“I do know that waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts. Its easy to talk oneself into a decision that has no permanence – easier sometimes than to wait patiently.” – Elisabeth Elliot
It is in times of distress and suffering that the deep questions come to mind concerning suffering and the goodness of God. Is He really for me? What are His purposes in this? Why is this happening? If He’s all-powerful, why does He fail to act? How can something so horrible happen to [fill in the blank]?
In one very biblical sense, it is okay, good and right for us to ask God, “How long, O Lord?” in which we bear our souls to Him, with all of its baggage and emotion, knowing that He cares for us, and yet are still in utter bewilderment, with no answers. The Psalms are full of this. They are Psalms of lament. However, on the other side of questioning, we can turn toward blame and possess an ill, angry spirit toward God Himself, demanding a response. Cynicism can take hold in the heart, looking with a negative, hopeless eye toward God, doubting His promises and His very character. This is the questioning and doubting of unbelief and distrust that distances us from God, the very One we need to bear us up by His Spirit in times of suffering.
Elisabeth Elliot’s quote above gets at the reality that Job came to rest in, after wrestling deeply with the great unanswered questions in his life. Job had suffered immeasurable, overwhelming loss. Both Job and his wife came to deal with the unanswered questions in two very different ways. “Curse God and die,” she responds. And Job’s response to her? “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:9-10). They both experienced and possessed the same pain. They both had to confront what this meant about God, themselves, and how to respond to it all. One responds in faith, albeit weak and trembling, the other in hopeless, cynical, stiff-arming unbelief.
Even then, despite Job’s response of faith, he still had to wrestle through the hurt and the mystery, the unanswered question. He had a myriad of thoughts (and unwise responses from friends) with no answers, all of which he would carry with him for the rest of his life. And ultimately, he receives none, even from God Himself. In fact, God rakes him over the coals. God’s response is such that Job is stripped of any reason to even question Him as to why these things befell him in the first place. It is quite striking and seemingly harsh. However, as we’ll see, it’s exactly what Job needed to hear.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding,” God says (Job 38:4). In another place He says, “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?” (Job 40:8-9)
Job’s response? “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5 ESV). And again, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. [Quoting God] ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6)
This is one of the great ends of suffering, when we respond in faith, that in being stripped of ourselves and humbled, our eyes would be opened and our hearts come to rest in the mysterious, glorious goodness of God, by His Spirit, in the face of suffering, in the face of the unanswered question. And the New Testament goes even further: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV). In addition, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” (James 1:2-3 ESV) It is counter-intuitive to the world’s cynical system of unbelief, but this is precisely how the good news of the gospel comes in to change us and what seems like our harm is actually for the benefit of being made holy, made into the image of Christ, seeing Him as more and more beautiful and resting in an assured hope that one day all be well, and that indeed even now, all is well.
During this Advent season, a time of suffering for many, including myself, this is the tension we live in as believers, within the already and the not yet. All is well, all is accomplished, and yet, we wait earnestly for the consummation of His kingdom, carrying with us in our bodies of death (as Paul says) the unanswered question: “…waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.” (Elliot) And trust me, I have many throughout my life. Cynicism and unbelief looks at suffering and curses God. Belief turns to Him, with the pain in tow, for a joy, a pearl of invaluable price, that surpasses all knowledge: Christ Himself. The only place I know to go is the rest that only Jesus can provide, trusting and knowing that He has my good in mind and a perfect plan that we can’t even begin to conceive of how glorious it really is. And yet we wait, in pain, with patience, for its unveiling.