“Tell the Big Guy, ‘Hey,’ when you get up there.”
Probably not the encouragement I needed while I struggled through chemo and kidney disease. We’ll give my well-meaning visitor a mulligan for trying.
The list of goofy things people say to those in the midst of suffering could stretch for miles:
“If you had enough faith, you could get up from the wheelchair.”
“Be strong for your children.”
“She’s in a better place.”
Someone even told one of my buddies that God had him on crutches because of his pugnaciousness and pride.
But misinformed, albeit well-meaning, acquaintances and misguided friends aren’t the only ones who misspeak in our troubled times. We misspeak, too.
The lies and misconceptions we speak to ourselves are just as damaging as the ones others speak to us. Perhaps more so because we can’t talk ourselves out of our own lies as easily as someone else’s.
Suffering has a way of creating a middle school lunch table environment in our minds—rumors and misconceptions abound. Here are a few we are prone to believe about our suffering:
Rumor 1: God is punishing me.
Lupus is most common in African-American females of the childbearing age. So, when I received this diagnosis as a white male at 13, my family was shocked. Through 19 years of lupus, it has been tempting to think that the latest onslaught or unique situation is due to something I’ve done wrong.
We carry this karma-esque idea that our suffering is in direct correlation to God’s punishment. It might feel like, “I have cancer because I sinned sexually,” or, “If I had just gone to church more, maybe that accident wouldn’t have happened to my son.” We create these direct parallels between our suffering and our sin just like Job’s friends or Jesus’ disciples in John 9.
But the cross of Christ cuts right through this misconception. It was on the cross that Jesus took our place and our punishment. The guilt trip is over. Not karma, but grace. We don’t get what we deserve and, because of Jesus, we get better than we deserve. Do we all live in a broken, sinful world as a result of general sin? Yep (Gen. 3:1-7). Are there consequences for sin? Of course (Gal. 6:7). Is there loving discipline? Sure (Heb. 12:4-13). Is our current suffering because we are “worse sinners” than others? No, not a chance (Luke 13:1-5, Isa. 53:4-6).
Why are we suffering then? We might not always have an answer for this question, but in every circumstance, we can gaze at Christ crucified and confidently conclude that God is for us. Our greatest problem isn’t ultimately our suffering but our sin. For the believer, we rest in Jesus, who has taken the ultimate punishment of wrath and sin upon Himself.
Rumor 2: God is absent.
Suffering spreads the rumor that God must be disinterested, distant or even absent from my situation. Like a father with the TV turned up too high, it seems God isn’t fully tuned in. We probably wouldn’t say that out loud, but our anxiousness, desire to control and frenzied worry reveal that we believe God is removed and that we ourselves must calm the stormy seas around us.
Christians worship the only God who comes and suffers among His people. The Scriptures are full of stories of God being most present when He seems most absent. In fact, my favorite part of the story of Joseph is the simple word “meanwhile” in Genesis 37:36. As Jacob weeps and Joseph is sold into slavery, the author of Genesis implies, “I know you can’t see it. I know all you see is a mess, but there is majesty to be noticed in the middle of this mess. He is at work even in the waiting, the weeping and the most painful of breaks.”
Rumor 3: God is not loving.
When hardship persists, we buy into the rumor that God doesn’t love us. If He did care, He would do something about it. One of my mom’s friends, suffering and dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, scribbled on a piece of paper these words: “I can’t believe how much God loves me.” That’s humbling. I’m usually tempted to say the opposite when suffering lingers.
Again, we look to the bloodied, beaten and beautiful Son of God to be reminded of truth. Romans 8:32 says, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” Amid our many questions, we realize He loves us. He is good. He isn’t holding out on us. Though seemingly contradictory, the story of Lazarus in John 11 portrays that in the midst of Lazarus’ death, Jesus waited to act because of His love for His grieving friends, not in spite of it.
One of my professors used to say, “Don’t doubt in the darkness what God has revealed in the light.” It’s in the darkness of suffering that we are most likely to believe and spread these common rumors about God. We must remember the revelation of His goodness.
May a King who took up a cross remind us that we should expect crosses and tears and even expect that they will be temporary. May we remember Jesus’ wounded side and know this much: He loves us. Might we recall the empty grave and recollect His scarred hands and know He is both powerful and present in our difficulties. And may these remembrances dispel all rumors that drive us away from Him when we need to rely on Him most.
Thankfully, we don’t have to go “up there” to tell Him “hey.” He came here to defeat sin and to defy Satan. And in doing so, He eliminates the rumors that invade our suffering with the life-giving truth of His love. Praise His name.