Where is God when life is painful?

We live in an uncertain, volatile, and fragile world. Pain and suffering is rampant.

It may be caused by a pandemic that destroys the equilibrium of our daily living. Or an unexpected job loss. Perhaps betrayal by someone we had trusted. The sudden death of a loved one. Burnout. Or a broken relationship that devastates us.

Each one of us faces times in our lives when we are swept off balance, when hope seems to vanish in an instant, when heaviness and pain overwhelms us. And these times may cause us to cry out, “Where are you, God, in the midst of this?”

As I reflect on difficult and painful times in my life, I have learned some key lessons about God – and about myself.

Firstly, I have learned that God so often prepares us for the difficult circumstances that arise in our lives.

As we read through the Gospels, we see how Jesus was preparing His disciples for what was to come. He knew that the horror of witnessing His death would leave them bewildered, so he sought to explain in advance the purpose for the cross, the power of His resurrection, and the reality of their future calling. So often they simply didn’t “get it” at the time – but they later remembered His teaching and admonitions to them, and their faith and purpose was emboldened as a result.

Before one particularly painful situation began to unfold in my own life, I felt God clearly sharing some words of warning and encouragement to me. I wrote these in my journal, sensing they would be significant. Looking back on these words later gave me much encouragement, assurance, and hope. God knew the “avalanche” that was coming in my life – and, looking back, I can see how He was gracious enough to prepare me, even if I did not have the complete picture at the time of what was to come.

Secondly, we can be confident that God is present with us during the bleakest periods in our lives.

We often remember David for his exploits in battle, for his faith, and that he was described as a man after God’s heart. Yet life was not one long victory parade for David. Far from it. Instead at times we see him running from his enemies, hiding in caves, fearful for his life. We see the repercussions of his chaotic, sometimes unsavory, personal life. And yet – through the trials and failures that he faced, David recognized – and clung to – the reality of God’s presence: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

I have experienced how, in the darkest of hours, the presence, grace, and compassion of God can be palpable. The situation I’m facing may not have changed, yet somehow everything seems different when God’s presence is evident.

Thirdly, so often God graciously provides for us during difficult times.

The story of Elijah encourages me. What faith he showed on Mount Carmel to call down fire from heaven! And yet, within hours, Elijah is fearing for his life, cowering in a cave, despairing, and wishing for death. But I love how God responds to Elijah at that time when he is at his lowest ebb. He speaks to Elijah – not in a loud and dramatic way, but in a gentle whisper. He tenderly provides for Elijah’s needs, giving him food and water. And He nurtures Elijah back to health and service.

How I have seen God’s gracious provision, practically, emotionally, and spiritually, during the hard times. There was one occasion when the amount of money in our family’s bank account registered single digits. And yet, God generously provided for us, often in ways that were unexpected. God’s ways are sometimes vastly different, and He is full of surprises!

Fourthly, God may share new purpose with us as we recover from difficult times.

Back to the disciples. Peter is well known for his bravery and his big mouth! He is the first to declare Jesus as the Messiah – and not long afterwards, in his darkest moments, denies that he had even met him. Imagine how distraught Peter must have felt in those following hours as Jesus is crucified and buried. And yet, this is not the end of Peter’s story. Within weeks, he is forgiven, restored, and goes on to fulfill God’s purpose for him as one of the primary leaders in the early church.

Our struggles, our failures, those times when life is darkest, are not the end. As was the case with Elijah, with David, with Peter and the other disciples, God will so often:

  • Prepare us for hard times. Are we listening to His voice?
  • Be present with us through these times. Do we acknowledge His presence?
  • Provide for us during difficult times. Will we allow Him to do so?
  • Give renewed purpose to our lives. Will we trust Him fully?

What God has taught us in the past is the foundation for where we are today. And today, God is preparing us for tomorrow. We must be lifelong learners – storing up those lessons and experiences we have of God for the future. He never changes. He is for us. And, through the travails and struggles of life, His plans for us are good – full of promise and hope!

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