This past week, my wife Diane and I were at Children’s Hospital for several nights with our daughter Braylee. Seeing other parents with their children there too (including Cari & Hallie), our hearts went out to the many people around us.
It made me ponder again the theology of suffering. I think we have reduced suffering to merely an “intellectual exercise” where we have fancy answers to the “why?” of suffering. But in doing this we forget that it is a real experience. Many people cannot “escape” their sufferings and feel trapped in a hopeless situation where their cries and prayers are not heard. Intellectual explanations will never satisfy the one in suffering, but someone’s presence certainly will. Not your answers but your presence.
This makes me think of Jesus on the cross and his cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). With these words, Jesus is quoting directly from Psalm 22:1. One thing to keep in mind is that often when a New Testament writer quotes a line from a Psalm (or any other OT book), he is not just quoting one line but the wider context that the phrase finds itself in. In other words, Jesus is not just quoting Psalm 22:1, he has the whole Psalm in mind.
Psalm 22 in its original context is not about Jesus – it is about a sufferer, a social outcast, a reject, someone who has experienced the loss of human dignity, and someone who is being confronted with the imminence of death. The underlying question in this Psalm is, “How do we handle that moment when we are confronted with the reality of suffering and death?”
Psalm 22 is also a prayer of lament. Lament is something people do in the midst of pain and suffering. It is a brutally honest prayer. It is a deep cry of pain to God, a petition for God to help deliver them from their circumstances. Prayers of lament are designed to persuade God to move on behalf of the sufferer. It is a completely natural cry of the human heart.
When you pay close attention to this Psalm, you’ll notice that the sufferer experiences deliverance even while in the midst of his extreme distress and pain. We might ask, “How can one be delivered and yet still suffering?” The answer is that God has not abandoned him; He is with him and He has heard his plea. That is the greatest gift he ever received. The sufferer is safe in the hands of God no matter what happens to him – God is with him.
One of the hardest things for the one who suffers is to wrestle with the thought that somehow or someway, God has abandoned them. Did God just take a holiday on me – just when I needed Him the most? Many of us, including myself, expect God to remove us from our suffering. The pain and difficulty are too much to bear and we cry out for help – we expect deliverance from our circumstances. But we forget that all throughout scripture we see a God who is, not far off and absent, but one who is very much present in our sufferings and desires to work through our sufferings.
When we return to Jesus on the cross, we see that the agonizing cry of Jesus is the same cry of the sufferer in Psalm 22, who in the midst of extreme pain and agony cried out for his deliverance. Jesus himself identifies with the sufferer of Psalm 22.
Here is the question for us: “Did God hear His beloved son?” Yes, of course He did!! Contrary to what many people have said about the cross, God did not abandon His son on the cross. If God did not abandon the sufferer in Psalm 22, He did not abandon his own son – He was right there with him. Just as God heard the sufferer in Psalm 22, he heard the cries of his son. He did not remove him from his trial, but neither did he abandon him there.
Before I risk turning this into yet another patronizing intellectual exercise, can I just draw all of our attention to Jesus? I don’t claim to understand all the sufferings out there – and I never will. But Jesus certainly can. And neither do I want to promote a theology of escapism filled with false hope. Jesus, through his suffering and death, has identified with all of the sufferings that humanity has ever experienced – however profound or mundane. That’s you and me and everyone else.
As Christians, we do not profess escape from suffering, but we profess in a God who has so fully identified with us in our sufferings. When we ask questions like: “Where was God when my child suffered? Where was God when cancer reigned in my body? Where is God in valley of the shadow of death? Where was God when my spouse walked out on me? Where was God when I was overwhelmed with depression and anxiety? Where was God when I was all alone without any friends in school? Where is God in all of this pain and despair?” What is the answer? The answer is: “He is right where you are. He is present. He is with you. He has not left your side, and he will not leave your side!” He desires to work through your sufferings, He has not abandoned you! God is most present in the midst of our sufferings.
Keep holding on to Jesus – He is with you!
About the author:
Chris Loewen is pursuing a very part-time an MDiv from Providence Theological Seminary while he works as a full-time Nutrient Management Planner for Agri-Gold Consulting. He lives with his wife, Diane, and his three young children ages 3-8 in Blumenort, Manitoba, where he ministers at Crossview Church. If you would like to send Chris a message, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.