Upon my family stepping off a 757 from serving in Africa, one word kept bubbling to my mind’s surface: I felt benched.
I wasn’t just a hemisphere apart from the place I’d felt most alive. The question marks curling in my head piled upon each other, to the point of obscuring God. It was as if, in my work for and with him there, I had been a sous chef—with sizzling, warm scents rising around our shoulders as he patiently instructed me through expansive banquets and sweaty evenings, topped with a high five. On the side, I created tasty pastries, as I’d always done.
But now, he’d told me, You’re my new pastry chef. You’ll be working over there. He pointed as our partnership evaporated like steam.
To my new hidden, remote corner of the kitchen, aromas floated from entrees He crafted and garnished. Meanwhile, I rolled out pate brisee and lobbed my failed attempts in the trash can. But from this angle, I glimpsed only the back of his chef’s coat, around layers of shelves and focused line cooks. He didn’t need my help.
The Fourth Man
See, like the rest of humanity from David to Job to Jesus, I tend to experience suffering as forsakenness. Separation. My God, My God…
Yet for all his vocalized alienation, God plays Sam to David’s Frodo in the valley of the shadow of death. He remains the elaborate, generous host amidst David’s enemies (Psalm 23).
And I’ve internalized a minuscule portion of this as a parent, driving my 13-year-old to an MRI screening for cancer. Lymphoma is a primary consideration, the radiologist had said, goading us toward the test that day.
We sat in the waiting room and my son griped about swigging the chalky oral contrast solution. Tucking my abject fear away from my son, I wrote in my red journal: 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 (Daniel 3:17-18).
Yet in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, it was the vivid portrait of our God that caused the era’s most powerful man on earth to rise from his seat: “I see four men unbound,” he marveled, “walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (v. 25).
That day at the children’s hospital, I suffered unspeakably on behalf of my son, from his angst to the needles he dreaded. In fact, I comprehended far more than he did of what lay at stake. My husband and I had of course taken off work; for our son to go it alone was never, ever an option. I recalled Abraham with Isaac as we climbed the stairs to the test together, waiting for the rustling of a ram. And God, I believe, climbed with us.
“I Myself Will Go Down”
This begs the question: In ordaining our suffering, could God be ordaining his own?
In my recent years following our return from Africa, part of me has asked some blackened, troubled questions of God, and spent days in an inky darkness of waiting. Enduring.
It’s hard not to question God when you’ve asked him for wisdom…which leads you directly into pain. Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.
But as I wait here, resilience shredded, I came upon words of his in the last chunks of Genesis, when Jacob is determining, at Joseph’s primo invitation, whether to uproot his whole life and move to Egypt.
And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.”
Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again…” (vv. 2-4)
My mind wove in and out of what those words contained. God commended Jacob to Egypt (Genesis 46), knowing this would enslave his people for 400 years—some never tasting freedom in their bent-backed lifetimes, even to worship him (Exodus 3:18-20). God vowed to make them a great nation even as Egypt flattened them with a sandy heel. Yet he promised to tread alongside them in misery.
And God continued to see them: “God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24-25). I picture him holding an elderly Israelite as the man is whipped. I envision God whispering hope in the ear of a muscled young Hebrew shouldering a load of bricks.
He who would stand in the fire of exiled men centuries later also descended into slavery with his people.
God describes himself as with us when we pass through the waters (Isaiah 43:2). In Acts, God internalizes his people’s persecution to the point he accuses Paul of persecuting Jesus—the distinctively named Immanuel, and the one who would carry our sorrows.
God’s Cardiac Anatomy, This Way
The further we plunge into suffering with others, the further we plunge into God’s heart as sufferer, as One Who Loves. If we haven’t suffered, how much can we truly understand his heart?
This morning, loading the dishwasher before I initiated a hard conversation with my teenager, I thought in God’s direction, Parenting just might kill me, Lord.
But how might he respond?
Um. Tell me about it.
In fact, historically, rather than only enduring our suffering alongside us, he resumed our place instead (Isaiah 53:5-6).
Is it more likely he hides himself in suffering, or that our own darkness conceals the unwavering reality of his affection and immovable presence with his kids?
Realizing What’s Already There
I know the feeling of a God endlessly, silently away from you.
And truthfully, I wish my views of God and his thoughts toward me were less influenced by whether or not I obtain what my heart strains toward. Even when what I long for is noble, admirable. So often what he withholds feels contrary to his character, no?
Yet I have come to know feeling near to God in my pain sometimes means both acknowledging my lament and terror, while simultaneously realizing and confessing he is deeply present, storing my tears in his bottle (Psalm 56:8). I must swivel my gaze toward the fourth man in the fire.
Sometimes, he also articulates this presence directly or not-so-much through those he’s planted around me. (During my sorrow following Africa, my husband thoughtfully asked, “What do you wish you were hearing from God? Why?”)
Come to me, Jesus tells flattened, bloodied, knuckle-dragging souls in Matthew 11. Because he’s already there.
As trauma therapist K.J. Ramsey muses in The Lord is My Courage: Stepping through the Shadows of Fear Toward the Voice of Love, “The most regulating thing for our nervous systems at any point of any day is co-regulation”—a sense of significance and safety gained from the responses of those who care for us. She continues, “Experiencing the presence of someone else with us who is kind emboldens us to face our fears with trust. This is what we have in Christ…
“Courage is choosing to commune with someone who has already chosen to be with us” (emphasis added).
Or as 1 John 4:16 puts it, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.”
When a girl feels as if she’s been pressing out pie crust in a corner, perhaps she’s been brushing elbows with her grinning mentor, head chef, Father, and friend all along.
Cover image by Benjamin DeYoung.