Stuck in the Middle of Unresolved Suffering, Part 2
Whether you prefer movies, novels, biographies, videogames, or songs—if you’re human, you love stories. And if you’re human you hate unresolved stories, which make us squirm because narratives are supposed to resolve. Even more so, unresolved suffering—the kind of pain that seems pointless and endless—is difficult for us to wrap our minds around, let alone endure.
In Part 1 of this blog, we examined the first two verses of Psalm 88, and we saw the Psalmist, Heman the Ezrahite, position his own heart in trust that God would save him, even though his suffering remained unresolved. Today we’ll examine how he moves from his position of faith, to a recognition of his reality and a petition that God help him.
Recognition: A Balancing Act (Ps. 88:3-12)
Recognize Your Reality
In unresolved suffering, we hold our spiritual muscles taut to earnestly acknowledge the "badness" of our reality alongside God's sovereignty and his goodness. Real faith doesn’t depend on denial to keep it stout. So even though real faith affirms our trust in God when our feelings don’t match up, real resilient faith also doesn’t deny the gravity of our circumstances or our feelings about it. Read Ps. 88:3-12, and notice how the Psalmist earnestly acknowledges his reality.
Recognize God's Sovereignty and Goodness
Heman's suffering is not “normal” or light by any means. He’s dying, he’s been abandoned, and hardest of all, the Psalmist attributes the source of his suffering to God himself. How can this be possible? And yet, if God is sovereignly in control of the universe and the details of our lives (which he is), how can our suffering not be attributed to him? If he’s not the cause of suffering, does that mean it’s out of his control? This is an age-old dilemma for Christians.
When we’re mystified by the simultaneous existence of a good God—for he is good—and a world rampant with evil, acknowledging God’s involvement in our suffering should actually bring us comfort. If he weren’t involved, he would be either impotent or uncaring, allowing us to be tossed to and fro by the winds of circumstance. And although nothing happens in our world without God’s appointment, God is neither the source of evil nor handcuffed by it. God judges evil. Moreover, our God is one who suffers with us. Our assurance is his Son, the God-Man Jesus Christ, who lived our suffering and now reigns eternally in his human flesh, forever unifying our broken, dusty frames to the very life of the Triune God. And talk about unresolved suffering: Jesus himself implored the Father that he might not endure the cross, the greatest evil this world has ever seen. Jesus knows the agony of trusting the Father in suffering, and he doesn’t expect us to find it easy either.
The Bible makes no attempt to reconcile our suffering, God’s goodness, and God’s sovereignty. We cannot speculate beyond what God has revealed to us in his Word. But we can, like Heman, acknowledge all these things, and trust the God we’ve come to know. Our action step (and this is going to seem like a no-brainer, but it isn’t always), is to pray, never ceasing to ask God for what we really need and want.
Petition: Always Pray (Ps. 88:13-18)
Similar to affirming our trust in who God is, continual prayer itself is a confession that we do trust God to be all he says he is. Otherwise, we wouldn’t petition him at all. We see the same thing in Heman’s song; read Ps. 88:13-18.
In these verses, Heman tells us he’s been afflicted “all day long.” In other words, he’s been suffering a long time! And he’s completely alone. There’s no resolution or worldly hope for Heman, no option to get out of his situation. And God doesn’t seem to be responding to him. Nonetheless, Heman continued communicating with his Lord. I think it’s because he really knew and trusted God. Plus, he knew God controlled his circumstances, and he had nowhere else to go.
I often cling to the words of a professor of mine, Dr. Laurie Norris, during suffering when God seems silent. She told our class about a river in Dallas she walked to every day one year. The river completely dried up every summer, but inevitably, the waters always came back. We can compare our spiritual lives to that river, she said. When God seems silent, we have to keep going to the riverbed, continuing to pray and read our Bibles because, she said, “The waters always come back. But you have to be in a position to receive them when they do.” Prayer puts you in that position again.
A Sure and Certain Rescue
We don’t know what happened to Heman ultimately. Psalm 88 wraps up, and he’s still suffering, still waiting to hear from God, still longing for the conclusion of his grief.
Like Heman, in unresolved suffering, we must choose to position ourselves in trust in God and then pray in recognition of our reality and in petition for his help.
Oh, and remember how I said a few paragraphs back that Jesus’s death on the cross was the ultimate example of unresolved suffering? Well, that’s only half-true because in three days, God resolved Jesus’s suffering, raised him from the dead, and seated him in victory at his right hand. So Jesus, in fact, is the supreme example of God’s ability and willingness to rescue his children from suffering.
And friends, here’s our hope in the midst of suffering: our rescue is certain.
Even Heman believed God would save him. And if Heman believed it, we can too. We read Psalm 88 in the context of all God’s revealed Word, specifically that God has given us Jesus who’s coming again to end suffering for all time. First Peter 5:10 reads, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”
When we see no resolution to our suffering, we know we are in the middle of the story. In the end, there will be no unresolved suffering for those who are in Christ Jesus. God will be glorified, and we will be comforted. Our Father imagines ends to our stories we can’t—and God promises that the end of the story for his children is always joy. Because God’s name is on that promise, we can trust that it is as eternal as he is.