Making sense of suffering.
Suffering and death cannot win because God has already won.
A few weeks ago, my family passed the two-year mark since my mom’s mental health collapse. I can still remember that day like it was yesterday. On a run-of-the-mill evening in June 2018, I received a phone call from my sister that remains the weirdest phone call I’ve ever gotten from her. I picked up and she proceeded to tell me that mom is “not right.” That they are taking her to the hospital. And that I should do whatever I could to fly up to be with them. I remember feeling so confused and conflicted in that moment. I wasn’t sure what to think, or even what in the world all that meant. But what I can say now is that nothing was ever the same after that moment.
I quickly flew from Florida to South Carolina, and very soon after I landed, my dad and I drove to a local mental health facility where my mom had been admitted. Once there I saw my mom like I have never seen her before — and like I never want to see her again. Her depression had seized her almost entirely, masking her sense of reality with an alternate one. I had heard of nervous breakdowns before, but I had never seen one in real life — and this was bitterly, painfully real. It was, perhaps, the most devastating afternoon of my entire existence. We returned to my uncle’s house afterwards where everyone was huddling up, coping with one another, trying to make sense of it all. I remember walking outside to call my wife to give her an update on things, but I don’t know if any coherent words came out of my mouth. All I could do was weep inconsolably.
We are now two years removed from that moment and — I am thrilled to say — my mom is a living, breathing testimony of God’s grace. By the Holy Spirit’s continued influence and faithfulness (along with the support of my entire immediate family), my mom has recovered by leaps and bounds, in ways that leave me dumbfounded by God’s power. I honestly cannot accurately articulate how grateful I am to still have my mom. There were several instances where I didn’t think that that was going to be possible.
I share that with you because I am still baffled by it all. I still have zero clue as to why God allowed that ordeal to arise in my mom’s (and my family’s) life. It still doesn’t make sense. And I think that’s precisely because suffering itself doesn’t make much sense either, nor should it. The suffering you and I endure is simultaneously an inescapable and abnormal part of reality. It’s inescapable because ours is a world that is fundamentally broken, fractured from its original design. All of the terrible signs of sin’s infectious influence are noticeable in all the sufferings we see and endure on a daily basis. Suffering is doubly grievous, though, because we know that this isn’t how the world should be. The surest evidence that this world is broken is the existence of suffering, pain, and death. This was not part of God’s original creation. “Sorrow, tears, death, and all other ills that flesh is heir to,” Alexander Maclaren affirms, “are an alien and abnormal excrescence upon creation as God meant it.”1 When God created everything and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31), there wasn’t even a hint of suffering in view. Then Adam and Eve disobeyed, bringing sin, suffering, and death with them. What God had called “good” was now tainted and corrupted.
To be sure, those thoughts might help us answer the question of “where” suffering comes from, but the question of “why” still remains as the most persistent question that debilitates sufferers almost more than the suffering itself. Why do people suffer? Why does God allow it? Why is God letting me go through this? Why isn’t God taking this suffering away? Why is God letting me live through this? I remember asking God a flurry of similar questions on countless occasions while we were still reeling from my mom’s affliction. The “why” questions of suffering and grief are some of the oldest existential questions ever uttered. Therefore, it is fitting that the book that is generally considered the oldest in the entire Bible seeks to “answer” the question of suffering, that is, the Book of Job.
I say “answer” facetiously because if you read Job hoping to find the “answers” to life’s sufferings you’re going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, if you read Job cover to cover you will be surprised to know that Job is never given a reason as to why he was made to see such sorrow, loss, and hurt in his life. The bulk of the Book of Job is comprised of dialogues between Job and his “friends” as they try to determine what Job had done in order to cause all this heartache. They never really come to a conclusion, though. Such is what makes Job one of the tougher books in the Bible to read and study and understand: it never answers the “why” of suffering to our liking. In fact, one of the main takeaways from the narrative of Job’s life is that suffering doesn’t always have an immediate cause to which we can point and assign blame. And there’s probably nothing more infuriating than that.
We want there to be a reason, we need there to be a reason for it all. We are obsessively fixated on the notion that there’s something to blame for our plight. Some explanation for the ruin. Yet, for forty-two chapters, Job is given none. No reasons. No explanations. No rationale rationale to account for the extraordinary squall of suffering. In fact, the comfort Job does receive from God is nothing but a reminder that God was still God. Job 38—41 consists of a laundry list of rhetorical questions from God to Job, all of which aim to remind Job the sufferer that there is no one like him. He is absolutely sovereign over everything — yes, even suffering. This results in Job humbly bowing at God’s control over all things, leading to a cathartic repentance and acceptance of God’s indomitable will for his life (Job 42:1–17).
Such, I think, is the point of all of life’s suffering and grief, which are chiefly meant to bring us to the same realization — namely, that we are not God. That we are not in control. That our self-sufficiency is a mirage. “Physical suffering,” writes Paul Tripp, “exposes the delusion of personal autonomy and self-sufficiency. If you and I had the kind of control that we fall into thinking we have, none of us would ever go through anything difficult . . . Independence is a delusion that is quickly exposed by suffering.”2 The lie of self-sufficiency is quickly put to bed in the crucible of suffering.
Life is chaotic and messy and hard and grievous and worth it, all at the same time. We are surrounded by bad news, ominous headlines, and “uncertain times.” There’s no avoiding the heartache that comes along with living in a post-Genesis 3 world. But the good news that speaks to us in the middle of life’s storms is this: that notwithstanding the ferocity of the storm that smacks us around, God is with us in the storm; God is smiling at us in the storm; God is speaking to us in the storm. The message of God to us is the same one that was given to Job. The same God who allows the storm controls the storm. God is God and we are not. Even as tragedy, chaos, and frenzy dominate our lives, they aren’t our rulers. God is. And he reassures us of his authoritative grip over all things by his smile in the storm. He smiles not because he loves suffering or because he’s sadistic. He smiles because he knows that even though life appears to be a seemingly random string of suffering, he is the one through whom suffering dies.
By Jesus’s own suffering our suffering is put to bed. Suffering and death cannot win because God has already won. “He is the One,” Tripp continues, “who not only comforts you but produces beautiful things in you and through you out of what you didn’t invite into your life and don’t really want in your life and out of what doesn’t seem good at all.”3 Your suffering is not unnoticed, nor will it last. The promise of the gospel is the promise that our world suffering and hurt and pain and death is being remade by Jesus’s atoning blood (Rom. 8:19–23). And so it is that when God whispers, “Don’t be afraid,” he does so with smile — as if to say, “Watch this.” “Watch what I can do through this mess.” “Watch the beautiful masterpiece I can make out of garbage.”
Alexander Maclaren, The God of the Amen: And Other Sermons (London: Alexander & Shepheard, 1891), 136.
Paul Tripp, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 20–21.
Tripp, Suffering, 13.