What follows are pictures that I saw on television during this past year—pictures that are burned into my mind and that I will never be able to forget:
- Dozens of small Syrian children being washed down with high-pressure water, tossed and rolled around like bundles of rags in the rush to wash poisonous nerve gas off them.
- A father clutching his infant twins to his chest, both dead from the poisonous gas, his tears dropping onto their dead faces.
- Bodies of innocent people lying on the street, some with cloths tossed over them, some not even granted that much respect.
- A wealthy, powerful and morally indifferent leader, sitting in a comfortable chair in a secure building; the man who ordered his military to do this. His own children rest comfortably in their beds. He cares nothing about this evil he has caused elsewhere, so long as he remains in power.
Nothing excuses this. Nothing. I want to ask—to plead, to scream—God, where are you?
The recurring question
I am surely not the first person to ask this question. We often suppose that the Bible writers were spiritual athletes who could never have felt betrayed by God. But they too questioned God during life’s tragedies. “Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me,” groans the lyricist of Psalm 42. There’s even a hint of agnosticism: “I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?’” (verse 9). The psalmist isn’t just nursing his own doubts. He’s taunted by others: “People say to me all day long ‘Where is your God?’” (verse 3). The way he interweaves his hopes with his doubts shows us that he hasn’t yet overcome his dark emotions. He is, it appears, still trying to convince himself.
And this writer isn’t alone. David suffered deep spiritual depression, both for his own sins (Psalm 51) and when under assault by his enemies: “My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught because of what my enemy is saying. . . Horror has overwhelmed me” (Psalm 55:2, 3, 5).
“Horror,” it seems to me, is a rather good description for what’s happening around us in this world every day.
The immanent Saviour
Nothing troubled Jesus’ disciples more than His announcement that He was leaving them. Peter verbalised his own version of the question, where is God? “We have left everything to follow you!” he exclaimed. “What then will there be for us?” (Matthew 19:27). Jesus told them, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18).
A serviceman friend of mine was deployed to the Middle East, where he had to remain for months at a time while his wife and adoring four-year-old daughter remained in the United States. Nearly every night, through the magic of Skype, he talked to and saw his little family, and they him, so that they could keep the bonds of love strong. He was not there physically, but he was with them in spirit.
Jesus promised His followers a sort of spiritual Skype after He was gone. He would be present in the Spirit, not in the flesh. “I will ask the Father,” He said, “and he will give you another advocate to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” Just as my friend’s family’s private Skype conversation was particular to them, so God’s Spirit is understood only by those who know Him: “The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him,” He said. “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16, 17).
The suffering Saviour
Concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel in his book Night tells about a day when the Nazi camp guards were going to hang three offenders, one of them a child. “As we returned from work, we saw three gallows . . . All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows . . . ‘Where is a merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me asked. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. . . . Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. . . . The child, too light, was still breathing. . . . And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death. . . . Behind me, I heard the same man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer, ‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows.’”
Here is a profound truth: God is in our pain.
In a prophetic passage written a thousand years before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah said that Christ suffered for us: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering. . . . But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4–6). In Jesus’ suffering we see displayed love so profound that no-one who looks at Him on the cross can fail to appreciate it. Both His willingness to die and His subsequent resurrection from death promise peace and healing—if not now, then in eternity.
In every moment of suffering, God is there. Wherever there is grief, wherever there is pain—that place is holy ground.
The transcendent Saviour
An unknown psalmist penned this question at a difficult period in Israel’s history: “Why do the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” “The nations,” of course, is a reference to the enemies of Israel at a time when gods were thought to be in competition with one another. These enemies conquered the Jews and marched them into exile in distant lands while assuming that the Jewish God was powerless.
But the psalmist returned an incisive answer: “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:2, 3).
As an angel said to the women the Sunday morning following Jesus’ death, “He is not here; he has risen” (Matthew 28:6). He is in heaven, where He is actively and intentionally “interceding for us” (Romans 8:34) to ensure our salvation.
Although Jesus is in heaven, His power is undiminished. The critics misunderstand Him. They suppose that He works in a short time-frame, that He’s at our beck and call like a hovering mother, jumping to intervene whenever we get into difficulty. But because He doesn’t do that they underestimate His power. Yet in His own time, and in His own way, He will rescue.
The rescuing Saviour
To the disciples’ concern about being left alone, Jesus promised, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3).
In this passage our rescue from a sinful world sounds rather gentle, even non-eventful. Not so in the book of Revelation: “Behold, He is coming with clouds,” the apostle John wrote, “and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him (Revelation 1:7, NKJV*). They will mourn, says the Bible, because between this earth and our new, eternal home with God there is a judgement.
Judgement sounds scary—and in this case it might be. Revelation pictures God on a “great white throne” with “the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened,” and they were judged, each one of them, “according to what they had done.” And those whose names aren’t recorded as having accepted eternal life through Jesus were “thrown into the lake of fire” (20:11–15).
I remember as a schoolboy being judged in a writing contest where I felt confident with my entry. I wasn’t afraid, because I knew I’d done my best! So it will be in the final judgement. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake,” says the prophet Daniel, “some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). Those who have “eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:23) have nothing to fear.
Sadly, there is no guarantee that there won’t be suffering on this earth, like has happened to people in Syria and other places where war, famine, disease or natural disaster have occurred. We assure ourselves with Jesus’ promises that He is with us through His Spirit; He has suffered and continues to suffer with us; His power is undiminished; and He will rescue us at last.
This reassurance may not be easy to trust, but it’s the lifeline to which we cling in hard times: “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus. “You believe in God; believe also in Me” (John 14:1).
* Bible texts marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used with permission. All rights reserved.