BUT IF NOT

This is a season of being stripped down to the root of my theology.

I think this to myself as I walk through the city, sweaty with an ache in my lower back from the fourteen pound child strapped to my chest.  The last month has left me woozy and anxious and uncomfortably aware that we are humans made of flesh and bone, and when left without the breath of God, dust returns to dust. I look down towards the ground and think about how limited we are, how finite, and how desperately we need to be sustained by something - someone - outside of ourselves. We need the limitless and infinite. 

Consequently, there hasn't been much sleep in the last few weeks. I wake most nights from nightmares or sudden feelings of falling, and when I can't sleep, I pray. For the friends burying their baby boy. For the family member with the brain tumor. For the panic attacks, the fragile marriages, the infertility, the drug use. It seems like everywhere I turn, someone I care about is in a remarkable season of suffering. I can't help but lie in the dark and ask the whys and the hows and the where are Yous. It's humbling to come in my helpless state before a sovereign God with one thousand questions, but I always end up at the same point:

 You are a good God. You cannot be anything but good. 

I've learned that the majority of the time, it's not helpful to try to find earthly answers for earthly sufferings or to believe that if you connect the dots, you will find some semblance of peace or confirmation or logic or justification. Because, friend, sometimes it won't make sense. Ever. Sometimes the weight of the pain and confusion will be unbearable, and there will be no indication of why. This is the effect of sin in our world. This is what we mean when we talk about brokenness. To be broken is to be fractured, to be damaged, to be in despair. Suffering is a part of this side of heaven. So what do we do when we're deep in the gunk of heart-wrenching pain? We cling to our theology. 

If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.

The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Daniel 3 is a rather ridiculously amazing tale of three men who survived being tossed into a furnace without a scratch. Insane, right? But if we rewind to before they were thrown into the furnace, we see how we ought to behave in times of suffering. Imagine three men being brought and thrown on the ground before a livid King Nebuchadnezzar. The king looked down at them with a furious and exasperated expression on his face, "Is it true that you will not worship my golden image? If you do not do it immediately, I will throw you into a burning fiery furnace. Who will help you then? You will surely suffer and die." And in that moment - with their lives threatened and their earthly end before them - with a trust so deep, they replied, "Our God is able, but if He doesn't, we will remain faithful to Him."

Our God can save us.

But if not, we worship and cling only to Him.

Did you really read that? In our deepest moments of suffering, when our lives are hanging on the edge of destruction, we know two things: God can save us because He can do all things, but if in His perfect sovereignty He chooses not to rescue us in the most obvious ways that we desire, then He is still worthy of faithful worship and praise. He can, but if not, we worship; if only because of who He is. This means that our circumstances are not why we worship, our freedom is not why we worship, our happy moments are not why we worship. We worship because God is worthy of worship and praise. This is a comforting Truth for seasons of suffering. If we were only ever rescued in ways that we wanted and when we wanted, we would be worshiping because of what we've received and what we are able to understand in our finite, limited minds. But in this story, we see that we worship even if the entire world seems upside down and unfair and wrong, because God is God and He is still good. We are able to worship despite our circumstances, because God is outside of our circumstances. We worship because we know He can deliver us from suffering, but if He does not, we worship because He is. 

"I Am" is the root of my theology. When I sit in my own suffering or in the suffering of those whom I love deeply, all I can fall on is my theology. The earthly reasons and escape routes will fail me ten times over. I don't have an answer for why a baby dies. I don't know why people who would make wonderful parents aren't parents yet, and may never be. I can't see a point to sickness and addiction and broken covenants. It's seasons like this one that strip away the platitudes, the striving, and the other things in which I try to find security. When faced with the brokenness of creation, to what else can I cling? Where else can we put our hope?

Ultimately, God will deliver us from all suffering. The cross points to this, promises us this. We long for heaven partly because we know of the peace that awaits us. Until the day I reach heaven's shore, I pray that my trust in who God is continues to grow to the point that when I look at the most vicious moments of suffering, I can proudly proclaim with deep knowing that my God can rescue me from anything, but if not, I will praise Him evermore. 


Admittedly, sometimes when sitting in a season of suffering with a friend, you'd like to say something more than "but if not." While the heart of your words and helpful actions needs to be rooted in your theology, I know practical steps are beneficial. Allow me to send you over to my dear friend's blog. Diana is currently working on a series about ministering to people in pain that I have found very helpful in approaching suffering with grace, support, love, and biblical truth.