Recently I watched a friend going through heartbreak, the victim of circumstances beyond his control which brought him such emotional pain that he could only cry out to God in desperation that awful question, ‘Why?’ I have been in that place myself, so please don’t think I have a purely academic interest in the question of why Christians are allowed by God to suffer. Nor was it foreign to Our Lord when He was upon the earth, because in the agony of the cross He, too, cried out to His Father, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ Yet we often struggle to accept suffering as something sent by God. One reason for doing so is that the Bible seems to promise to Christians a better experience of life. Another is that many people experience more the apparent absence of God than His presence during periods of suffering. We will look at these two issues, starting with some biblical reflections on God’s purpose in suffering drawn from the letter of James.
Suffering and wisdom
In the first chapter of James we read this: ‘If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt’ (James 1:5-6). It seems at first sight that there is here a ‘faith principle’ for receiving a positive answer to prayer: ‘he must believe and not doubt’. However, this faith is only possible because there is in the passage a corresponding promise, or ‘warrant’: God wants to give wisdom generously to all. It is evident that we can’t just ask for anything we want because verses 1-4 indicate that suffering can be God’s will for believers. It is the testing of our faith, which develops perseverance, which in turn makes us mature and complete. Two principles here are clear, I think.
Prayer and wisdom
First, trials are always under God’s control and so faith should be directed to God’s providence before the hope we naturally have to be delivered from suffering. That doesn’t mean we can’t ask for deliverance because it is very difficult to discern the purpose of God for us. As one Puritan writer wryly put it, ‘Providence is best read backwards.’ The model prayer for deliverance is therefore that of Our Lord on the cross: ‘…if it be your will…yet not my will but yours be done’ (Luke 22:42). Even though it was ultimately clear that God had sovereignly determined Jesus should suffer in order to rescue sinners (Acts 2:23), it was evidently not clear to Jesus on the cross, so his prayer was not a failure of faith in God’s intervention but a triumph of trust in God’s providence. We may pray the same prayer in the same spirit.
The second principle is that we should pray without doubting for what God has promised. To doubt God’s answer is to doubt God’s promise, which means that spiritually we are not in the right place to pray. Some Christians nevertheless argue that there are divine promises to give us whatever we ask without limit. A favourite passage used in support of that argument is ‘I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son’ (John 14:13). But note the qualification of asking in Jesus’ name. That is not a magic prayer formula but a limitation on what we may ask. Only that which carries the authority of Jesus Himself will be granted. If I pray for prosperity and good health, I will receive it if my Lord gives His name to the request – but He must do it Himself. The mere ritual of reciting His name will not turn our prayers into demands which God must grant.
Prayer and faith
The second passage in James concerns illness and divine healing: ‘Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up’ (James 5:14-15). Does this passage provide a warrant for expecting healing on every occasion? The key to understanding James at this point is to realise what kind of faith is required, because in the New Testament we find three kinds.
The first of these is saving faith, without which no-one can be truly converted (Rom. 5:1ff). The second is the ‘warranted’ faith we have noticed in James 1:1-8. Neither of these two kinds of faith can be meant in James 5. It doesn’t refer to saving faith in Christ because our deliverance from sickness and suffering is not guaranteed until there is a new heaven and earth. It cannot refer, either, to a universal warrant to expect healing in answer to prayer, for no such guarantee is to be found in the Bible. That leaves us with the third kind of faith, identified in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 as a spiritual gift given to some (but not all) believers. God sometimes speaks directly to promise or predict something to His children. Despite the dangers of mistaking our desires for God’s voice, we must not dismiss this. I have known myself this kind of special gift from time to time and I have seen it in others. It is very powerful and precious. It enables us to pray the prayer of faith with confidence that God will grant our request. That, I suggest, is the meaning of faith in James 5.
Prayer and the presence of God
A second great problem with suffering concerns our sense at times that God has left us. Abandoned us. Lost interest in us. We may then ask what is wrong either with God or ourselves. It is tempting to suppose that we have not prayed with sufficient faith for deliverance but we have already seen that to be untrue. That leaves us with the question of whether or not God has deserted us in our times of trial. The most obvious thing to say is that when we are traumatised by something, we will be emotionally affected. And these feelings easily lead to a spiritual depression in which we wrongly believe that God has abandoned us.
However, it must be said that there can be a different reason for feeling spiritually bereft, in what an ancient writer called a ‘dark night of the soul’. God may withdraw His conscious presence for a season, either to call us to repentance or to test our faith. No-one should belittle the spiritual agony of such a dark experience but God does promise a way through: ‘For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5). God may withdraw Himself from our consciousness of Him but He is nevertheless there, see Psalm 23:4: ‘I will fear no evil, for you are with me’. Our place of darkness is not the absence of God, even though it may be the absence of experiencing His presence. If that is so, it is not that God lets us down but rather that He is using our darkness to refine our faith in Him, so that it depends less on our experience and more on His character.