Our Suffering God

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 5, 2023.

Introduction

This past Week, we were driving back from doing some birthday shopping for our twin sons, and one of our sons and his older sister were talking about their biggest phobias or fears. Eventually, our daughter asked me what my biggest fears were. While I said I couldn’t think of any specific phobias, I said that what scares me is the thought of something happening to my family. And what I meant was anything from an accident to an illness, something that would mean someone I loved was in pain. I said this in part because I already know what it’s like when suffering enters the picture and disrupts what we think of as normal, everyday life.

Now, we just celebrated our twin sons’ 14th birthday. It was wonderful! It was fun! And I am so grateful for them and, indeed, for my whole family. But when we went to the hospital that day 14 years ago, it would not go according to plan. For starters, it was two months before their official due date. Once we were at the hospital it was clear that my wife’s life and the life of our new sons were in danger. I didn’t even fully understand in the moment how serious it was. My wife was in the ICU and the boys were in the NICU. Eventually, yes, the danger did pass, but it throws you for a loop when it happens.

That kind of suffering and difficulty has the power to absorb all of your attention and, indeed, your whole world.

Why, God?

I know that many of you here can identify with this; if not with the precise circumstances, then with the feelings of helplessness and fear that come over you at such a time. You hear a diagnosis. Receive life-changing news. Find yourself calling 911. Some of you have faced such circumstances recently; others of you, maybe years ago. For many of us, such times will come in the days ahead. Many of us fear or dread that possibility.

For this reason, there are questions we can ask — and ask rightly, honestly, earnestly — for which there are seemingly no satisfying answers: Why me? Why this? And why now? And where is God when these things happen? Why does he allow them to happen? Isn’t he both all-loving and all-powerful?

It’s an age old question, one often felt more than thought.

Theologians and philosophers down through the centuries and even millenia have wrestled with this question. They wrestle still. However, it’s not just a theoretical or academic question. It’s personal. It involves more than our minds; it arises from our hearts.

So, maybe more pointedly, we ask the same question but in this way: “God, can I trust you? Are you really good? Are you really there? And how can I know if you are and that I can trust you to get me through this?” And here’s the thing: to ask such questions is not out of bounds or inappropriate. For we are called to bring our whole selves unreservedly before God. This includes our hardest questions, our deepest hurts, and our most awkward feelings.

Of course, doing so means letting those feelings surface. It means giving ourselves the permission to say our questions out loud. And that is not always something we want to do. Because it’s hard. Yet there’s no way around it.

If we find it uncomfortable to do so with our own words, we can do it through the words of Scripture. There are Psalms of lament, where the psalmist cries out in doubt and pain to the Lord. Psalm 10:1 gives us one example: Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide in times of trouble?

Psalm 22 begins in a very similar way: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far from my deliverance and from my words of groaning? My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, by night, yet I have no rest.

One of the beautiful things about Scripture — in this case, the Psalms — is that there we can find words when we have none of our own. And there we are also given permission to give voice to what’s going on in our hearts. I’ll put it this way: God can take our angry, distraught, confused prayers.

But of course the frustrating thing is not only that we find ourselves suffering; we also just don’t understand. We still ask, “Why?” Philosophers and theologians may be able to help us with the intellectual questions. But even their best efforts can’t satisfy a hurting heart. And, we may well ask, what’s God’s answer? What does God have to say to us about why we must endure the pain that comes our way or that afflicts those we love?

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

You know, normally when we think about the cross and the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, we think about the forgiveness of sins. We think of words like justification and reconciliation and salvation. And well we should.

But there is more to the cross. There is a deep mystery taking place in the person of Jesus on the cross. I quoted from Psalm 22 as an example of a psalm of lament. My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Think of how the psalmist felt on the occasion that gave rise to these words. Abandoned. Forsaken. Alone. And not by just anyone. By God himself. His maker, his redeemer, his source of life and hope and peace. My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, by night, yet I have no rest.

Who among us hasn’t felt this way at least once?

We would do well to sit with those words awhile, to let them sink into our hearts, to give us pause for reflection and meditation. Not only because we find them on the lips of the psalmist, but because of who else utters these words too.

Where else do we see these words? Who else cries out these words?

In Mark 15:33-34, on the occasion of Jesus’ crucifixion, we read this: When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lemá sabachtháni?” which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

Our Lord, our Savior, our Messiah, our Good Shepherd, the One through whom the worlds were made, the very Son of God, cried the very same words as the psalmist. What does this mean? What are we to make of this? Is Jesus feigning the feeling of forsakenness? Or should we conclude that because Psalm 22 from which these words come ends on a victorious note that Jesus had the whole Psalm in mind and therefore already was anticipating and even experiencing a sense of victory?

Or is it simpler? Might it be that on the cross Jesus actually felt abandoned by the Father with whom he had known such intimate fellowship even during his earthly ministry? Is it possible that he experienced in a more visceral, profound way what we can all feel in times of suffering, that God is not there, and that there seem to be no answers forthcoming from heaven? What is going on when Jesus utters these words?

Speaking about the connection between our suffering and the cross, Timothy Keller put it this way: “If we ask the question ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ And we look at the cross of Jesus, we still don’t know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”

Let me repeat Keller’s last statement: God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.

When it comes to the suffering that we face, we want to know why. We want to understand. We want explanations.

What we get is a God who doesn’t stand afar off, but draws near. So near that he becomes one of us, dressed in flesh and bone, as human as you and me apart from sin.

We want solutions; we get a Savior.

We get a Savior who lost loved ones and grieved and wept. A Savior who knows the hurt of betrayal and misunderstanding. A Savior who knows raw, excruciating physical pain. A Savior who knows what it’s like to feel altogether alone, cut off from God himself at the moment of his deepest suffering.

We have a Savior, we worship a God, who knows what it is like for us when suffering enters the picture. We have a Savior who identifies completely with our troubles and with our pain. We have a Savior who meets us — who is with us — in our most difficult times.

It may seem to us that he is not there. It may seem to us that because he doesn’t end our suffering that he doesn’t care about our suffering. But that is not what we learn, what we see, on the cross. That is not what we see in the crucified Jesus. And that is not what we hear on Jesus’ own lips at the moment of his dying. What we see is a God who not only sees our suffering but who has stepped into our suffering, a God who meets us right in the midst of it.

God understands our suffering because he is a God who knows suffering. He is a God who not only suffers for us but with us. There are many things we don’t know and cannot understand. We may not know why we suffer but it’s not because God doesn’t care. That much we do know.

Conclusion

So in a few moments when we gather around the Lord’s Table to take the bread and the cup, let us turn our attention not only to the Savior who brings forgiveness through his sacrifice. Let us also look to Jesus as the one who suffers not only for us but with us — as one of us. And when we find ourselves going through a time of suffering, of painful hardship, let us also remember, let us look upon, the cross of our Lord. Let us look upon our suffering God.

Because when we do that, we can then also say, he knows. When I hurt, he knows. When I wonder why this is happening now, he knows. When I don’t know how I’m going to get through it, he knows. And he’s with me. Whether I feel him there or not, he knows and he’s with me. There are many things we will not know or understand, but we know this.

And as followers of Jesus — indeed, as brothers and sisters in Christ — we need to remind one another of this. We need to encourage one another. Because we are bound to forget or find it hard to hold onto in the moment. And we will need one another. Because it is often through one another that we can encounter and receive comfort from our Jesus, our suffering God.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s