Much of my career as a writer has revolved around the problem of pain. I return again and again to the same questions, as if fingering an old wound that never quite heals. I hear from readers of my books, and their anguished stories give human faces to my doubts. I remember a youth pastor calling me after he had learned that his wife and baby daughter were dying of AIDS because of a tainted blood transfusion. “How can I talk to my youth group about a loving God?” he asked.
I have learned to not even attempt an answer to these “why” questions. Why did the youth pastor’s wife happen to get the one tainted bottle of blood? Why does a tornado hit one town and skip over another? Why do prayers for physical healing go unanswered?
One question, however, no longer gnaws at me as it once did: “Does God care?” I know of only one way to answer that question, and the answer is Jesus. In Jesus, God gave us a face. If you wonder how God feels about the suffering on this groaning planet, look at that face.
“Does God care?” His Son’s death on our behalf, which will ultimately destroy all pain, sorrow, suffering, and death for eternity, answers that question. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
French artist Henri Matisse felt his work in the last years of his life best represented him. During that time he experimented with a new style, creating colorful, large-scale pictures with paper instead of paint. He decorated the walls of his room with these bright images. This was important to him because he had been diagnosed with cancer and was often confined to his bed.
Becoming ill, losing a job, or enduring heartbreak are examples of what some call “being in the valley,” where dread overshadows everything else. The people of Judah experienced this when they heard an invading army was approaching (2 Chron. 20:2–3). Their king prayed, “If calamity comes . . . [we] will cry out to you in our distress, and you will hear us” (v. 9). God responded, “Go out to face [your enemies] tomorrow, and the Lord will be with you” (v. 17).
When Judah’s army arrived at the battlefield, their enemies had already destroyed each other. God’s people spent three days collecting the abandoned equipment, clothing, and valuables. Before leaving, they assembled to praise God and named the place “The Valley of Berakah,” which means “blessing.”
God walks with us through the lowest points in our lives. He can make it possible to discover blessings in the valleys.
Imagine a world without wind. Lakes would be calm. Falling leaves wouldn’t blow in the streets. But in still air, who would expect trees to suddenly fall over? That’s what happened in a three-acre glass dome built in the Arizona desert. Trees growing inside a huge windless bubble called Biosphere 2 grew faster than normal until suddenly collapsing under their own weight. Project researchers eventually came up with an explanation. These trees needed wind stress to grow strong.
Jesus let His disciples experience gale-force winds to strengthen their faith (Mark 4:36–41). During a night crossing of familiar waters, a sudden storm proved too much even for these seasoned fishermen. Wind and waves were swamping their boat while an exhausted Jesus slept in the stern. In a panic they woke Him. Didn’t it bother their Teacher that they were about to die? What was He thinking? Then they began to find out. Jesus told the wind and waves to be quiet—and asked His friends why they still had no faith in Him.
If the wind had not blown, these disciples would never have asked, “Who is this? Even the winds and waves obey him” (Mark 4:41).
Today, life in a protective bubble might sound good. But how strong would our faith be if we couldn’t discover for ourselves His reassuring “be still” when the winds of circumstance howl?
Our son wrestled with drug addiction for seven years, and during that time my wife and I experienced many difficult days. As we prayed and waited for his recovery, we learned to celebrate small victories. If nothing bad happened in a twenty-hour-hour period, we would tell each other, “Today was a good day.” That short sentence became a reminder to be thankful for God’s help with the smallest things.
Tucked away in Psalm 126:3 is an even better reminder of God’s tender mercies and what they ultimately mean for us: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” What a great verse to take to heart as we remember Jesus’s compassion for us at the cross! The difficulties of any given day cannot change the truth that come what may, our Lord has already shown us unfathomable kindness, and “his love endures forever” (Ps. 136:1).
When we have lived through a difficult circumstance and discovered that God was faithful, keeping that in mind helps greatly the next time life’s waters turn rough. We may not know how God will get us through our circumstances, but His kindness to us in the past helps us trust that He will.
My wife makes an amazing pot roast dinner. She takes raw meat, along with raw sliced white and sweet potatoes, celery, mushrooms, carrots, and onions and throws them into the slow cooker. Six or seven hours later the aroma fills the house, and the first taste is a delight. It is always to my advantage to wait until the ingredients in the slow cooker work together to achieve something they could not achieve individually.
When Paul used the phrase work together in the context of suffering, he used the word from which we get our word synergy. He wrote, “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). He wanted the Romans to know that God, who didn’t cause their suffering, would cause all their circumstances to cooperate with His divine plan—for their ultimate good. The good to which Paul referred was not the temporal blessings of health, wealth, admiration, or success, but being “conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (v. 29).
May we wait patiently and confidently because our heavenly Father is taking all the suffering, all the distress, all the evil, and causing them to work together for His glory and our spiritual good. He wants to make us like Jesus.
Don is a border collie who lives on a farm in South Lanarkshire, Scotland. One morning, he and his owner, Tom, set out to check on some animals. They rode together in a small farm utility truck. When they arrived, Tom left the vehicle but forgot to put the brake on. With Don in the driver’s seat, the vehicle rolled down a hill and across two lanes of traffic before it stopped safely. To watching motorists, it appeared the dog was out for a morning drive. Indeed, things are not always as they seem.
It seemed as if Elisha and his servant were about to be captured and carried off to the King of Aram. The king’s forces had surrounded the city where Elisha and his servant were staying. The servant believed they were doomed, but Elisha said, “Don’t be afraid . . . . Those who are with us are more than those who are with [the enemy]” (2 Kings 6:16). When Elisha prayed, the servant was able to see the multitudes of supernatural forces that were in place to protect them.
Situations that seem hopeless are not always the way we perceive them to be. When we feel overwhelmed and outnumbered, we can remember that God is by our side. He can “command his angels . . . to guard [us] in all our ways” (Ps. 91:11).
Picture two teenage girls. The first girl is strong and healthy. The other girl has never known the freedom of getting around on her own. From her wheelchair she faces not only the emotional challenges common to life, but also a stream of physical pains and struggles.
But both girls are smiling cheerfully as they enjoy each other’s company. Two beautiful teenagers—each seeing in the other the treasure of friendship.
Jesus devoted much of His time and attention to people like the girl in the wheelchair. People with lifelong disabilities or physical deformities as well as those who were looked down upon by others for various reasons. In fact, Jesus let one of “those people” anoint Him with oil, to the disdain of the religious leaders (Luke 7:39). On another occasion, when a woman demonstrated her love with a similar act, Jesus told her critics, “Leave her alone … She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6).
While our culture values physical “perfection,” there are no such distinctions in God’s eyes. In reality, we are all in desperate need of Christ’s love and forgiveness. His love compelled Him to die on the cross for us.
May we see each person as Jesus did: made in God’s image and worthy of His love. Let’s treat everyone we meet with Christlike equality and learn to see beauty as He does.
During a walk at a local park, my children and I encountered a couple of unleashed dogs. Their owner didn’t seem to notice that one of them had begun to intimidate my son. My son tried to shoo the dog away, but the animal only became more intent on bothering him.
Eventually, my son panicked. He bolted several yards into the distance, but the dog pursued him. The chase continued until I yelled, “Run to me!” My son doubled back, calmed down, and the dog finally decided to make mischief somewhere else.
There are moments in our lives when God calls to us and says, “Run to Me!” Something troubling is on our heels. The faster and farther we go, the more closely it pursues us. We can’t shake it. We’re too afraid to turn and confront the trouble on our own. But the reality is that we aren’t on our own. God is there, ready to help and comfort us. All we have to do is turn away from whatever scares us, and move in His direction. His Word says, “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe” (v. 10).
The obituary for Alan Nanninga, a man in my city, identified him as “foremost, a dedicated witness for Christ.” After a description of his family life and career, the article mentioned nearly a decade of declining health. It concluded by saying, “His hospital stays . . . earned him the honorary title of ‘The Praying Patient’” because of his ministry to other patients. Here was a man who, in his times of distress, reached out to pray for and with the people in need around him.
Hours before Judas betrayed Him, Jesus prayed for His disciples. “I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). Knowing what was about to happen, Jesus looked beyond Himself to focus on His followers and friends.
During our times of illness and distress, we long for and need the prayers of others. How those prayers help and encourage us! But may we also, like our Lord, lift our eyes to pray for those around us who are in great need.