Why is light given to him who suffers, and life to the bitter of soul…? - Job 3:20
This plaintive question from the mouth of the sufferer, Job, is one that in various forms has echoed down the millennia of human existence. What is the point of life, after all, if it starts to contain more suffering than joy, more disappointment than accomplishment? As we begin a new year our hearts may be full of eager anticipation of what it has in store for us. We may have great, ambitious goals or dreams of wonderful satisfaction of some of life’s many promises. May God grant them to us! But if we have lived long enough, we also have begun to realize that not all that we hope for comes to pass and even some of the things we wanted turn out to be mixed blessings at best.
I don’t know if the animals have hopes for tomorrow or dreams of possible accomplishments. I rather think not. It is true, of course, that a dog or cat gain, through experience, the expectation of their owner’s usual return from work or rising for the day and the happiness of interacting with them or of being fed, but there does not seem to be much evidence of hope or planning beyond these short-term desires. And yes, a bird may build its nest or start out on its migration but there is little evidence that these are any more than responses to instinct. We need not imagine them delightedly contemplating the arrival of young or the joy of feeding in warmer climes. Animals live very much in the present but humans also re-live the past and creatively imagine the future. That is what adds so much more joy and sorrow to human life than what animals experience. That is why Job, in his extreme state of suffering and despair cries out, “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” (3:11) Then his consciousness of evil would have been negligible and brief. While this is the cry of a heart wrung with sorrow and a body wracked by pain, some of us have come close to this conclusion from far less suffering.
We hope for so much in this life and some of our hopes are realized. But what if some have not, so far? We may have hoped for good health, a spouse, to have children, an exciting or fulfilling career, only to have these hopes continually deferred if not entirely frustrated. We may face the fact that we will never again do something we dearly loved, like going on hikes, fishing or volunteering at the food closet. We may have to give up a part of our treasured independence by relinquishing our driving license or control of our finances. What then becomes of the purpose of our lives?
Thankfully, there is a purpose, despite the sorest disappointments in life. It comes from an understanding revealed to us by God’s Spirit within and recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. We were created for fellowship with God. The first humans are described in the Bible as living in close personal relationship with the Creator, enjoying the good things He created for them, yes, but enjoying fellowship with Him above all. When they made the terrible error of choosing a created good over fellowship with the “giver of every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17) they soon learned how empty those created things were when not enjoyed with God. They also learned through suffering that created goods, while good, cannot with justice be treated as the Ultimate Good. As Jesus said, “Only God is good” in the truest sense of the word. All the genuine good in created things comes from Him who is Goodness Itself. This is wonderfully expressed in the third verse of the hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee:
Thou art giving and forgiving,
Ever blessing, ever blest,
Wellspring of the joy of living
Ocean depth of happy rest.
The Psalmists said this long before: “In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever.” (Psalm 16:11) “O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling places. Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy…” (Psalm 43:3-4) “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For, behold, those who are far from You will perish… But as for me, the nearness of God is my good… (Psalm 73:25-28)
If we have lost, are currently lacking, or never acquire one or more of this world’s goods, be it ever so precious to us, our lives are not without purpose or hope, for now and henceforward, God is with us and we are learning to live loosely as to things temporal that we might lay firm hold of that which is eternal. While it is true that it is hard, if not impossible, to praise God or enjoy His presence in the midst of severe pain we can at least cry out to Him for help and in that very call remind ourselves of His reality. Not only is severe physical pain a challenge, so also is severe emotional pain.
The pain of spiritual depression is certainly among the most extreme challenges to the life of fellowship with God. That is why I so appreciate the life of Mother Theresa of Calcutta. When her personal letters were published after her death a few years ago, many were astonished that a woman who so exuded love for God seemed so bereft of a sense of His presence. After a series of glorious manifestations of God’s love to her soul and after receiving a call from Him to serve the poorest of the poor, her sense of His presence and joy of fellowship with Him utterly vanished never to return. For many decades she ministered to the poor and dying, inspiring countless numbers of people to follow her example. But her purpose to seek God remained. Because Jesus said, “as you have done to the least of these my brothers… you have done it to Me…” she saw in every sick, dying, impoverished person, her precious Lord and loved Him by loving them. She knew the purpose God gave her and pursued it relentlessly.
But maybe our life has come to the point where we cannot even get out of bed, where we live an apparently pointless existence. Or, maybe we find it difficult to interact with other people and have withdrawn from the world. Is our life then without purpose or meaning? Not at all! We live to know God and to know Him in “the valley of the shadow of death” or in the garden of His agony is to know Him where He in fact is dwelling, among all those who suffer. For as Isaiah says of the sufferings of the Israelites, “In all their affliction he was afflicted…” (63:9) Paul said his longing was “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings…” (Philippians 3:10)
Some of you know far more than I do about this fellowship with God, even in suffering. In fact, it has been through watching you that I have been encouraged and instructed as to the true purpose of life. I write on behalf of all the rest of us who have still much to learn of this and whose hands still clutch too tightly to worldly hopes and have yet to fully see the infinite treasure that is God alone.