Where is God When I'm Suffering?

Growing up, despair felt like my closest companion. Most days, I felt invisible and unknown. My dad struggled through deep depression and bouts of mania, suicide attempts and hospitalizations, and the consequent guilt and shame. Several times throughout my childhood my siblings and I awoke to hearing violent struggles, or my dad urging us to put shoes on so he could drop us off at an orphanage. My mom had left when I was three and, until years later when my dad was found dead on the bathroom floor at a Chicago university, didn’t look back. The despair of believing I didn’t matter to anyone, because I didn’t even matter to my parents, was suffocating.

Though I’ve talked to God as far back as I can remember, even he felt distant or uninterested in delivering me. It seemed that everywhere I looked, I heard the message that I was insignificant and alone.

Disappointed desires and great anguish - sorrow, despair, hopelessness, powerlessness, loneliness, or desperation - can leave you thinking, like it did me, God has abandoned you. You may know he’s real, but wonder if he really cares, or if he’s powerful enough to intervene on your behalf. You may believe that you’re not worth his time and attention or, worse that he doesn’t exist at all.

I understand these feelings all too well, but I want you to know that, when your world is closing in on you and despair is gaining the upper-hand, there is help and hope. Pain is a consequence of the world’s brokenness, but it also alerts us to the fact that something is very wrong. It causes us to understand, like nothing else can, that we are insufficient on our own and in great need of rescue.

God welcomed my wrestling and was honest with me about what I faced. Instead of giving me the temporary relief I sought, he gave me hope that superseded my circumstances. He said, “You will have suffering in this world, but you will never be alone.”

In the midst of my suffering, God comforted me with these truths. I pray he will comfort you with them as well.

1. He sees you. None of your tears have ever been hidden from him. No hurtful word said or act done against you has ever gone unnoticed. No abuse has ever occurred that he didn’t see and grieve over with you. God promises to remember his children always and use for their good what was intended for their harm. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.” (Hebrews 4:13) “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:16)

2. He knows you. He is not a distant creator. God’s story tells us that he knows your name and everything about you. Nothing - no flaws, fears, thoughts, or needs - are hidden from him, and he calls your name regardless of them. He knows your greatest needs, including your need to know that you matter. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts…and are acquainted with all my ways…you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb…my frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret…your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me…” (Psalm 139)

3. He has compassion for you. Jesus’ ministry was an outpouring of love, flowing out of his compassion for those in need. Throughout history, God’s compassion has been revealed through his acts of kindness toward humankind, the greatest of which was his sacrifice on the cross. Even in our sin, he has cared for us. He cares for you. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

4. He came for you. Jesus left his throne in heaven and came into the world, because he loves you and offers rescue. It’s why we celebrate Christmas. Jesus came to comfort the brokenhearted, to heal wounds, to bring good news to the poor, and to proclaim freedom for captives. He came into the world to seek and save the lost and sacrifice himself, so that you would no longer be separated from God the Father, but, through his death, be brought near. He came to make you a son or daughter: accepted, welcomed and loved. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 8:5)

5. He is near. While you may not always understand why you’ve suffered, you can take great comfort that God will draw near and show himself faithful to you. God’s consistent refrain is, “I will be with you,” so, even in the midst of difficult situations, you are not alone. He promises that, if you draw near to him, he will draw near to you. “Neither…height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)

6. He is acquainted with your grief. Just as we experience sorrow in our lives and have our “nights of weeping,” so did Jesus. He experienced tears of sorrow beyond what anyone else has faced. Jesus collects our tears in a bottle and knows intimately what it feels like to be betrayed, overlooked, misunderstood and abandoned. He has compassion and mercy for you when you are suffering. “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.” (Hebrews 4:15)

7. He advocates both justice and mercy for you. Justice is a term that means, “What is right” or “as it should be.” Justice is one of God’s attributes and flows out of His holiness, which means his judgments are impartial and just. He is not corrupt and does not play favorites. Because all people have fallen short of God’s holy standards, a penalty is justified. But God who is rich in mercy gives everyone an opportunity to receive Jesus’ death as our substitutionary penalty – not because we deserve it, or have done enough to earn it, but as a gift of mercy because he loves us. “There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood…he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:22-26)

8. He is making all things new. God will return to the earth to cleanse it of sickness and suffering. God will replace our present suffering with glory. “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)