It was early January and I was dining after dark with friends when I heard faint cries coming from outside. Standing and looking out the nearby window, I saw a young man, who looked to be in his early twenties stagger down the sidewalk and collapse about ten feet from the building. I rushed outside and knelt on the ground next to him while others inside called for medical help (which took about five minutes to arrive). He lay on the cold asphalt, shivering and sobbing, and appeared to be more in emotional distress than physical pain. He looked at me, a total stranger, and through his weeping said he was on the verge of losing his girlfriend and newborn baby and that his life had been ruined by bad choices and the use of cocaine and other drugs. After saying these things he turned his head and cried uncontrollably. His life had not always been marked by bad choices. As phantom memories surfaced, he spoke of a Christian childhood when Christ was Lord of his life and all his friends were wholesome believers. Somewhere in his childhood he had turned away from the Lord and the suffering of bad choices and worldly friends helped bring about his present sorrow. I put my hand on his shoulder and prayed quietly as I sat next to him. He cried out to the Lord, and not knowing what to say he started praying the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name…” I verbally joined him in his prayer so that he would not feel alone, but would know he was in the presence of a caring Christian. He heard me praying with him, and through teary eyes stared for a moment, realizing that I was a friend who cared. For a brief moment we connected, but a minute later police and ambulance pulled into the motel parking lot and I was pushed aside so they could perform their service. The young man called out to me as he was put on the stretcher and placed in the ambulance, and I could only watch and pray for him as he was taken away. I never saw him again, though I’ve prayed for him many times.
I was marked by that brief encounter. That young man was at a place of personal-brokenness when the paths of our lives crossed. There seemed to be sorrow and repentance on his lips. It mattered little to me that much of his pain was self-induced, but only that he was crying out to the Lord for help. To turn away from him at such a moment would betray a spiritual poverty and sickness within my own soul. More so, it would ignore the sovereign hand of God who creates such opportunities for us to show grace and love to others. A year earlier I was in a similar place of personal brokenness, for my life had been ruined by many bad choices and I knew what it meant to have others praying for me and showing grace and love when I needed it most.
Looking into Scripture, we find the greatest examples of suffering anywhere. Job and Jeremiah were two men who suffered greatly. Both were sensitive men who knew depression as a result of their suffering, and as we read about their lives we can cry with them. In the midst of his sadness Job said, “why then hast Thou brought me out of the womb? Would that I had died and no eye had seen me! I should have been as though I had not been, carried from womb to tomb” (Job 10:18-19). Because of his sorrow, Job saw his life as a “land of darkness and deep shadow; the land of utter gloom as darkness itself, of deep shadow without order” (Job 10:21-22a). During his time of sadness, the prophet Jeremiah wished that his “mother would have been [his] grave, and her womb ever pregnant” and in his great anguish went on to ask, “why did I ever come forth from the womb to look on trouble and sorrow, so that my days have been spent in shame?” (Jer. 20:17-18).
What shall we say to Job and Jeremiah? Shall we ask them to be silent and not use such language because it makes us feel uncomfortable? Shall we be callous and accuse them of hidden sin or not having enough faith? Shall we fault them because they are not expressing joy in the midst of their sorrow? There is a joy to be had in life, but let’s not rob these godly men of their sorrow, or turn away from them for expressing themselves with such grief-laden language because it makes us feel uncomfortable. Let’s not turn away from them for at least two reasons:
- Because their response to suffering reveals their humanness. Job and Jeremiah were real people living in a real world who were touched by real circumstances. Though most of us will never know the depth of suffering and sorrow that Job and Jeremiah knew in their lifetime, we can identify with their pain and cry with them because we understand in a smaller way what it means to suffer, and this is our connection with them. Suffering connects all together.
- Because despair was not their only perspective on life. Job and Jeremiah also had the divine perspective on life and at times spoke words of truth and hope, and this gives us truth and hope as well. Though they suffered in the furnace of affliction, they proved God and His Word to be reliable and more than sufficient to sustain them. During and after their time of suffering they spoke words of praise to the One in whom they had placed all their confidence. Worshipping God as the One who sustains and gives us hope in the midst of our trials is what binds us together with other believers, even those who lived long ago, in a foreign land, and who spoke a different language. God and His Word connect believers together.
Job was a righteous man who loved the Lord and turned away from evil (Job. 1:1-5). In one day Job was confronted with the sudden death of all his sons and daughters, the destruction of his business, and the loss of his personal health (Job 1:6-19). Though he could have cursed God as his wife suggested (Job. 2:9), Job kept his faith and continued to trust the Lord (Job 1:20-22; 2:10). In the midst of grief Job said:
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within me. (Job 19:25-27)
Jeremiah had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian army. The city had been burned, tens of thousands of men and woman put to death, and many taken away into slavery to Babylon as Jeremiah watched. One can see why he is often referred to as the weeping prophet (cf. Jer. 9:1; 13:17; 14:17). Yet, even after witnessing Jerusalem’s destruction and enduring personal persecution, Jeremiah stated:
This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Thy faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I have hope in Him. (Lam. 3:21-24)
Other men in Scripture such as David, Elijah, Peter and Paul all knew suffering and sorrow, yet expressed words of hope and faith in God. Of course, no one knew suffering more than the Lord Jesus Christ, who throughout His life was “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). And when faced with the cross, Jesus told His disciples “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death” (Matt. 26:38). In spite of His personal pain, Jesus was willing to suffer and die for the benefit of the salvation of others. The Scripture declares that “as a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities” (Isa. 53:11). The death of Christ had meaning, because God was glorified as others were made to enjoy the blessing of eternal life. Christ’s pain has resulted in my gain.
Suffering touches us all. It moves and shapes us in ways we would never imagine. It breaks us down and builds us up, but it never leaves us where it finds us. In Scripture we learn that God’s power is magnified in our weaknesses, and that suffering reveals our true state as weak creatures who need the Lord in our lives for strength and guidance (2 Cor. 12:7-10). As we develop spiritually, we learn to keep our eyes more and more on heaven, knowing that ultimate relief from suffering will only come when the Lord returns and establishes righteousness on the earth (Rev. 20-22). There is much Scripture on the subject of suffering and the Bible reveals that there is hope and strength in God for those who turn to Him in the midst of life’s sorrows.
An excerpt from my book – Suffering: A Biblical Consideration
Steven R. Cook, D.Min.