by Daniel Boerman -
The gospel is all about healing and salvation and deliverance. It promises deliverance from sin and the judgment of God. It releases us from guilt and futility and frees us to live a meaningful life in the service of God. And it holds out the promise of a new life in the presence of God after this present life of struggle is over.
But what happens when this Good News seems to pass us by and leave us unchanged? For a period of several years, the gospel seemed to leave me out in the cold as surely as a marooned traveler stranded in a North Dakota blizzard. I struggled with confusion and depression and doubt.
During this period, I constantly prayed for some healing or deliverance. But nothing happened. I had the impression that God was sitting on the sidelines watching my struggle with some interest but also detachment. I questioned my faith and my status with God. It seemed that God wanted me to work out this problem on my own. The healing and grace of the gospel seemed to pass me by.
God’s silence sent me reeling into a world of doubt and confusion, of questions and of anger. What was happening? Why did God not respond to any of my prayers? Was I really a Christian? Was I outside of his grace and mercy? Was it possible that God did not love me? Had I committed some awful sin that had alienated me from his grace? The questions were endless. The answers were non-existent.
I identified with Job. My own conscience played the part of his accusing friends. There must be a reason for God’s silence. But I searched my life in vain for something I had done that could be the cause. I was no saint, surely, but I could not discover any particular sin that would account for God’s silence in my life. It seemed that, like Job, I was suffering for reasons I could not apprehend or understand. I kept believing in God, even though my experience told me he was no longer an active part of my life.
So I clung to faith, hoping that eventually I would be healed and restored.
Jesus Passes By
Then I read Luke 23:26–31, where Jesus spoke to the women who were mourning for him as he passed by them on his way out of Jerusalem to be crucified. He told them not to weep for him but for themselves because of the suffering that they would have to endure. He implied that their suffering might in some way be worse than his: “For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”(v. 31).
Jesus was, of course, warning the women of the coming suffering during the Roman siege of Jerusalem. But our situation is similar to that of the women of Jerusalem. We, like them, are devout, faithful, and part of the religious community. We are citizens of the New Jerusalem, and when we read in the Gospels about the flogging and crucifixion of Jesus, we see what they saw. We, too, are spectators of his Passion.
So in reading this story, I identified with the weeping women of Jerusalem, and I heard Jesus’ words to them as also addressed to me. Jesus’ warning about suffering is applicable to us. All the followers of Jesus must be prepared to suffer. No one is exempt.
In His Steps
This message about suffering is common in the New Testament, but not one that we want to hear. Peter tells us: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed”(1 Peter 4:12–13). Paul also regards suffering with Christ as a reason to rejoice: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s affliction, for the sake of his body, which is the church”(Col. 1:24).
In John 15:18–25 Jesus warns us that the hatred he experienced will also be experienced by those who follow him. Paul speaks about continual pressure, perplexity, and persecution to the extent that he describes it as carrying around in his body the death of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:7–12). And there is the familiar call of Jesus for his disciples to deny themselves and take up their cross if they indeed wish to follow him (Mark 8:34–38).
There is, then, a gospel for sufferers. Jesus not only suffered in our place; he also suffered as an example for us to follow. He warns us that obedience in a sinful and fallen world will not be easy. The world does not appreciate or applaud faithful discipleship. Living selflessly and lovingly as we serve God and others will sometimes expose us to serious pain. And sometimes God may compel us to share in some of the forsakenness and bitterness that Jesus himself experienced.
Recently I read Come Be My Light, a record of the inner struggles of Mother Teresa. She struggled for most of her life with an inner darkness and sense of abandonment by God that was more intense and much longer-lasting than my own experience. If someone who loved God as intensely and served him as selflessly as she did had to endure such darkness, who am I to complain?
Reading about Mother Teresa helped me put my experience into perspective. After much prayer and reflection, I came to the conclusion that God’s silence was actually his gift to me. It was not an easy gift to receive, because it caused a lot of pain and anguish. But it was a gift nonetheless.
First of all, it is a blessing because it enables me to share just a little of what it meant for Christ to be utterly abandoned by God and man when he was hanging on the cross. I know something of the desperation and exasperation he felt when he uttered that despairing cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”(Matt. 27:46). I realize that my experience was only a tiny taste of the suffering of Christ, but it is nevertheless real. I count it a privilege and an honor.
The second way in which God’s silence is beneficial is that it forces me to become a stronger person. The typical wisdom is that God uses trials in our lives to make us more dependent on him. That simply did not happen to me. Instead, I became more resilient and self-reliant. I developed a much healthier sense of self-confidence than I had before. That does not mean I have no sense of dependence on God. I readily acknowledge that the only strengths I have are the gifts He has given me.
If God came running every time I cried, I would always be a crybaby. His silence forced me to grow up and become a more mature person. God does not want us to be mental and spiritual infants unable to act without His constantly telling us what to do. He wants us to be strong and mature men and women, eager to step out in confidence as we seek to serve Him and advance His kingdom.
The third way in which God’s silence can benefit me is by enabling me to identify more easily with others who also feel estranged and alienated from God. Mother Teresa came to accept her darkness as an experience that enabled her to identify more completely with the suffering of the people to whom she ministered, and I believe God’s silence can serve the same purpose for me.
There is a gospel message for the Christian who struggles with the silence of God or with any experience of suffering stemming from his Christian commitment. It is the other part of the gospel, the part we don’t want to hear. This part of the gospel tells us that God will not deliver us from all our pain and suffering. Instead, he chooses to lead us to maturity by allowing our suffering to continue and by blessing us in and through that suffering rather than saving us from it. Sometimes he calls us to suffer as part of our following him. This may not at first sound like Good News, but it is, because our pain and suffering can be transformed into something beautiful.