more. It was there, in the Word, that God rewrote my story and gave it a hopeful even glorious ending. It was there that I found the God who sees me, loves me and is ever-present in my pain. The God who comforts, helps and brings purpose to my suffering. The God who has prepared a beautiful, joy-filled future after I have “suffered a little while” (1 Pet. 5:10), and a savior who shares suffering (Is. 53:3; Ro. 8:17; He. 4:14-16). Our counselees need this opportunity to hear their own stories reframed in the truth of God’s greater story. They need, as I did, an eternal perspective.
Job 11 says, “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens – what can you do? They are deeper than the depths of the grave – what can you know?” God began to teach me a new level of trust and helped me see new facets of Himself. I realized that God had broken out of the safe, predictable box I had put Him in. I began to understand that He is greater, more complex, more powerful and more transcendent than I knew. I began to see that His purposes soar into an eternity that I have only barely glimpsed. I realized that if I trust Him only when I can understand and approve His plan that is actually not trust at all, but unbelief. And I knew that unbelief would block me from loving God, and ultimately lead me to hopelessness and despair. All the while, God was doing His transforming work in my heart and providing love and comfort to my painful, human condition.
Now the questions were: do I believe God when He says, “No good thing does He withhold to them whose walk is blameless” (Ps. 84:11)? Do I believe that includes me because I stand before God blameless because of the cross (Ro. 5:1-2)? Am I willing to share in the suffering of Christ who prayed, “Not my will but thy will be done” because He knew and trusted the heart of His Father’s plan? Do I trust the one whose ways are higher than my ways; who has promised to be with me in the valley of the shadow of death and above all laid down His life in my place to conquer all enemies?
2 Cor. 4:16-18 says our troubles are “light and momentary” and they are “achieving for us an eternal glory.” It tells us to “fix our eyes on what is unseen” because “what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal.” Many people would be offended to have their heartbreaking trial called “light,” and they, understandably, can’t imagine eternal glories great enough to make their agonizing loss seem “light and momentary.” But, all scripture is “God-breathed” and this is the word God chose to describe the pain of this life in comparison to the glory of eternity (2 Tim. 3:16). And so, ever so gently and baby step by baby step, we can gradually turn our counselee’s gaze toward a God who is big enough to redeem anything. Our counselees can embrace a new hope-filled focus and purpose as they learn to “walk by faith not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). We can shine a light in their darkness on the goodness of God all around them (Ps. 27:13), and invite them to taste anew of that goodness (Ps. 34:8). We can turn them to His eternal promises (2 Pet. 1:4). We can help our counselees see that unforgiving bitterness is blindness to the eternal, but living with eternity in mind changes everything. God is always up to something eternally valuable.
Surrendering resentment for trust is freedom. It is peace that passes understanding. It is joy in the midst of pain. It is grief that is overshadowed by hope. It has the power to bring a broken heart to worship. John Piper describes this phenomenon, “They were made for something great outside themselves that draws the soul out into the most healthy, glorious, self-forgetting experience of delight – call it worship – that the world can scarcely imagine.” Is it possible to know the sweet fellowship and compassionate embrace of the savior in the middle of an unfathomable and unfixable reality? Yes, when we remember to fix our eyes on eternity and on what is true about our God.
Therefore, I can answer my doubts with truth like the Psalmist in chapter 30 who, after he pours out his pain and doubt says, “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent, O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever.” I can remember like Jeremiah, “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” And as Job said, (and this is the hard one) “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him.” And finally, with Jesus, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” This is the ultimate trust.
By His grace, we can bring our questions and our searching hearts to Him because He is the faithful one, and He loves us even when we don’t understand. He has promised to carry us and comfort us all the way home giving us something better than the answers to our questions. He longs to give us Himself.
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
He rises to show you compassion.
For the Lord is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for Him!”