Tell me if this situation sounds familiar: You're going through a difficult time, so you seek advice and comfort from a Christian friend. But instead of comfort, you are met with a discouraging downplay of your circumstances. They tell you, "Well, cheer up. Things could be worse!" Not the most helpful advice to a suffering person, is it? Sometimes it makes you wish you hadn't told anyone at all.
This kind of pat-on-the-back approach to counsel is often given by believers who simply do not know how to deal with the truly tragic. They think that by not identifying the truly terrible as truly terrible, they are somehow protecting God from accusation. It's as if they are afraid that if we really faced calamity as it is, our conception of a loving and sovereign God would by necessity come crumbling down. But as we will see, minimizing suffering is more than just unhelpful to the pained, it's also unappreciative of God's plan. And by staying in a state of denial, we deny ourselves and others true comfort and a unique opportunity to glorify God.
Why We Downplay Disasters
One of the biggest mistakes believers can make when facing a tragedy is to minimize it. I think so many of us do it because we lack a robust theology of suffering. So, our first reaction to a tragedy is to try and explain it away. “Hey, it could be worse!” “Everything will be okay.” “This is just a season.” Like a doctor slapping a smiley face sticker over a cancerous tumor, all some Christians know to do in the face of true calamity is to pave it over with platitudes.
Clichés like these persist in Christian circles because niceties are usually sufficient for life’s smaller sufferings. We use them because they do offer a modicum of reassurance when we are feeling down. A lost job, a temporary illness, or a financial crisis can be softened by a kind reminder that it truly could be much worse. But such brotherly bromides are wholly insufficient comfort for the truly tragic events of life. And their impotence to soothe is exposed when you try to apply them to the victim of sexual assault, the young mother who has just been blindsided by the suicide of her husband, or the man who has recently been rendered a quadriplegic in a horrible motorcycle accident. How out of place would a "Things will look up again soon!" be in situations like these?
In these situations, people are asking much bigger questions. And minimizing those grievous circumstances is simply not a sufficient balm. They can’t pretend it is not as bad as it looks, and neither should we.
When We Question God
So, what should we do when we are suffering? Even if we find ourselves with comforters worse than Job's friends, where can we look when everything has fallen apart? How can we face tragedy honestly and in a way that honors God—especially when things are so bad that we are beginning to question God Himself?
The book of Lamentations could never be accused of minimizing suffering. Lamentations is a series of five funeral dirges for the fallen city of Jerusalem when they were taken into captivity by Babylon in 587 BC. In it, the prophet Jeremiah lets fly the most honest look at suffering in all the Scriptures. And though the circumstances of the Babylonian captivity differ from the specifics of the trials we face, Lamentations still carries some very valuable lessons for the suffering Christian.
Reflect on the Grievous Circumstances
If we would have any hope of wrapping our minds around God’s character when disastrous circumstances cause us to question Him, we need to first stop lying to ourselves about how bad things are. The first thing we must do is honestly reflect on the grievous circumstances.
In the third chapter of Lamentations, things get personal. Throughout most of the book, the prophet is speaking on behalf of the people of Jerusalem, and at times on behalf of the city itself. But in chapter three he begins to lament his own suffering. In just the first 18 verses Jeremiah accuses God of making his flesh and skin waste away and breaking his bones (Lam 3:4), trapping him in heavy chains (Lam 3:7), and refusing to listen to his prayers even when he is crying for help (Lam 3:8). He compares God to a bear or a lion who laid in wait, then attacked and tore Jeremiah to pieces (Lam 3:10–11). He compares Him to a hunter who has shot the prophet full of arrows (Lam 3:12–13).
All of this leaves Jeremiah “bereft of peace.” He has “forgotten what happiness is” (Lam 3:17). It is so bad that he says that his hope in Yahweh is dead (Lam 3:18)!
The first thing you notice when reading these verses is that Jeremiah pictures all of his suffering as acts of God against him personally. There is a difference between honest questioning and blasphemous accusations, however, and we are given no reason, despite the biting honesty, to think that Jeremiah has sinned in anything we read in Lamentations chapter 3.
If we are going to honestly face up to our suffering, we need to take care not to minimize it.
We can cry out to God in our prayers with complete truthfulness
It does no special honor to God to play make-believe. He knows how bad your suffering is. In His sovereignty, He’s the one who has ordained it (Lam 3:37–38)! He who bridles the universe has not slackened His grip on the reins of your present circumstances. But we mustn’t stop there.
We need to be completely honest about the severity of our situation, but we also need to be completely honest about God’s character as well. If we linger too long on lamenting our circumstances, our reflecting may ferment into grumbling and complaining. After honestly reflecting on the grievous circumstances, we need to lift our eyes back up to God.
Remember the Great Promises
When there is nothing left and we are at the brittle and fraying end of our rope, when it seems things couldn't possibly get worse, and joy lies murdered in the streets, where could we possibly look for hope?
Standing in the rubble of the ruined city and in this midst of his personal afflictions and suffering, Jeremiah remembers something that changes his tune. There have been 64 verses of tearful, heart-rending complaint from Jeremiah, and suddenly in chapter 3, verse 21 he says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”
He's just said that his hope is dead (3:18)! What changed? When the poet feels the night is the darkest it could possibly be, what on earth could he remember that would give him hope?
He remembers who God is.
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
Time and again throughout Israel’s history God had proven Himself loving, compassionate, and faithful. What Jeremiah remembered was just because his circumstances had changed, that didn't mean God had.
The same God who called Abraham from Ur, and made those great promises to him, the same God who raised up Moses to deliver the Israelites from Egypt through many mighty wonders, the same God who had disciplined them in the past in the 40 years of wilderness wandering, but had nevertheless restored them in the end, that same God was Lord even in Jeremiah’s present trial.
God's steadfast love is unstoppable, His mercies are interminable, His faithfulness is great. That is why Jeremiah could find His satisfaction in God alone and say "therefore I will hope in him." Confident hope is predicated not on present circumstances, no matter how horrible, but on an unchanging God.
Likewise, we too, when faced with circumstances of the worst horror, must remember the great promises of God; we need to remember who He is. If you are in the midst of a great calamity, read Exodus 34:6–8 and recall to mind who God said He was. Because it is only when our eyes are fixed squarely on Him that we can truly have hope, even in the darkest of trials.
Recall the Good Purpose
After facing the true terror of his trial and turning to have his faith refreshed by remembering the great promises and character of God, Jeremiah takes further encouragement by recalling the good purpose of God in trials.
The LORD is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul who seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the LORD.
It is good for a man that he bear
the yoke in his youth.
He says that the Lord is good to those who wait, but this is not a passive waiting. He completes the thought, “to those who seek Him.” What are we waiting for? We wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. When believers come to a place where they trust God in the midst of their tragedy, there is immense peace. It is still painful, but we stop kicking against it and accept our situation. Not as in resigned defeat, but in faith-filled trust. It is as though we say, “the Lord will deliver me from this when He sees fit and no sooner. And I trust that He has a reason to keep me in this trial until then.”
What is that reason? Why does the Lord leave us in periods of suffering? For the Christian, we know it is not punitive, for our sins are paid for in Christ. Sometimes trials do come to chasten us from sin and drive us to repentance (Hebrews 12:6). But even if the trial was to chasten us for sin, why do trials often continue even after we’ve repented? And sometimes trials just seem to come entirely out of nowhere.
But God always brings trials for a purpose.
Jeremiah essentially says it is good for us to suffer. To be quiet, to bear the yoke in our youth. Suffering has a way of driving us back to God. It beats the grumbling and idolatry of comfort out of us. It teaches us to trust and be satisfied in God alone, so we might say with Jeremiah, "The LORD is my portion."
James 1:2–4 tells us we should be happy when trials come because of what they produce. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
Because of God's perfect plan, for the Christian suffering is not an excuse to complain, it's a cause to rejoice.
So, when you face trials and suffering—and you will—you can face the severity of the suffering without dishonoring the Lord and seek hope and comfort in the only place it can really be found. You must reflect honestly on the grievous circumstances, remember the great promises, and recall the good purpose.
God is not out to get us, nor is His universe out of control. He bends even the worst of circumstances to the good of those who love Him (Rom 8:28). And that is why we can hope even when all hope seems lost.
[Editor's Note: This post was originally published in December 2018 and has been updated.]