From the pits of grief and suffering, the human heart and soul can yearn to know the cause of earthly pain. Did a particular sin bring this suffering upon me, or did I need discipline?
Tender answers might pour into the soul from Scripture—Job was a noble man who suffered and grieved (Job 1:8). And the man born blind in John’s gospel was not provided by Jesus with a personal sin corresponding to his pain (John 9:2-3). We cannot always draw straight lines between cause and effect for our individual suffering (Isaiah 55:9). In How Long, O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil, D. A. Carson writes,
It is the uncertainty of reading what is going on that sometimes breeds pain. Is the particular blow I am facing God’s way of telling me to change something? Or is it a form of discipline designed to toughen me or soften me to make me more useful? Or is it part of the heritage of all sons and daughters of Adam who live this side of the parousia, unrelated to discipline but part of God’s mysterious providence in a fallen world? But must we always decide? If a little self-examination shows us how to improve, we ought to improve. But there are times when all that the Christian can responsibly do is to trust his heavenly Father in the midst of the darkness and pain. (Carson 66)
“Must we always decide?” We can heed Carson to welcome needed growth in obedience that “a little self-examination” uncovers. Yet, he also warns that our inability to understand the full purposes of God behind our suffering can cause us sorrow on top of sorrow.
Draw Near to the Merciful Savior
While we sit in the mysteries of God’s providence, there is a promise we can be certain of. It’s a theme Carson repeats throughout his book: “From the biblical perspective, it is because of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed” (Carson 44).
As I grow to have a higher and higher view of God being God—creating and owning me, being pure and dwelling in unapproachable light, and deserving of my unwavering devotion and holy fear, I am increasingly unable to view any of my sins as insignificant or any of my fleshly contributions as meaningful. This principle Carson writes of has been crucial for me, especially in the seat of suffering.
Approaching God for mercy in a manner that communicates, “I’ve got nothing,” is the biblical way (Zuber). Kevin Zuber preaches this approach to God based upon the account of the father who grieves the sickness of his son in Matthew 17:14-15,
And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him [Christ] and, kneeling before him, said “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.”
While witnessing the agony of his clearly beloved son—which a mother or father knows becomes the agony of the parent too—this father bends his knees to Christ and asks for the undeserved mercy of God. This is outward evidence of his commendable spiritual posture.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
Don’t Forget Your Sin While Suffering
Approaching God for mercy, I am able to draw near to his throne of grace. And this God has, indeed, been merciful. Look with me at the example of Psalm 40.
In this psalm, David speaks of being in a pit—a miry bog of suffering. As the Psalm progresses, two variations of suffering are mentioned—personal sins (Psalm 40:12) and a near-death experience at the hand of others (Psalm 40:13-14). Note that the latter doesn’t appear to correspond to a particular sin David has committed, for David openly declares that the sins of others are to their shame.
For evils have encompassed me
my iniquities have overtaken me,
and I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head;
my heart fails me. (Psalm 40:12)
Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me!
O LORD, make haste to help me!
Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether
Who seek to snatch away my life. (Psalm 40:12-14a)
In such suffering from others who seek to take his life, David makes a theological step in his thinking that is often unnatural to those in pain. David does not forget about his own sin (Psalm 40:12). He does not forget about the grander biblical perspective for his life—that before God, is not exempt from being in need of mercy.
As those later in history than David, we can think of the new covenant by Christ’s blood and the suffering brought upon Christ on the cross on the basis of sins. To me, there is no clearer correlation in Scripture between suffering and sin—and none more helpful to my posture before him—than in the case of Christ. It’s my sins that held him there.
Find Joy in and Praise His Mercy
Meditating upon what God’s mercy meant for Jesus on the cross, the believing soul yields praise in suffering and grief. David does not withhold his own:
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
behold, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart;
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation. (Psalm 40:9-10)
David doesn’t seem to be praising God here for deliverance from his physical suffering—from those who were pursuing him. For in the last verse of the Psalm, David asks God to “not delay” (Psalm 40:17). His request for physical deliverance still stands. Yet, he doesn’t underestimate God’s spiritual deliverance—from the edge of death, he speaks about this good news. When suffering abounds, his joy in who God is and who God is to him multiplies countlessly more.
You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us;
none can compare with you!
I will proclaim and tell of them,
yet they are more than can be told. (Psalm 40:5)
“None can compare with him!” writes David. Does your perspective yield this praise while suffering? We may count the number of days we have been bereaved, the manifestations of our suffering and pain, and the people who have inflicted evil upon us, all the while sitting in the unknown about God’s full purposes behind our sorrows. But, we cannot possibly count what we have in Christ.
In David’s suffering that was directly caused by his sin and in his event of running from those who sought to snatch his life, he held to a singular stance before God. He leans on mercy.
In my times of illness and grief, I am not troubled by the mysterious providences of God. For my suffering here, no matter how severe, could never graduate me from being utterly, moment-by-moment requiring of God’s mercy. To not be presently consumed by his wrath is evidence I look upon often—and do not fathom. And this is mercy Christ suffered for me to joyously receive.
Indeed, none can compare with him.