Stuck in the Middle of Unresolved Suffering, Part 1
When I was a little girl, I had to drink medicine—an orange-infused sludge the consistency of Metamucil—twice a day. After I got caught pouring it behind the couch one too many times, my mom required me to sit at the kitchen table until I’d drained every drop. Naturally, every day I wound up marooned there for hours, and my dad would read me fairytales. When we started J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, waiting for Dad to get home from work suddenly seemed impossible, and I began reading on my own. I had to know how the story would resolve.
Unresolved stories are really uncomfortable for us. Narratives are supposed to resolve, but our lives are full of ones that don’t. In a book, it’s one thing, but what about when we suffer in real life without any apparent purpose or end in sight? We struggle to even wrap our minds around unresolved suffering because we’ve put our faith in a God who promises he’s infinitely good.
Our enemy wants to capitalize on our suffering to make us doubt God’s goodness. Granted, it’s hard to reconcile how God can be good, and allow us to suffer. (I mean, does anyone else avoid reading the book of Job whenever possible)? But somehow life confronts us with this seeming discrepancy, whether we read Job or not. For years, I watched a friend battle an un-diagnosable disease. Last fall, my dad fell seriously ill and was hospitalized, while I was in school across the country. And most recently, I’ve wept as two people I dearly love have forsaken Jesus for lifestyles where they’ll self-destruct.
Unfortunately, unresolved suffering has been part of our world almost as long as we have. We know this, not primarily by historical accounts, but through art, music, and literature. What I love about art is it’s always both a reflection of and a response to culture. So Tears for Fears sings “Mad World” because they’re actually lamenting the incomprehensibleness of the suffering in our world. In their bondage, African American slaves sang about their hopes for freedom. Jewish rabbi Chaim Potok wrote novels that recounted, through fiction, the history of his persecuted people.
A former pastor of mine often spoke of “life in the waiting room,” which was his term for describing that much of life is lived in the “in-between,” those seasons during which we wait, desperate, for God to change our circumstances. It’s like this whether it’s the day-to-day sort of waiting—the employment search between jobs, the longing for a spouse, the desire to be healed from illness—or the seasons in which we encounter truly incomprehensible grief.
How on earth are we supposed to maintain hope in God in ongoing, unresolved suffering?
Hope for Unresolved Suffering in Psalm 88
We find answers if we examine the work of another artist experiencing suffering without hope of reprieve. His name was Heman the Ezrahite, one of the leaders of the Levites who composed Israel’s songs for corporate worship. He wrote Psalm 88 as a song and prayer during his own unresolved suffering. Even though the Book of Psalms contains more laments than praises, Psalm 88 is one of only two that don’t have happy endings.
Psalm 88 shows us three ways the Psalmist responds to unresolved suffering: he positions himself in trust in God, and then he comes before God with both a recognition of his reality and an earnest petition for help. Here’s the bottom line for Heman and us: we cannot give up our hope in God, even when we feel he has given us over to suffering.
You’ll want to read this with your Bibles open to Psalm 88. Today we’ll look closely at the position of affirming your trust in God. Next time we’ll talk about your own recognition and petition before God as you come to him in prayer. Stay tuned for Part 2.
Position: Affirm Your Trust in God by Continuing to Cry Out (Ps. 88:1-2).
If you just read Psalm 88, you’re probably thinking, “Where does the Psalmist affirm his trust in God? This seems like a pretty depressing list of complaints to me.” And yes, it is quite depressing. However, Heman does affirm his trust, even in the midst of this serious lament.
The only hope is in the first two verses:
1 Lord, you are the God who saves me;
day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you;
turn your ear to my cry.
Amid his grief—in fact, before he even recounts his grief to the Lord—he affirms his belief that God is Savior. “You are the God who saves me,” he says. Given the fact that Heman is experiencing suffering that God is not currently saving him from, this statement is one of tremendous faith.
Yet Heman continues crying out to God. In grief, I find myself strangely divided between feeling like continuing to pray is the last thing I want to do because I’m so desperate and angry I want to give up, and feeling like I’m so desperate and angry the only thing I can do is pray. The very repetition of Heman’s prayers when God seems unresponsive demonstrates his faith in who God is.
Pray What You Know, Not What You See
Heman’s repetitive prayer reminds me of Jesus’s words in Luke 18. Jesus told a parable about an unjust judge, repeatedly visited by a widow seeking his help. The judge gave her what she wanted because he was so annoyed by her persistence, and Jesus contrasted the response of the Father, who is the just Judge. He said, “Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (Lk. 18:7-8). Our Lord promises to answer us, to act in our lives with justice, for his glory and our good. So we must persist in prayer.
However, prayer is grueling in unresolved suffering because it’s hard to believe God will ever answer us. We find it possible to trust God’s goodness on our wedding days or the birth of our first baby or when he provides a new job. We even find it possible to trust his goodness in suffering that has an end in sight. But unresolved suffering? That tests our faith to the limit because things seem hopeless.
I remember the same dear pastor who taught me about life in “the waiting room” also once said, “There’s a time to pray what you see of God, and there’s a time to pray what you know of God.” Days in which we see God’s goodness tangibly are the days we praise God for what we see. And days in which the violence of our circumstances masks his grace, the days in which suffering appears unresolved—those are the days we demonstrate our trust in God by praying what we know of him: he is good, a giver of good, and a God who promises to answer us.
Heman knew God, and he continued to pray what he knew of God. This is what it looks like to affirm your trust in God in unresolved suffering. Once the Psalmist positioned himself in faith by affirming his trust in who God is, he came to God with a recognition of his grief and a petition on his own behalf—which we must do too. More on that in Part 2.