What unrelenting, surprising, or confusing situation in your life has caused you to question God? Perhaps your body is betraying you, and you and your doctors have done everything possible. You’ve prayed, cried, confessed, and bargained. Still, you suffer. Is God even listening? you wonder.
Maybe you believe God has called you to minister, but no doors have opened. Or the doors that have opened aren’t the ones you expected or desired. Still, you study and pray. Did I hear him right? you ask.
In John 11, Mary and Martha were grieving over the death of their brother, Lazarus. But they also voiced disappointment that their close friend Jesus hadn’t come to their home after they sent for him with word that Lazarus was seriously ill. Both women said something like, “Lord, if you had been here, Lazarus would still be with us!”
Shaking Your Fist at God
If you’ve experienced the death of a loved one, just as Martha and Mary did with Lazarus, you may wonder why God didn’t step in. Losing someone dear to us often provokes a crisis of faith. After all, if God is the God we believe in, he should come through for us, we reason. We question why he heals some people and not others. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.
When our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling and back into our face, is shaking our fist at God an appropriate response? I’ve done my share of fist-shaking because I’ve dealt with chronic pain, fatigue, and autoimmune disease for the past thirty years. It’s lonely, exhausting, frustrating, and disappointing.
When the days are long and hard, I have found solace in Jesus’ honesty with his Father. On the cross, dying a cruel death by the hands of his enemies, he shouted: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus felt abandoned and alone. With the power at his disposal, he could have freed himself and destroyed the people tormenting him. Instead, he continued to submit to the will of his Father. Like Lazarus’ death, Jesus’ crucifixion served a purpose in God’s redemptive plan. The miraculous Resurrection would come later.
I believe Jesus longed for Martha and Mary to receive something more than a miracle, and he wants the same for us. He wants us to find freedom—not just from our problems, but in the midst of our problems.
Dealing With Disappointment
Life is hard. Circumstances and people will certainly, repeatedly disappoint us. However, our loving heavenly Father will transform discouraging, difficult, and draining circumstances into growth if we allow him to.
The Cross is the ultimate symbol of such a transformation. Jesus himself bowed his will to the Father, submitting to humiliation and even death in order that we might have perfect union with our Creator. And when the suffering was over, Christ exchanged a crown of thorns for a throne and jewels.
Likewise, when we offer up our sorrows to Jesus in prayer, he takes the raw material of our hurt and sculpts it into something exquisite: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3–5).
Once we have exchanged grief for hope, we are able to comfort others with that same hope (see 2 Corinthians 1:4). I have seen this principle at work in my own life. Not only has God allowed me to encourage others with the comfort he has given me, but also God has used my physical limitations to bring about a desperation for his strength to be manifest in my weaknesses.
I often speak to groups of women, but sometimes I don’t feel well before I give a talk. However, the very thing that frustrates me is the tool that God uses to remind me to rely on him.
Surprised by God’s Yes
Similarly, my friend Sheila’s body wasn’t as strong as she would have liked. She spent years disappointed with God and mad that he hadn’t healed her. After she married, pregnancy filled her with trepidation. She miscarried twice and during her third pregnancy, she was hospitalized with preterm labor. Sheila begged God to give her a healthy baby.
When God answered “yes” to that prayer, her years of anger melted away. This time, her unreliable body—which had so often felt like a prison—hadn’t let her down. “He blessed me with an exquisite, full-term baby girl. As she took her first breath, my husband cried. I laughed from sheer joy,” she related. “A nurse lay her in my exhausted arms. As I held her, marveling at her long eyelashes, I felt years of resentment leave my heart, crowded out by peace. God’s mercy made me a mother; his grace wiped away a lifetime of tears. As I clutched my baby, my heart knelt and gave thanks.”
Sometimes, as he did with Sheila’s gift of a child, God surprises us with joy. At other times, he lingers or seems absent altogether, causing us to wait in silence and confusion like Mary and Martha. Still, he always gives us his presence, even when he withholds other things.
He longs for us to turn to him, and not away from him, during our disappointments. When we can learn such a life-altering habit, we’ve found a great treasure.
Making More of Jesus
This I know for sure: even when life doesn’t turn out the way I want it to, I long to know more of Christ and who he can be in and through me. I pray that my days become less about me and more about him—even though it means my plans and expectations will be thwarted more times than I’d like. And as I hold onto Jesus, I also hold onto the hope he gives me, because I know that this weak and troubled frame of mine will one day be fully healed.
As Philip Yancey wrote, “The Bible never belittles human disappointment…but it does add one key word: temporary. What we feel now, we will not always feel. Our disappointment is itself a sign, an aching, a hunger for something better. And faith is, in the end, a kind of homesickness—for a home we have never visited but have never once stopped longing for.” (Disappointment With God; Zondervan, 1992; p. 276.)
Paul says it so well: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18).
After Jesus restored Lazarus to life, Mary emptied an expensive jar of perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. God’s glorious promise to restore all things and make them new makes me want to bow at his feet and pour out the rest of my days as a fragrant sacrifice, like Mary. It encourages my heart because I know my pain and struggles will no longer be part of my life when I get to my true home. And it compels me to continue to seek God in honest prayer, knowing he hears and cares.
This article is adapted from Wounded Women of the Bible: Finding Hope When Life Hurts by Dena Dyer and Tina Samples (Kregel, 2013).
Thank you Dena, for this encouragement. I’m long-term chronically ill too and recognise much of what you say here. Love the image of our suffering being sculpted into something new.
I really appreciate your kind words, Keren. Sorry you’re also in the chronically ill “club.” Praying God comforts and sustains you.