You probably know someone who is hurting. Perhaps they put on a happy face. Perhaps they keep things close to the chest.
Perhaps their happy family life is not what it appears to be. Perhaps they struggle with an incurable illness year after year and have just learned to quit talking about it.
Why do so many suffer in silence?
I have frequently asked that question.
I started asking again recently. I have been reading Predators by Anna Salter. After her chapter on Rose Colored Glasses, I put it aside and thought about it. I think I may know why so many suffer in silence.
Dr. Salter makes the case that in her experience, people tend to view the world as a far better place than the one that actually exists. They try to make sense of senseless violence, because their minds cannot accept a world where evil can happen to anyone, anywhere. So they create a new reality in their heads. In this reality, they are in control of their destiny. People are generally good. They can spot liars and deceivers. They can protect themselves if they just do everything right.
She writes, “People have always wanted to feel safe in the world and to fend off the frightening reality that the death rate is one per person and that the timing of it appears to have nothing to do with goodness.”
The reality of this world is that there is death, sickness, suffering, illness and senseless acts of violence. But this clashes with our own idolatry – that if we do everything exactly right, we can avoid anything unpleasant. Were we not told that we control our own destiny?
But dreams do not bring with them the talent to achieve them.
Life does not guarantee health and beauty.
The death rate is still one per person.
I think that this explains why we as a fallen human race tend to blame the victim whenever anything bad happens. It is the only way that we can keep convincing ourselves that we live in a safe and happy and just world with no need of either a Savior or a Judge.
A neighbor is raped. We immediately find fault in where she was at the time. What she was wearing. What she was doing. What time it was.
A man is chronically ill. We immediately critique his diet, his habits, his health “pro-activity”.
A child rebels hard against his parents. We immediately wonder what his parents did to mess him up so bad. They probably didn’t spank him. They probably spanked him.
A child dies unexpectedly. We immediately wonder what the parents did wrong.
A woman is beaten by her husband, and we wonder if she could have been a little more submissive.
It is true that a prudent man will take reasonable precautions. A man would be wise to avoid walking into a bar with a suit made of money. We should not willfully run into danger.
But this is not what I am talking about. I am talking about living in a cursed world. There is wickedness, sickness, death, destruction, misery and all sorts of things that happen to all sorts of people and there is nothing that they could have done to have avoided it.
It appears as if we have only two options: We can either continue to live in the reality that we have constructed in our own minds – that all reality is ultimately determined by our own free will – in which case we will make better choices, despise those who are suffering for making the wrong choices, and close our eyes firmly shut against any evil, whether moral or natural. Or, we can become cynical, hardened and fatalistic. Bad things will always happen to me and there is nothing that I can do about it. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
But the Bible commands us to open our eyes to a reality that cannot be seen with the eyes of the flesh.
All things are in the providential hand of God. Heidelberg Catechism states it plainly:
What do you believe when you say, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”?
That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of nothing made heaven and earth with all that is in them, who likewise upholds, and governs them by His eternal counsel and providence, is for the sake of Christ, His Son, my God and my Father, in whom I so trust as to have no doubt that He will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul; and further, that whatever evil He sends upon me in this valley of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father. (Heidelberg Catechism, Q & A 26)
Since our Creator created all things of nothing, then He is not like his creatures. A distinction must be made. That which would make no sense when applied to any creature makes perfect sense when applied to God, for He is almighty, everywhere present, and the Creator and Sustainer of all.
He upholds the world and governs all things by His eternal counsel and providence. This not only includes the good things, but it also includes calamity. Nothing is outside of His decree.
The world then is neither governed by man’s free will, leaving us in chaos; nor is it governed by empty fate and determinism, for God is our Heavenly Father, who loves us and gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
It is true that the misery is in the world because of God’s judgment on the world.
But it is also true that God Himself entered into that misery in the person of Jesus Christ in order to save us from our sins and misery.
And He governs the world not by making us inhuman, but by awakening our full humanity, conforming it to the image of Christ. He sweetly and irresistibly draws the will by His Holy Spirit, causing us to walk in newness of life.
If this is true, then the only proper response of a Christian towards suffering is mercy.
Perhaps this illness isn’t because there is sin in one’s life.
Perhaps this abuse isn’t because the wife just won’t submit.
Perhaps this couple were good and loving parents and their son was just rebellious.
Perhaps there is calamity in this world that we simply cannot prevent or cure.
And perhaps – just perhaps – the reason why the soccer coach abused the 8 year old girl actually had NOTHING TO DO with the 8 year old seducing him. The fact that we have to say that sickens me. Perhaps the reason that very nice soccer coach abused that girl was because he was an evil child of the devil, fit only for the flames of hell.
In other words, sin and misery and sickness and crime are not always things that we could have prevented if we worked harder, made better choices and tried more diligently.
In fact, if we could fix the world – if the doctors were as good as people think that they are, if child protective services could solve family problems, if the probation department could cure crime, if we could prevent all calamity, crime, illness, rebellion, poverty and hatred, then we wouldn’t need a savior at all.
But the facts are different.
Certainly avail yourself of every avenue that God has graciously provided to mitigate suffering. God is merciful as well as just, and He does work through men and women to alleviate some of the misery in this world. But justice and mercy in this world always leave us hungering for more, lifting our eyes to heaven when every tear will be dried, where justice will flow like water, and there will be no more curse.
For even though God has provided many good things, we still aren’t in heaven. Suffering is still the lot of men and women throughout the world, and no amount of human effort will ever eradicate it.
People who are united to Christ by faith still get sick; are still abused and ridiculed; still die; still suffer the heartache of loss and reproach and still weep over injustice, cruelty and hatred.
A merciful man doesn’t give them a list of everything that they need to work on in order to protect and heal themselves. Perhaps this isn’t even the issue. Besides, the thinking that all men have the power to overcome all misery is humanism, not Christianity.
A merciful man weeps with those that weep. He points the sufferer to Christ, who also suffered on this earth. A merciful man reminds the sufferer that Christ’s suffering also seemed pointless and vain in the eyes of the world, but through those sufferings God defeated all the power of sin and the devil. God has plans that we cannot fathom, since we are creatures and He is the Creator. But He HAS promised that every calamity that he brings upon us He will turn to our good. Whatever evils we have on this earth are not even worthy to be compared to the joy that is set before us. A merciful man brings the comfort and the power of Jesus Christ, our Lord and King, the just judge over all the earth.
And a merciful man always does what he can to ease suffering wherever he is called and with whatever he possesses. He is called to imitate God, who is merciful and kind, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy (Psalm 103).
A merciful man feeds the hungry instead of telling them to work harder.
He comforts and visits the sick, rather than lecture them on their lack of faith or how to change their diet. Those who are sick have explored every possibility, believe me.
A merciful man throws out the scoffer, runs off the wolves, opens his home to the homeless sheep.
A merciful man will rescue the sheep from the mouth of the lion, even if the lion is married to the sheep. He doesn’t tell the sheep to not thrash about so much while the lion is eating.
And most of all, the merciful man gives himself to prayer, intercedes for the outcast, the hungry, the sick and the suffering. He actually labors in prayer, which is far different than saying, “Praying” in a note but not bothering to do it. The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much, James tells us.
If we suffer as Christ suffered, we may not be able to explain why. We may not be able to solve it; we may not be able to save the world, or even ourselves – but where there is misery, there is also abundant grace.
Question 26 of the catechism doesn’t teach purposeless and fatalistic calamity. It also doesn’t explain why calamity happens to God’s people. It merely repeats the promise of the Bible.
Whatever evil He sends upon me in this valley of tears, He will turn to my good; for He is able to do it, being Almighty God, and willing also, being a faithful Father.
For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning (Psa 30:5).
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn (Psa 46:5).