(August 2, 2015, this Sunday, will mark seven years since our grandson Sully, fifteen months old, died. For thirteen months he battled leukemia. His illness, his suffering, his death, challenged my faith as it had never been challenged. I first wrote the following post as the last in a series on forgiveness. I titled it “Forgiving God?” I repost it in memory of Sully. As when first posted, so now, the purpose is first, to help us understand and be as patient as God with the grief, anger, and doubts of those who are going through a darkness in their lives we have not experienced. Second, I speak especially to those who have known the depths of the blackest darkness of tragedy, suffering, and loss in their lives. Who struggle with God, his seeming silence, and the contradiction of our perception of God and his reality. With hesitation, humility, and grief, I share the picture of Sully, my wife, Sully’s mother, our daughter, and myself. This was the day before Sully died. I share this picture for you to understand I write these words from a heart that has known the depths of darkness, from a heart that has been angry with God and has struggled with doubt. I pray my words will help if you find yourself in the darkness.)
Lewis Smedes tells the story of a tailor who leaves his prayers and, on the way out of the synagogue, meets a rabbi. “Well, and what have you been doing in the synagogue, Lev Ashram?” the rabbi asks. “I was saying prayers, rabbi.” “Fine,” the rabbi responded, and did you confess your sins?” “Yes, rabbi, I confessed my little sins,” the tailor replied. “Your little sins?” the astonished rabbi asked. “Yes, I confess that I sometimes cut my cloth on the short side, that I cheat on a yard of wool by a couple of inches.” “You said that to God, Lev Ashram?” “Yes, rabbi, and more. I said, ‘Lord, I cheat on pieces of cloth, you let little babies die. But I am going to make you a deal. You forgive me my little sins and I’ll forgive you your big ones.’”1
We recoil at such boldness. God can be blamed? God does wrong for which he needs to apologize? God needs our forgiveness? Quickly we respond, God does not sin. We do not always understand the reasons for bad and tragic events. God, however, does no wrong. We will quote James, “God cannot be tempted by evil” (James 1:13). And there is what the writer of Hebrews says about Jesus, “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Again James writes, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). If God does wrong or has something for which to apologize, is he God? The prophet Hosea wrote, “The ways of the LORD are right” (Hosea 4:9). God does no wrong. Blame cannot be rightly cast in God’s direction. There is never a need to forgive God.
There are so many questions when tragedy strikes our lives. We want to know why there is such suffering and injustice in our lives. Crying out for answers some answers come. So often there are no answers or explanations which satisfy the heart. At such times we cry out with the Psalmist and with Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:46)
Elie Wiesel was fifteen years old when he, with his family, were taken from their home in Sighet, Transylvania, and imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1944. In 1958 his book Night was first publiched. At age fifteen he was a Jewish boy who desired to attain the depths of faith in and understanding of God. At age fifteen he was thrown into a darkness so black, so terrifying. His words penetrate the reader’s heart with the depths of darkness possible within the human race. In the face of the crematorium, where Elie witnessed babies being thrown into the flames, men started to pray. Looking back at that day the young man, Elie Wiesel, who survived the darkness, writes, “For the first time, I felt anger rising within me. Why should I sanctify His name? The Almighty, the eternal and terrible Master of the Universe, chose to be silent. What was there to thank Him for?”2
Wiesel writes of one young boy who “had a delicate and beautiful face–an incredible sight in this camp. (…His was the face of an angel in distress.).” He was placed in solitary confinement, tortured, and condemned to death. Elie Wiesel and thousands of others watched as this young boy was hanged. “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….the boy was silent. ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ someone behind me was asking.” The signal was given, the young boy and two men were hanged. “We were weeping.” “Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing… And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes….He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. 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…’ That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”3
This was not an answer of faith, “God is with this poor boy. His suffering will not be in vain.” Rather it was a cry of faith dying, of God dying. Where is God? What answer is there to give this cry of the heart? To a boy of fifteen in the blackest darkness what answer from the intellect can satisfy his heart? Do not be so quick to shake a finger of rebuke. There are those times when the darkness of evil, the darkness of suffering and tragedy, is so black that the person of strongest faith cries out against God, accuses God, and demands God answer.
Jeremiah has been called the weeping prophet. His personal suffering at the hands of his own people was harsh. He grieved as he watched his beloved nation, Judah, ravished by the fierce army of Babylon. The darkness was so black Jeremiah cried out, “Cursed be the day I was born!…Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14, 18). Jeremiah blamed God. “The LORD is like an enemy; he has swallowed up Israel” (Lamentations 2:5). The prophet held God accountable for the suffering of Judah. He also held God accountable for his own suffering. “He has driven me away and made me walk in darkness rather than light; indeed, he has turned his hand against me again and again, all day long. Even when I call out or cry for help, he shuts out my prayer. He pierced my heart with arrows from his quiver. So I say, ‘My splendor is gone and all that I had hoped from the LORD’” (Lamentations 3:2, 8, 13, 18).
God said of Job, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Then tragedy struck. Job lost all his wealth and more tragically all his children. He continued to praise God. Then Job was struck with a painful disease covering his body in sores. His wife said to him, “‘Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!’ He replied, ‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’” (Job 2:9-10).
With time Job’s suffering became intolerable. His friends accused him of deserving the evil that happened to him. In response he defended himself and began to question God. There was no logical reason for what happened to him. It was not fair or just. Job challenged and accused God. “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” (7:11). “As surely as God lives, who has denied me justice, the Almighty, who has made me taste bitterness of soul” (27:2). “Then know that God has wronged me and drawn his net around me. Though I cry, ‘I’ve been wronged!’ I get no response; though I call for help, there is no justice. His anger burns against me; he counts me among his enemies” (19:6, 7, 11).
The pillars holding up life collapse under the weight of suffering and pain. A body is ravished by disease or accident. A marriage disintegrates. A job is lost and a new job not found. Childhood nightmares come to life after years of being locked up. A child dies. Some of us, like Jeremiah, cry out wondering how God could become like an enemy. Others, like Job, complain that God has done us wrong. There is no justice in what has happened. The darkness can be so black that like Jeremiah and Job we may question the very reason for our existence. Why, if this is what life brings, why were we ever born? There are those times in life when the hardship, the suffering, and the pain is so great, the darkness so black, the person even of the strongest faith will cry out from his heart against God with a complaint for which there is no satisfying answer.
You might tell me such complaint against God is sin. After all the text says concerning Job’s initial patience and praise of God, that he “did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing,” “Job did not sin in what he said” (Job 1:22; 2:10). Sin? Yes, when such complaint leads to unbelief and no return.
As I read the whole story I am taught that such complaint is not necessarily sin. It is human. It is the cry of a broken and crushed heart. In his compassion God listens. He bares his chest for us to beat with our fists, his arms around us, his heart feeling our grief, hurt, and anger. When the heart cries out with such complaint, there is a need to forgive God. Not forgiveness in the sense of forgiving God for wrong he has done. The truth is God has not done anything wrong. Even so, the heart feels wronged. The heart is filled with resentment and bitterness. At such times if we do not forgive God, that is, if we do not let go of the resentment and the bitterness we may stumble from faith to doubt, to unbelief. To forgive God is a healing of the heart as the resentment, bitterness, and blame are let go. With such healing we again find it possible to trust God.
Jeremiah’s heart was dark with depression. All that he hoped from God was gone. He laid the blame for all his suffering at the feet of God. As he complained, as he accused, he also remembered. “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, ‘The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him’” (Lamentations 3:21-24).
God was silent for what seemed such a long time as Job defended himself and as he challenged God to justify what happened to Job and to his family. God finally spoke. He did not explain to Job why so much tragedy happened. What God did was bring Job back to the reality of Job’s humanness and of God’s divine glory and power. Job responded, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). A friend translates Job 42:6 (and I see the possibility), “I melt before you and am consoled over my dust and ashes.” Job humbled himself before God. He let go of the bitterness and the resentment. Job let go of his presumed right to judge God. He was consoled, comforted in the dust and ashes of his life by his encounter with God. God brought Job back to his faith, to his trust in God’s sovereignty, righteousness, holiness, wisdom, and love. He still didn’t understand why it all happened. Yet he trusted God.4
Augustine tells of a vision of seeing a little boy at a beach scooping up the ocean thimbleful by thimbleful and emptying it out on the sand. Then he sees an angel who tells him that this boy will have emptied out the entire ocean long before Augustine has exhausted what can be said about God.5
Hardships and sufferings challenge our understanding of and trust in God. In the darkness of the night we struggle to see him. As the eyes of our hearts see anew his power and sovereignty revealed in creation, in Scripture, in His people who care for us, and in Jesus Christ, we come back to trusting him as we are humbled before him. Remembering his love and compassion for us in the past and especially in the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are not consumed by the darkness. The assurance of God’s love renews us. The certainty of hope in Jesus Christ sustains us. Confident God understands, even though we do not, we come back to trusting him.
Hear the enemies of Christ mock him as he hung on the cross. “Where is God now?” Someone answers, “He is here, nailed to the tree.” With tears we realize he is on that cross. It is God who is suffering, bearing all the suffering and darkness. It is God who takes his last breath and cries out, “It is finished!” On the slab in the tomb is the body of God in the person of his Son. How awful is the darkness! Yet, on Sunday morning, another answer is given to the question, “Where is God now?” The answer is heard, “He is not in the tomb as you can see. He is risen.” The light overcomes the darkness.
He is risen! We remember. We believe. In spite of the darkness in our lives we know God’s love never forsakes us. Hope in Christ is true and certain. Still we do not understand when the darkness overwhelms us. Yet in Christ we know God has not wronged us. God is not to blame. In Christ, our fellow sufferer, God is with us. He does not need our forgiveness, but we need to forgive. He listens with patience and compassion. We let go of the anger, the bitterness, and the resentment. We stop judging God. Now we are able to bow in humility before our Lord and Savior, even if we do not understand why the darkness, we trust God; we trust the Light he sent into the darkness, the Light who is his Son, the Light of his love.
This is what we hear in the words of Job. “I melt before you and am consoled over my dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Hear the words of Jeremiah. “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23). Forgiveness, humility, renewed faith and trust, we also hear from the young Jewish boy who lived through the blackest night. Forty-two years later we hear his words as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. “But I have faith. Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”6
1. Lewis B. Smedes, Forgive & Forget, Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (New York: HarperOne, 1984, 1996), 82.
2. Elie Wiesel. Night. Translated by Marion Wiesel. (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 32-33.
3. Ibid., 63-65.
4. John Mark Hicks, “Forgiving God: From Praise to Bitterness to Comfort,” http://johnmarkhicks.wordpress.com/2008/12/07/forgiving-god-from-praise-to-bitterness-to-comfort.
5. Peter Kreeft, http://www.peterkreeft.com/home.htm.
6. Wiesel, 120.