In the course of the Christian life, seasons emerge that push the boundaries of our belief in the goodness of God, causing doubt about His willingness and/or ability to truly “work all things for good.” War, famine, the loss of a loved one, financial concerns, divorce, a wayward child, bankruptcy, physical disability . . . anything that threatens the things that we feel are essential to a meaningful life expose the vulnerability of human faith. Situations that appear to be terminal—those with no hope of healing or reconciliation—hit home the hardest. Though our lives may be filled with belief and conviction in God, in each of our hearts there comes a point where “the good” cannot be imagined; in every soul there are boundaries to faith . . . and certain circumstances can push us beyond those limits into a place where doubt and despair rule.
King David, the writer of the majority of the Psalms, was no stranger to this place. His words regularly describe hopelessness, depression, and—perhaps worst of all—the sense that God had abandoned him. Consider, for example, Psalm 44:23–24:
Arouse Yourself, why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul has sunk down into the dust; our body cleaves to the earth (NAS95).
The situations that strike at our souls the most powerfully are usually the ones that are closest to our hearts: the issues of “life” that challenge our core beliefs about what is “right,” the dreams that we don’t even know we have, the expectations that lie central to our hopes, the tragedies that reveal our true beliefs about what should be. When circumstances press against these issues, our faith (as tattered as it may be at the moment) becomes vital for spiritual survival.
During the last days that I had with my brother, I held his hand tightly, but my faith clung desperately to God. “Lord,” I said quietly, “I don’t understand. He wants to tell them about You—why can’t he do that? Why have You let this happen to him? It just doesn’t make sense to me.” As I despairingly looked at Rob, my mind traced the circumstances that had brought him to this place. It seemed like such an inappropriate end, so contrary to where we thought life would take him. It all appeared to be a total loss compared to how we thought God would use him.
As I sat at his side, my mind flashed back to the days when Robert was a successful bank manager. Through his upright character and dedicated work, he was “climbing the ladder of success” rather quickly. He had a great future in this financial institution, already enjoying a secure job with an excellent salary and many other benefits. But deep inside, Rob was wrestling with his real passion . . . a passion to preach. Just like our father, he loved the Word of God. It greatly distressed him to see preachers who did not believe the Bible regularly compromising its content and authority. Rob was deeply involved in his local church and he began lay preaching. In preparation, he read and reread sermons by some of the greats like Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Charles Haddon Spurgeon . . . and all the while his desire to be in fulltime ministry grew.
During that time, my wife and I went full-time into the creation ministry now known as Answers in Genesis. Rob and his wife, Brenda, often gave us much-needed financial support. In those days the ministry was very small and finances were rather scarce. Rob and Brenda’s financial support helped us more than they realized, providing for our most basic needs through those financially trying years.
As the burden on Rob to preach increased, he believed God had definitely called him to leave the bank and go to a theological college so he could study God’s Word and become a teacher of the Bible. He and his family sacrificed much so he could earn this theological degree. They moved to Sydney, a very expensive place to live in Australia. To keep expenses down, they rented a house that was part of a chicken farm on the outskirts of this great city. The first time I visited them I was somewhat shocked at the horrible smell from thousands and thousands of chickens. I’m not sure I could have put up with it.
Rob spent many hours a day commuting by train, bus, or car. Every possible moment during the commute was spent studying and preparing sermons. Soon, the money Rob and Brenda had saved from his years at the bank was gone, but my wife and I were now in a position to support Rob and his family financially, just as they had done for us.
Rob studied hard . . . a seemingly unending string of long days and short nights. But he was a good student and his reputation was growing as an effective communicator of the Word of God. When his formal education was finally complete, we gave Rob a complete set of Spurgeon’s works as a graduation present.
Our regular phone conversations now focused on what his next step should be. He wanted to find a church where he could reach out to the community. He also had a burden to reach Muslims and students for Christ. Underneath it all was his intense burden to preach the gospel of Christ. The bottom line was that he just wanted to reach everyone he could with the message of salvation.
After considering a number of offers, he was led to take up a position as pastor in a church on Australia’s Gold Coast, one of the most pagan areas of Australia. I still remember the day he invited me along as he visited with the head deacon of this church. Rob was excited, really excited. His passion was developing into a specific vision for his ministry. Not far from the church was a major university and he saw great potential for reaching the students there. The church was in a very needy community, desperately in need of the gospel. As his vision clarified, he saw how this small church in the middle of it all could be used by God to make a difference.
Once he was at the church, Rob threw his heart and soul into his ministry. He continued to study hard. He taught the Word of God verse-by-verse and applied it practically in today’s world. Rob also had a special gift for playing the piano. After playing for the hymns and choruses, he would then get up and teach the Word of God. Brenda was deeply involved in the Sunday school and other outreaches, and the church began to grow. Some people who visited the Gold Coast for holidays heard that they could hear the Word of God taught uncompromisingly at Rob’s church, so they would come and bring others. Rob’s church also hosted the American tourists that my wife and I brought over each year for a special tour of Australia. Rob would have me preach, and the church would provide lunch for the tourists. What great memories.
But it all began to fall apart just when Rob’s ministry was having great effect . . . after all the sacrifice and “blood, sweat, and tears,” when he was beginning to fulfill the vision and burden he had for years . . . and just as things seemed to be blessed and moving ahead. It was hard on all of us, but it was particularly hard on my mother. The terminal diagnosis, watching his mind and body decay before her eyes, preparing for the funeral . . . I think what she went through can only be understood by others who have had to bury a child, and the situation stretched her faith beyond the point where she could even begin to imagine any good that might come out of this.
“I know God is in control. I know this is a sin-cursed world. I understand all that. But I still don’t understand why this would happen to him,” she would cry out. “It doesn’t seem to make sense! He worked so hard and preached so well. Why?” During one of my many phone calls with Mum, she said in her grief, “It doesn’t seem fair. He was such a man of God who loved and preached God’s Word. There are all these people who compromise the Bible, and atheists who attack it. Why did this happen to such a person as Robert?”
We were all in the here-and-now, grieving over a situation that was hard to explain in the context of a loving God as described in the Bible. If Rob had been killed in a traffic accident or contracted some deadly disease like cancer, it would have been a terrible shock, and many would have grieved greatly (and we all would have probably asked many of the same questions), but somehow, this disease seemed particularly cruel. The very gift of communication the Lord had given to him was taken away, and it was as if he was then put on the rack to be slowly tortured to death while family and friends were (if possible) tortured even more. All we could do was watch as helpless spectators, groping for answers.
As family and friends, we wrestled hard with the questions. Why would God allow this? Why did He cause it? It just didn’t seem right from our perspective. There are some people that will try to put you on a guilt trip if you ask those kinds of questions, insinuating that you don’t have faith in God. We had faith, for certain, but it was being seriously tested. We’re humans, and I believe we can ask those questions. We did as a family, and I did as a brother—I admit it. In the hardest moments of those dark days we all had to learn to stand back and say, “God is God,” and then stand aside and let Him be God.
But for Mum it seemed much worse than that; this was her son. In the regular order of things, it should have been him comforting her as she lay on the threshold of death, not the other way around. Added to this was the fact that he was leaving behind a wife and two boys in those teenage formative years—years in which the father plays such an important role in guiding their children to adulthood. So not only did Mum struggle as a mother, but she struggled as a grandmother as well.
One time her frustration overflowed and she said, “I don’t understand it. The liberal pastor down the street who teaches against the Bible as the inerrant Word of God is as healthy as an ox. And look at my son who stood on the authority of the Word of God and he is suffering a horrible brain disease!”
I said, “But Mum, you have got to remember something: What’s happened to Robert is going to happen to the liberal pastor. He is going to die.” I even shared with her what I was learning from the tape of Robert’s sermon. I said “Mum, Robert himself said that death and suffering and disease are normal in an abnormal world and we live in an abnormal world because of sin.”
I went over all the Bible verses with Mum about the sovereignty of God and about the Jesus of the Bible being in control. We looked at Romans 8:28 and how all things work together for good and that God’s ways are higher than ours, and so on. . . . But she knew all that. It wasn’t that her mind didn’t understand, it just seemed that her heart could not withstand it. Yes, it was difficult for those of us who called him brother, husband, and father; but our circumstances were even more ominous for the one who called him son. Her own body had harbored Robert’s tiny growing form. She was the one who held him to her breast as he took his first breaths . . . now she was holding him again in her arms as he breathed his last. What is one to do in such times when faith is stretched thin and circumstances bear down hard? In such times there is no other choice but to bow the knee before God and place the remaining trust that He gives back at His feet.
During the toughest of times, we must fall back on a simple and powerful truth: God is God; we are not. God is the One (the only One) who determines what is right and what will be or not be. Our place is one of submission and obedience—regardless of the pain, regardless of the confusion.
The Book of Isaiah deals with these issues extensively in Isaiah 45:6–7, 9–10:
I am the Lord, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well being and creating calamity; I am the Lord who does all these. . . . Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker — an earthenware vessel among the vessels of earth! Will the clay say to the potter, “What are you doing?” Or the thing you are making say, “He has no hands?” Woe to him who says to a father, “What are you begetting?” Or to a woman, “To what are you giving birth?”
When the dark times come, God offers no apologies and gives few explanations—and He takes responsibility for all that is taking place. I the Lord do all these things. Pour out your heart, if you wish, but don’t argue. I’m God, you are not. Period. You have no clue about what I am doing and what will come of it.
Yes, God is the one who raises up kingdoms and destroys them. He’s in charge of those sorts of things. He is a sovereign God and so nothing happens that He doesn’t know about. As one of my friends said, “God has yet to make His first mistake, because God is in total control.” That’s not a cop-out; that’s simply allowing God to be God. Make no mistake on this point. God is very firm. He is who He is, and He has absolutely no obligation to us to change anything according to our desires, nor should He be compelled to alter His plans to pander to our feelings.
God is God; we are not. Because of that, we have little choice but to pour out our hearts to Him in full honesty and then make a definitive decision to recognize God for who He is. Then we must humbly bow before Him and His purposes in faith. Evanell Janousek wrote this poem in 1970, reflecting both her feelings and her decision to submit:
A question I ask when I don’t understand
A problem unsolved.
With outstretched hands I plead for relief
From suffering and strife,
Calling to Him who has given me life,
Knowing he will listen
To my troubled plea.
“Not my will, but Thine. My trust is in thee.”
David repeats this same pattern many times in the Psalms: an honest outpouring of his heart . . . followed by recognition of God’s character . . . followed by a decision to submit and worship in the midst of suffering, danger, and death. This is the pattern we see in the Book of Job as well. Everything that Job cares about is taken from him—everything. In its place he is stricken with suffering and physical agony. His friends gather round to figure out his problem (None of them got it right, by the way. They never did find out what was happening behind the scenes . . . and they would have been of much more help had they kept their mouths shut and tried to serve Job in some tangible way.)
The conversation between Job and his friends is punctuated with sporadic outbursts by Job regarding his condition, as He questions God’s motives and actions. He was ready to demand of God an explanation: Why this? Why that? Why did you let this happen to me? You know I demand to speak to you!
In chapter 38, God breaks His silence with words that are as piercing as they are true:
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now gird up your loins like a man. . . . Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone” (Job 38:1–6).
You can feel the sting of the rebuke. But even to a man grieving from the loss of all of his children and suffering from open sores, God softens none of the truth with sympathy or explanation. As we read chapters 38 through 41, God continues to grill Job with a series of questions. They are questions with obvious answers and God uses them to put Job sternly back into his place in the divine order. Do you know this, Job? What about this. . . ? God uses example after example to finally bring Job to the point in Job 42 where we read:
Then Job replied to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:1–6; NIV).
These are the words of a son who finally recognized his place before his Father, and bowed the knee to His complete and sovereign authority over all things. God is God; Job is not. Job acknowledged (as we must) that compared to what God knows, he knew nothing . . . and he repented of his human arrogance, totally submitting his life to the all-knowing, all-powerful God of the universe. Job learned the lesson the hard way, but he learned it nonetheless. Finally, he recognized the truth of Isaiah 55:8–9:
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
What did Job recognize? Job recognized that he was just dust. Compared to God, he was nothing but a finite and foolish human being. He recognized that God is God, and that He knew what He was doing—even when Job was entirely incapable of understanding. And that’s really the answer at the end of the Book of Job. Don’t ask why. Let God be God. God never did reveal what was behind Job’s suffering and loss. As far as we know, God offered no apology and no explanation. Only when he stepped into eternity would Job finally learn why God had ordained such a hideous season of suffering and death.
Don’t ask why. Let God be God. Bend your knee in submission, obedience, and worship. This is the answer to the issue of death and suffering during the seasons when our faith is stretched to its limit and then pushed beyond.
I praise the Lord for the faith my mother showed during her season of darkness and doubt. She pleaded and pleaded in tears with the Lord to intervene for Rob. I praise the Lord even more that, even though Rob’s condition continued to worsen, my mother’s faith and trust in God did not wane, but actually grew. In spite of what she could see, in spite of the pain and agony that tore at her heart, she recognized that God was God and she was not. He was good, and was in total control of the situation. And though He chose, according to His eternal purposes, not to intervene and heal, Mum knew that He cared, that He was there, and that He heard the prayers of a grieving mother.
In his taped sermon, Rob preached about Job, but he could just as well have been preaching about himself:
You know that we must realize that Job’s suffering was part of God’s plan. That’s what it was. It must also be true for many people today who suffer so badly, and through it all, you see Job learned the necessity of submitting to the Lord’s sovereign purpose, no matter what the cost might be.
Sometimes God has asked people to sacrifice greatly so that His sovereign purposes of redemption and necessary judgment could be carried out. We’ve already looked at how God orchestrated the death of Esther’s parents in order to save the Jewish nation. We saw how the unjust treatment of Joseph was used by God to divert a famine. Ezekiel was told that for God’s purposes in dealing with the Jews, his wife—whom he loved so much—was going to be taken away from him:
Son of man, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes. Yet do not lament or weep or shed any tears (Ezekiel 24:16; NIV).
During trials like that, the good promised in Romans 8:28 may seem distant and far-fetched. In those moments we have two options: 1) either we walk away and deny Him, or 2) we humbly bend the knee, trusting that He will provide the faith we need to make it through. This increased faith brings us into greater intimacy and dependence on God, and this increased level of trust is one of the common purposes in the trials He places in our paths. As Rob said in his sermon, quoting J.I. Packer:
“The ultimate reason from our standpoint why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another, is to ensure that we shall learn to hold Him fast.” The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defense, a sure refuge, and a help for the weak, is because God is bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally. We dare not trust ourselves to find or to follow the right road. God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing so that we may learn to lean on Him. Therefore, He takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence, to trust in himself.
Here, then, we begin to see one of God’s great and eternal purposes for our ongoing suffering: Pain and death cause us to look to God in dependence—a merciful response to the independence we seek through sin. This is, indeed, a central theme of the Word of God. As Rob taught along these lines, he would often quote passages such as 2 Corinthians 1:3–11:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many (NIV).
Rob wanted people to understand that even though we have to live with the consequences of sin in this physical universe, God loves us so much that He will provide the comfort necessary for us to cope with the various situations in which we find ourselves.
Hebrews 11:1–2 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.” Ultimately, as we read in Hebrews 11:6, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (NIV). There will always be a faith aspect to every area of life. This is true during trials, and it is true as we study origins as well. As I lecture on the topic of creation and evolution, I explain to people that no one can scientifically prove creation or Noah’s Flood; nor can anyone prove evolution and millions of years, for that matter, as none of us were there to witness these events. Both world views require faith. However, the Bible’s account of origins in Genesis does make sense of the evidence in the world around us, and observational science confirms the biblical record. For example, Genesis tells us that God created distinct kinds of animals and plants to reproduce after their own kinds. The science of genetics confirms that no new genetic information is produced from matter, and animals and plants reproduce their own kind, even though there can be great variation (even speciation) within a kind because of the variety in the genes.
This is the point: Only the God of the Bible is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, and the bottom line is that we are not. We are not going to have all the answers to everything all the time. This side of the grave, we may never know why things like Rob’s sickness have happened. Only God knows. We are nothing but fallen, mortal human beings who, like Job, need to recognize that we know nothing compared to what God knows. When we can’t see the good, we walk on in faith through the revealed truth of God’s Word.
Submission to God is never easy, and it always goes against the nature of our sinful flesh. The challenge to repent and submit as Job did is more difficult when we feel like a victim. During difficult times, we are also likely to feel used or abandoned. In these moments of deep trial, we feel we need the comfort of God the most, yet these may be the days when we sense it the least . . . and must choose by an act of our wills to obey and submit to God’s purposes. Philip Yancey comments on this type of faith:
I hesitate to say this, because it is a hard truth and one I do not want to acknowledge, but Job stands as merely the most extreme example of what appears to be a universal law of faith. The kind of faith God values seems to develop best when everything fuzzes over, when God stays silent, when the fog rolls in.1
When “the fog” becomes so thick that we can’t see any of the good God promises, we have no choice but to return to His written and living Word to give us the full, big picture of what is going on around us.
When “the fog” becomes so thick that we can’t see any of the good God promises, we have no choice but to return to His written and living Word to give us the full, big picture of what is going on around us. God’s Word tells us clearly where death and sickness originated. We understand we live in a fallen world. Each of us needs to recognize that we are sinful creatures living under a Curse because of sin, and that death for every human being is both inevitable and immanent. Through Christ and the Cross, every person can be spiritually healed, but total healing won’t come until we leave this sin-cursed universe. Yet here and now, God has a sovereign plan far greater than we could imagine, but we may not be able to see it or understand it at all. We don’t know everything—in fact, we know nothing compared to God.
The question, then, becomes this: Do we put our faith in the Word of an all-powerful God, who knows everything and has always been there? Or do we place our faith in the words of fallible humans who don’t know everything, who haven’t always been there, and whose values and subjective thinking lead only to fatalism? The answer to that question is repentance and submission to God and His perfect will. As Eli said to Samuel, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes” (1 Samuel 3:18; NIV).
I believe that if Rob could speak to us right now, he would remind us of those great people of faith remembered in the Book of Hebrews who “faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawn in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and ill-treated” (Hebrews 11:36–37; NIV).
These people now look down on us as “a great cloud of witnesses” to see how we will run this race of life (Hebrews 12:1). By faith, they all took their place in God’s plan. Rob, in the normal course of events in this fallen world, was allowed to suffer a terrible disease . . . and has now joined their ranks. Will we choose to do the same?
Questions for Group Discussion:
- What situations can you think of that might push someone’s faith to the breaking point?
- What advice would you give a friend who is deeply wounded and broken due to suffering and/or death?
- Read the account of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:36–44 and Luke 22:39–43. What principles can you gather from Jesus’ words and actions that would be of help to someone facing great difficulty?
- Spend some time alone with the Lord, asking Him to search your heart and reveal your ways (Psalm 139:23). In what ways do you need to “bend the knee” before Him as your sovereign Lord?
- Carefully read John 15:4–5 and Philippians 4:11–14. How could you apply these verses in times when your faith is stretched thin?
Questions for Personal Reflection:
Bible Verses for Contemplation and Memorization:
- Psalm 86
- Matthew 11:28–30
- Psalm 95:6–11