Suffering, Lauren Bowerman writes, is not a mark of failure or weakness. It's not a sign of God's disappointment in you. Suffering—even depression—can be a means of grace.
Many of us admit that we wrestle with God’s goodness in seasons of trial. But what if instead of question his goodness, we’re really questioning God’s kindness?
In order to walk with a friend through the long and complicated journey of grief, you need to discover biblical lament and the grace it can provide.
Sometimes all we can see is devastating loss when, in reality, God is clearing the path for you to find invaluable treasures.
The days stretched on like a bad movie that would never end. I wore a cheerful mask as I meandered through my day. I was found myself floundering in the darkness of depression. Sometimes you look at someone and wonder what’s going on behind their eyes. “How are you doing?” friends would ask. “I’m good . . . ” I uttered robotically.
But if you looked close enough behind the mask, you could see I was unraveling. There’s always more happening underneath the mask.
GRASPING FOR WORDS
Some suffering is brought on by our sin and other times suffering happens without invitation. Our hardships are colorful and various. Instead of finding the words to explain our pain, it’s easy to mask our trials with the subtleties of “I’m good," “Things are fine," or if you’re talking to other Christians, “I’m blessed!" We put on the mask of cheer because this is expected of us.
Paul Laurence Dunbar communicates similar sentiments in his poem “We Wear the Mask:”
We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, — This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.
I marvel that out of the labors of suffering, beauty such as this can be birthed. The Psalms remind us that corporate and individual suffering can’t be divorced from the human experience. They so eloquently reveal what’s happening underneath the mask. They do not hold back how bleak life in a Genesis 3 world can become. They show the intensity of our pain and the goodness of our God.
When the Worst Has Come
If you live long enough, there will be a point when your worst fears become reality. Your marriage goes from bad to worse when you find the divorce papers in your mailbox. Your oldest child proclaims, “There is no God!" despite your best efforts to train them in the way they should go. You find yourself struggling, again, with the same sin that has been a snare most of your life.
Perhaps, you receive the paralyzing news of the death of a parent or loved one. You feel the pulse of your own heart as the doctor mumbles, “There isn’t a heartbeat.” You sigh at the long road ahead as your people are marginalized, disenfranchised, or enslaved by fellow humans. The list goes on.
The people of Israel were no strangers to suffering. Yes, God chose them to display his glory to the nations, but this privilege did not exempt them from years of pain. In Psalm 129, the psalmist removes the mask, and we witness the metaphorical and literal scars which reside underneath.
In verses 1 and 2, the psalmist sings twice that, “since my youth they have often attacked me." As a people, their suffering was long and consistent. Throughout their history, they went in and out of enslavement to other nations. From the cries of Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8) to the lion’s den in Babylon (Dan. 6), the Israelites experienced consistent attacks. Across generations, some of their worst fears happened over and over again.
In verse 3 the psalmist paints a beautifully disturbing word picture describing physical pain as they sing how “plowmen plow over [their] back; they made their furrows long”. Plows are sharp tools used to break up the earth to plant seeds. Furrows are the long narrow trenches made in the ground by the plows. The mask is off, and here we find the home of the tears and desperation of the suffering.
ATTACKED BY SIN
Similarly, the final stanza of Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask,” removes the mask as he speaks of this long road of pain:
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries To Thee from tortured souls arise. We sing, but oh, the clay is vile Beneath our feet, and long the mile; But let the world dream otherwise, We wear the mask.
And this is the case for us. While we may not be enslaved, we still experience attacks. Our attacks may be our sin patterns, spiritual warfare, or an actual enemy who seeks to destroy our reputation by gossip. Enemies are seeking to kill us, bringing many of our fears to reality.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of Psalm 129 is the call for all of Israel to say, “since my youth they have often attacked me." This Psalm speaks of the collective suffering of a group of people. It gives words to the corporate cries of the oppressed.
My ancestors penned many poems and songs like this when they were, and in some ways still are, oppressed by fellow humans. Littered throughout the beautiful words of negro spirituals and poems written by African-American men and women are the collective pronouns of “we," “our” and “us." African-American poet, Melvin B. Tolson, displays similar sentiments as Psalm 129 in regard to the collective nature of suffering in his poem, “Dark Symphony.” He writes:
Oh, how can we forget Our human rights denied? Oh, how can we forget Our manhood crucified? When Justice is profaned And plea with curse is met, When Freedom’s gates are barred, Oh, how can we forget?
Some may not feel this collective “we” in which these poems and some psalms speak, but we can learn from them. We learn of the nature of the church community—we were meant to suffer alongside one another.
As one body (1 Cor. 12:26) we not only worship with one another, but we feel deeply with one another. As Romans 12:15 says, we “Rejoice with those who rejoice, [and] weep with those who weep.” We draw near to our brothers and sisters in the faith, and we see what is underneath the mask. We don’t disregard it or explain their suffering away; we weep with them.
Through bearing burdens together, we become a tangible expression of the comfort of Christ to them. To even begin to do this, we must be close enough to our brothers and sisters in Christ to know what is going on in their lives and to see behind the mask.
God’s Righteous Character
In the suffering of his people, Tolson writes, “When Freedom’s gates are barred/ Oh, how can we forget?” As Psalm 129 reminds us, the goal of our suffering is not to forget it, erase it, or ignore it.
Psalm 129, and all the Psalms of Ascents, were written to celebrate seasonal feasts in Jerusalem. The Israelites sang these songs corporately and regularly. They sang about their oppression and the Lord’s deliverance. In singing, they forced themselves to remember. Faith helps us to see that God will work in the future—like he has done in the past—because of his consistently righteous character. As one quote renders it, “What God has done for his people formerly are, in effect, promises too. Faith may conclude that the Lord will work in like manner in the future. If he delivered others who rested in him, he will deliver me if I trust in him now. He is the same yesterday and forever.”
In Psalm 129:2, the Israelites sing that their enemies have not prevailed against them. If we were to read only verse 1-2, we might conclude that the Israelites were the reason their enemies didn’t overcome them. We may assume they delivered themselves from their enemies.
HOLD FAST TO THE PROMISE
As we read on, verse 4 reveals salvation didn’t come from the Israelites own strength and efforts but from the Lord’s righteous character. They could sing “the LORD is righteous” (Ps. 129:4) because they drew on years of history which proved the Lord’s faithfulness to them. He delivered others—and by faith—we can believe he will deliver us as well.
We, too, can hold fast to this same promise. For centuries God has kept his Word to his people. He stayed true to his unchanging and righteous character. The ultimate evidence of his deliverance is through the person and work and Jesus Christ who delivered us from the bondage of sin. And in a myriad of smaller ways, he will do the same for us.
Our deliverance may be different than we expect and slow coming. Perhaps instead of removing us from the struggle, he will mold and shape our character, integrity, and faith in it (Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:3). If we find ourselves in the dark night of the soul—before the face of our Father and in the presence of his people—we can remove the mask. We can mourn and remember the faithfulness of our God. And we can recall, he loves to shine his light into the darkest places.
SharDavia “Shar” Walker lives in Atlanta, GA with her husband Paul. She serves on staff with Campus Outreach, an interdenominational college ministry, and enjoys sharing her faith and discipling college women to be Christian leaders. Shar is a writer and a speaker and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Christian Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
God has all power and all knowledge and is second to none. No equals and no competitors. The fact that evil is rampant in his creation is no surprise to him. It’s there only by permission. Fromtime to time, evil may seem to be running wild, but in fact it’s always on a leash. And we should be grateful that we’ve never seen how bad it could become.
Exactly why God allows evil in his creation, he doesn’t bother to tell us, and he doesn’t need to. He is God. We can’t understand everything about God, but we have enough information to satisfy many of our basic questions. In many cases, God chooses to let us go through whatever evil or trouble we may be facing at the moment. He could have prevented it and allowed us an easy skate, rather than the tough slog some have to endure. He could end it entirely but probably won’t until he’s through using it for his purposes.
An Intruder in God's Good Creation
If we take a close look at both the Old and New Testaments, we notice something interesting about evil’s presence in the world. It is considered an intruder into God’s good creation but is allowed to prowl about for a time, and with a considerable degree of freedom. Yet it’s always within bounds.
Sometimes it may look as though it exceeds all limits, and whereas good often seems to run out of steam, evil seems never to tire. But just when we think God’s hands are tied, he yanks the chain and brings it to heel. He is ruler of all. Evil is evil and good is good, but whereas God never uses good for evil purposes, he often uses or blatantly exploits evil for good purposes. He does this by turning it upside down and inside out.
The stories of the patriarchs in Genesis are wonderful illustrations of evil being exploited for good. One of the clearest pictures comes to us in the account of Joseph. Young Joseph is mistreated, violently abused, tricked, kidnapped, enslaved, falsely accused, and imprisoned. Yet every time he is kicked and abused, he is mysteriously bumped up one more rung of the ladder. He moves from the deep hole in the beginning of the story to the position of the prime minister of Egypt at the end.
God used all the evil directed toward Joseph as raw material to construct not only his preservation from starvation and death but also the rescue of those who abused him as well as the salvation of the entire nation he served. As Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
This pattern presented early in the Bible became the blueprint for how God has chosen to deal with evil in his realm for the rest of history. He may permit a certain amount of wickedness to occur, but he always reserves the right to twist and use it for his own purposes. We see the same design in the New Testament.
What we see in Genesis continues throughout early church history, through the centuries of the martyrs, in the subsequent eras of the church, and up to the present day. This is God’s will for the remainder of time until he brings down the curtain and calls humanity to final judgment. After every tiny scrap of evil is dealt with in the complete justice and fairness of God, he intends to recreate a new heaven and new earth where evil is no longer even a possibility—where only goodness and righteousness will exist.
The manipulation of evil for good ends is one of the most exciting aspects of God’s program on earth. He uses the bad things around us in ways we couldn’t possibly expect. He brings good out of the bad not in spite of it but because of it.
The Grand Master
Let’s examine a very earthly and human analogy of this. For example, it’s common practice to exploit the intentions of others for our own ends in a variety of ways. Consider the game of chess. As the competition progresses, the better of the two players cleverly ascertains his opponent’s game plan. He has two options. He can block and frustrate the plan immediately, or he can so arrange his own strategy to account for it, to absorb it. In this way, while his opponent is cheerfully fulfilling his own scheme, he’s also unwittingly fulfilling that of the superior player.
Just when he thinks he’s about to proclaim victory, he’s suddenly checkmated. The game is over.
So it is with God. He’s the Grand Master of chess, who can at any moment impose his own plan over ours (or anyone else’s), so that no matter what, he can bring the game to his own decreed conclusion. We may deliberately live a life of rebellion and selfishness, discarding his will at every point, or we may live a life of Spirit-empowered obedience and self-sacrifice. Whichever course we take, he wins in the end. By scripting his own plot to overarch ours, he allows us to fulfill our plans but ultimately to bring about his will. In this way, evil is both exploited as well as judged, good is rewarded, and God is the victor.
Of course, this is not a perfect analogy, since there are no exact earthly parallels to how God’s nature and sovereignty are involved in human life. God is entirely unique and profoundly mysterious. He is revealed to us only in part. As I said, this revelation isn’t everything we want to know, but it’s enough to grasp the basics of what he wants us to know. The main point of comparison here is that the superior being uses the activities of the inferior for his own will.
Over the years, our family has discovered that some of the best things that ever happened to us came as a direct result of the worst things that ever happened to us. If we take the apostle Paul seriously “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28), then we’ll eventually see how God still writes his superior, more sophisticated script over all others.
No matter what evils befall us, good (even excellence) may be brought out of them. This is one of God’s favorite things to do. This point is too important to pass over lightly.
And we need to remember, just as it is Satan’s purpose to take all that is good and turn it toward evil ends, so it is God’s purpose to take all that is evil in the lives of those who love him and turn it for good. The commandeering and exploitation of evil for good is one of the most powerful aspects of God’s strategies on earth. He skillfully manipulates the bad things around us in ways we couldn’t possibly expect or imagine.
A Truth We Need to be Fixed in Our Minds
We need to fix this truth in our minds. Between now and the final act of history’s play, God has determined to allow evil to roam about on a chain, not free to do anything and everything it wants, but to do much that we wouldn’t want. Evil will always be an intruder and an invader. As long as we dwell on this planet, we’ll always live in occupied territory. Evil will be relatively free (within God’s prescribed limits), but it will always be under the ongoing judgment of the Ruler of all things. Each and every day he will choose to exploit what evil determines to do and to turn it toward his good purposes.
Again, evil will continue to accuse, blame, abuse, misrepresent the truth, destroy, and pillage, but it will remain on a leash. It will never be totally free and will do no more than it’s allowed to do. God defeats it handily, takes it prisoner, and redirects it to bring the good he intends.
Why do I repeat myself? Simply to underscore this critical point: whether people choose to do evil or good in this life, God has decreed that he will write his will into the script of human history and bring it to its conclusion in exactly the way he has purposed.
We can oppose God’s will and do the most terrible things, or we can do everything in our power to try to please him. In either case, he’s able to enter into our own worldly troubles and sins and in some mysterious way bring out of them ultimate good—both his and ours. Without doubt, evil, and all those who love it and are given to it, will face judgment and destruction. But it is to God’s glory that we turn from it and live.
Taken from Resenting God: Escape the Downward Spiral of Blame, (c) 2018, Abingdon Press.
Dr. John I. Snyder is author of Resenting God and Your 100 Day Prayer. As an ordained Presbyterian pastor, John has served congregations in the United States and planted churches in California and Switzerland. He is the advisor and lead author for theology and culture blog Theology Mix (www.theologymix.com), which hosts 80+ authors and podcasters and visitors from 175 countries. He received his Doctor of Theology degree magna cum laude in New Testament Studies from the University of Basel, Switzerland. He also has Master of Theology and Master of Divinity degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.