Even When He’s Silent

In the eye of the maelstrom, whether physical or emotional, we experience times when we believe God does not hear our pleas. As I mark another birthday, I hope to listen more intently. Why? To quote a Francis Schaeffer’s book title about God, He is There and He is Not Silent.

My dear father-in-law, Rev. A. Gordon Wolfe, once posted in the church bulletin, “If you don’t feel as close to God as you once did, make no mistake about who has moved.” Knowing how fickle my feelings can run, I prefer the word know to feel, but nevertheless, the bedrock of truth rests with God’s character, not my pendulum- moving emotions. His promise not to leave or forsake me (Deut. 31:8) holds firm.

C. S. Lewis mentions courage as well as honesty. I currently know more about persistent physical pain, though as I age, grief competes more insistently.

To be honest, it takes courage, discipline and clenching of teeth some days to do battle with worn out neurons that can no longer get signals to the brain to make my muscles work. The counterbalance rises from the honesty of placing whatever my current weaknesses are in the hands of my God, the one who never says, “Go away.”

Please do not read the poster above as an uncaring cliche. Painful as suffering is, the deistic idea that God wound up the universal clock and then walked away without so much as a snooze alarm set is utterly false. Not only does the Creator/Sustainer of the entire universe care, but He also turns to hear our questions, and then He answers by showing us more of Himself. You will find, as Schaeffer posited, “He is there and He is not silent.”

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Loneliness in Suffering

Some people love experiencing anonymity in a large city. No one knows them, and they wander around at their own pace, taking in the sights, sounds and smells that appeal and rushing through, or avoiding things that don’t interest them. It can be a grand adventure!When grief, pain or suffering encompasses us, especially over a long period of time, we need to find our way back to meaningful relationships before falling into an abyss. Yes, those quiet, contemplative times help bring initial healing for many, but life continues for even family members. Sooner or later, the silence that may have been beneficial can morph into loneliness. A repetitive throbbing affects body and soul. A therapist, or well-meaning friend or family member, instructs, hoping to express their concern for us in a constructive way. However, that one who has walked beside returns to his/her daily responsibilities.

That act leaves us to practice exercises given to help alleviate the pain. Whether walking through parallel bars repeatedly, or facing that time of day when a loved one used to return home, the loneliness seeps into our very marrow like fog permeating through Narnia.

When and how does that fog lift? Some days, by tiny moments of joy, we escape the painful aloneness. Other days, it comes completely unexpected and certainly unbidden. What to do?

Reading historic accounts, we see Job’s wife advise her husband to curse God and die. We see Job’s comforters miss the mark of infusing hope in this God-fearing man who has experienced grief as well as excruciating physical pain. We even see the audacity of a man demanding a meeting with God!

I find myself returning to Job 42 to regain some perspective. Job, having been unable to utter any response to God’s questions, confesses his position as a mere mortal and then repents of his actions and abuses hurled at the God of the universe..

I again realize that I have my telescope backwards, resulting in God’s being small and my pain or grief being astronomically huge. The fog dissipates some; I move forward ever so slowly, but I know God’s incarnation, Jesus Christ, will never abandon me, that I need not walk or wallow hopelessly in my distress.

A Few Thoughts on Grief

The loss of a beloved is an amputation.”

C. S. Lewis, himself a veteran of World War II, penned the sentence above. Note that he wrote a metaphor, a word from the Latin meaning “to transfer.” He moved a wartime visual to the heart of anyone suffering grief. Since the Office of Medical History – Army estimated that approximately 17,000 people survived as major amputees from WWII, Lewis’ brief sentence struck the dissonant chord in his first readers.

The first time I read Lewis’ A Grief Observed I felt the double-edged sword of authenticity and faithlessness. The Oxford don smote his heart in the visceral anguish of his soul. But some of his accusatory thoughts toward God caught this idealistic college freshman broadside!

I gained greater understanding, not to mention empathy for Lewis, as our family buried my beloved father just before my 30th birthday. Ice and snow made the grave site treacherous, but my strong mother stood military straight. My pregnancy at that time was touch and go, but this stubborn redhead exited the car at the cemetery. Dave stood on my left, my brother Ken, Mom and Ken’s wife on my right, and my cousin Bob directly behind me. Tears froze down our faces; the ache pierced our hearts. In December of 1988, we again returned to New York to lay my mother’s body next to dad. Daddy met one of what would be six grandsons.Mom at least met all six .

Amputees can get prosthetics, work tenaciously in rehab, and learn to function amazingly well. And by God’s grace, given time, supportive friends and family, professionals, and the biblical truths of eternal life, we too, despite the amputation, learn to live again. The struggle requires times of effort, rest, support and repetition. We press play on as Paul says because we know of a coming reunion where there will be no more pain, suffering or tears. Let theses truths allow us to hope and to live productively again.

Prayer and Healing

Why not jump into the topic that eventually arises when pain, suffering and grief persist? What about healing? Well-meaning people sometimes anchor conversations with questions about the degree of faith needed to experience God’s healing. When my parents met with doctors regarding my polio diagnosis in 1950, the orthopedist said I’d have double braces and crutches if I were ever to walk again. Nevertheless, until just last month, that was not the case. But due to muscular skeletal issues, I’ve experience major spinal surgeries, and pain has been my companion for years.

A good night of sleep, a hot tub soak, a passage of scripture that pulls me toward the Lord, writing notes or sending texts to encourage others, a massage or a medication — all have brought me levels of healing. Thankfully, I have not faced people who ask repeatedly, “But don’t you want to be healed? Are you sure you’ve confessed all your sins?” But Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic for over 50 years, certainly has!

Let me share one insightful encounter she had when an earnest person approached her after church, imploring her to have greater faith so she could be healed. Together they read Mark 2.3-5.

[3] And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. [4] And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. [5] And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

What Joni gently pointed out was verse 5, “And when Jesus saw their faith.” Having heard Joni speak, I believe her tone conveyed not conquest or one-up manship. I believe she simply looked closely at the passage and applied it, explaining she was grateful to all who pray for her.

Can God heal grief, pain and suffering? He’s God, the Almighty. Of course he can! But I believe, by faith, he uses these difficulties, as grievous as they are, to refine. What truly needs the brace to correct my walk is my heart.

Cries, Rants and Laments

Child development professionals claim that children begin crying with tears somewhere between three and four months of age. Later, toddlers can have what parents call meltdowns when frustration, illness, hunger, pain or tiredness overwhelm the children … or the parents. Gains in age or sophistication may or may not change the reactions seen above! My mom used to tell me I wore my heart on my sleeve. For example, TV episodes of Lassie made me cry. As I read Old Yeller to our sons, tears rolled down my cheeks, and I tried reading “The Gift of the Magi” aloud to my middle schoolers only once!

Crying or weeping moves our hearts when Hagar, not wanting to watch her son Ishmael die, sits opposite him, lifts her voice to God and weeps. Jesus will weep over Jerusalem and at Lazarus’ tomb. Peter weeps bitterly after his denial of Christ, and on Easter morning, Mary weeps as she stands outside Jesus’ tomb. Psalm 56:8 speaks of our tears being gathered in bottles or books. God knows our frame, meaning our physical and emotional being.

But somewhere in the 1970s I began meeting believers ranting that they could yell and scream at God because he was big enough to take it! These people, while enduring pain and grief, chose to rail at the God of the universe, the One who created and sustained the universe! And I did dare suggest that he also gave or denied our next breath! Our God is a consuming fire! (Deut. 4:24) Having too small a view of God (or an unbiblical view) can make him our BFF one minute and the person we block on social media the next. Human beings are in no position to blast into the Lord God!

Scripture uses a word that should come back into use: lament. This passionate expression of sorrow, pain or grief may include sobbing, moaning, wailing, keening, beating one’s chest. The issue is not the method of expression but rather, the recipient and the repairer. People deal with physical pain differently. Take a baby to the doctor for immunization shots and the response can be heard throughout the office.

I tend to say nothing. Doctors administering facet injections think I may have passed out, so they sometimes inquire, “Are you with me?” In my head I formulate, “No, I’ve just stepped out for a cup of tea.” Verbally, “I’m ok,” is the extent of my remarks. I have a soft moan that sometimes escapes my lips.

More than the forms of response, God hears (the recipient) and he cares (the repairer).

Let the writer of Hebrews inform us about the One who receives our laments (2:9-11 ESV)

[9] But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

[10] For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. [11] For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers,

And let the psalmist remind us of the One who repairs us through our grief, pain, and suffering. “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” Psalm 126:5

Prayer in Suffering

“We must lay before him what is in us; not what ought to be in us.” C. S. Lewis

I have found Lewis’ quote about prayer to run truest when pain or grief smack me severely or unexpectedly. Does my brain just black out on the many verses about the love, power and sovereignty of God? What about the Apostle Paul’s reference to his harrowing life as simply these “brief, momentary afflictions?

I’d love to say that my first prayers overflow with immediate hymns of praise and verses of confidence in the Lord’s care in the harrowing situation that has just fallen into my lap. And thanks to my mom and my junior high Sunday school teacher, verses in the KJV and Fanny Crosby hymns are inside my head and heart.

But Lewis offers an important lesson: better to prostrate myself before the Lord with my needy heart rather than try to impress Him with Sword Drill skills. Who do I fool?

It didn’t surprise Jesus when Mary initially sat in the house and Martha rushed to meet him saying,”Lord, if you had been here, my brother (Lazarus) would not have died”(John 11:20-21). But follow the narrative a few verse to make an observation.

John 11:28-32 (ESV)

[28] When she (Martha) had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” [29] And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. [30] Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. [31] When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. [32] Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

The sisters came in different ways and at different times, but each had the same heartsick appeal to make of Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Each woman cried out her pain.

Two verses show us Jesus’ heart to Mary, Martha, and by grace, to us.

The shortest verse of holy writ, “Jesus wept,” has massaged broken hearts of every generation since. Although Christ knew He was about to call Lazarus out of the grave, He wept. Less recited, John 11:33 nevertheless soothes. “When Jesus saw her(Mary) weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”

So whether facing pain and grief as a Mary or a Martha, we do well to lay ourselves before Christ as we are. He will not cast us out, for He knows exactly where we stand in the path of sanctification mapped out for each of His children.

Crushed

Needless to say, this crushed vehicle will not transport anyone. At times, pain, suffering, and grief overwhelm us in agonizing ways. As a baby boomer, I remember exactly where I was when JFK, RFK, and MLK died. My breath caught as America swayed under the tragic news of each man’s death.

Just before my 30th birthday, I stood in a frozen cemetery in New York, watching the pastor commit my 59-year-old father’s body to the ground. I had desperately wanted him to meet his second grandchild in July. I returned to the same cemetery 12 Decembers later, this time for my mother’s burial. Cancer claimed both my parents, and I now wore the matriarchal title around my shoulders. As I sucked in frosty morning air, the crushing agony seemed to vaporize my heart.God understands crushed, evidenced primarily by the fact that He allowed His Son to be crushed for our sins, (Isaiah 55:3). However, other uses of crushed demonstrate God’s knowledge of our frailty.

For us, the crushing from grief, suffering, or pain is often visceral. Think God is too lofty to understand our human struggle? Can you identify with the psalmist here?

For my sides are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs; my strength fails me, and the light of my eyes – it also has gone from me. Ps 38:7-10

Consider Proverbs 15:13. A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by sorrow of heart the spirit is crushed.

Or Proverbs 17:22. A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

Recapturing emotional or physical equilibrium, a new normal, or, dare we hope… joy, is a journey. That trek often presents forks in the road, a map of choices: bitterness, brokenness, or benevolent grace, to name just a few. I admit to having made some temporary sojourns that parallel Bunyan’s Doubting Castle. Thankfully, I have not remained forever in places like the Slough of Despond.

As I have crept or limped out of some of life’s crushing blows, I have found repeated comfort in verses from the Old and New Testaments. May these two verses encourage us all today.

The LORD is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.

Ps 34:18

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

2 Cor. 4:8-9