In Psalms 10:1, the Palmist asks a familiar question:
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
If you’ve lived very long in this world as an adult, you’ll likely resonate with that question. Because it certainly feels, at times, that God does hide himself in times of trouble.
The hard, cold reality of life with God is that he doesn’t often do what we think he should . . . or in the way we think he should . . . or when we think he should. He doesn’t often seem to prevent disaster, or heartache, or pain, or abuse, or death. People – even good people, even God’s people – suffer in this world at the hands of others, and sometimes they just seem to suffer at the hands of life itself.
This in spite of passages like John 15:7, which seem to suggest an alternate reality: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
And the fact that God doesn’t often prevent it has caused every generation to question his power or his love or even his very existence.
Why? Where are you, God? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
These are hard questions, often asked in the midst of crushing pain or fear.
And I have no easy answers. But I have been wrestling with these questions for the last three or four years. And my wrestling has not been an abstract academic exercise. It has been because I’ve been in the midst of my own misery – the kinds of things that would prompt such questions as the psalmist asks. And this last patch of pain is not the first time I’ve asked these questions in my life, just the most recent.
So I understand the questions and where they come from.
And I’ve been asking those questions, as the psalmist did, to the Lord, which is always the right thing to do. The Father is not afraid of such questions, by the way. It’s okay to ask him the hard stuff. Job certainly did. And so have I. His answers have been slow in coming, and maybe don’t even qualify as answers as much as insights. And I suspect that the slowness has had more to do with my capacity to absorb new perspectives than with reluctance on the part of God.
But here’s what I’m beginning to see: The truth is that we live in a fallen, broken, messed-up world, a world filled with people who don’t trust God and are thus driven by their own desires and governed by their own twisted values, unredeemed ideologies, and desperate fears. Ever since Adam and Eve made the choice to trust something other than the Father, the rest of humanity has largely followed suit. And that has created a world of treachery, deceit, betrayal, and hurt.
And all those twisted, broken allegiances and habits and passions are so interwoven into the fabric of humanity – including you and I – that for the Father to fix that, to totally eliminate the possibility for pain and suffering and misery – he’d have to destroy it all – the earth and everyone in it.
And of course that will, in fact, happen one day. In the meantime, the world is allowed to continue humming as-is. The parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) is helpful here.
The truth, I’m afraid, is that as long as we live in this broken, twisted world, we will have pain and misery and heartache. We will occasionally experience treachery and betrayal and violence at the hands of others. The psalmist knew this, of course, and noted matter-of-factly, “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow . . . .” (Ps. 90.10), for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
And even Jesus himself promised as much: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). And in fact, some of those folks will even think that the harm they do to you they are doing for God (John 16:2).
That’s the truth. That’s the reality in which we live. And for some of us, it’s hard to accept. We struggle with this because most of us were taught to believe in a God who will always spare us from trouble, to put a shield around us. We were taught to believe that as Christians we have an arrangement with God: we remain faithful and he makes our lives easy and pain-free. If we’re honest with ourselves, down in the deepest parts of our soul, that is the God we expect.
We do not expect a God that says to us, “In this life you will have trouble,” a God who allows evil to live tethered to our very roots because to destroy it would mean to destroy us.
And so in our misery and pain, we cry out to God asking him, begging him to do something he is not yet prepared to do. And when he doesn’t, we feel betrayed by the very God we serve, and as we try to make sense of his inaction, in our hurt we level accusations at him: Impotent! Unloving! Distant!
In fact, none of those things are true. What the Father has shown my own reluctant heart is that he loves me desperately. And in my pain, he hurts with me.
And when I’m at my own end, the power that he will readily execute on my behalf is to strengthen me in my inner being with a renewed sense of his love. While he often doesn’t change the circumstances that bring us pain, he WILL change us, through his love and by his power, making us equal to the pain.
The “peace of God, which transcends all understanding” that Paul promises in Phil. 4:6-8 is an interesting phrase. The kind of peace that “transcends all understanding” is not the peace that comes when circumstances are pleasant and life is easy and everything is going my way. That kind of peace wouldn’t be that hard to understand at all. And so this phrase is not a promise that God will change my circumstances and quell the assaulting forces so that in their absence, I can have peace.
No, the peace that transcends all understanding is the peace that envelops us in spite of our circumstances. It’s peace in the midst of pain, peace while enduring injustice, peace when overcome with grief, peace in the face of fear. And that, my friends, is not something we can conjure up on our own, or manufacture on demand through the force of our own will. That kind of peace requires the involvement and sustaining of a God who we’ve come to know loves us deeply and who meets us in the midst of pain and does his sustaining and strengthening right there.
That is something God is ready and eager to provide. And in my own life, I have found THAT to be very helpful indeed.