God & Heartbreak
When teaching on suffering, the theologian and minister Tim Keller often uses the imagery of mountains and valleys. The valleys are the present hardships. In the valley, you cannot see the way out; trees and steep mountainsides restrict your view. Only when you reach the peak of a mountain can you see the whole valley spread out before you. Keller’s point is this: while experiencing hardship, it’s difficult to understand why God is allowing this suffering or how he intends to lead you out of it. It is only after the suffering has passed that you begin to see the ways God was with you, guiding you; only on the mountaintop we begin to understand God’s providential plan.
As an avid backpacker, this illustration resonates with me. Countless times I have walked through wearisome valleys that seem to lead nowhere. Only after I have summitted a nearby peak do I see how the trail traversed perfectly to get me to where I am.
We are told that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). We are told that God’s ways are “higher than our ways,” his “thoughts higher than our thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). We are told to “boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3). We are told that we will be stronger because of our sufferings. We are told that our sufferings perfect our character. We are told that like gold passing through fire, so too will our faith be purified by suffering.
These beautiful passages provoke thoughtful reflections; they are also true. Yet they seem to offer comfort only in times of bearable suffering, suffering produced by moderate inconveniences, like a broken-down car or an injured limb. They seem to offer comfort when the suffering is understandable, explainable, and purposeful.
As a hiker, I have also seen many valleys that do not end in mountain peaks. I have been in valleys that stretch from one point to another without access to any breathtaking views that make the journey meaningful. Aren’t some hardships one seemingly endless valley—incomprehensible, inexplicable, and meaningless? What then is the Christian response?
I don’t think that it is a comfort to a mother who has lost her child that God’s ways are higher than our ways. If God is large enough to have good reason for allowing this loss, surely he is also large enough to prevent the loss. It is not comforting to a broken heart that God will work all things for good, especially when what you have lost was bliss. It seems to be little comfort to those whose spouse has died, whose loved one is ill, or whose life has been marred by persecution or racism that their faith is being purified. Some might suggest that we ought to seek to honor Christ in the hard times as instructed in 2 Corinthians 4. And they’re right. But what if the suffering is so deep, and so severe that the only honor they are capable of bringing Christ is not committing apostasy? What now is the Christian response?
The problem with suffering is that it demands more than words. People instinctually sense that suffering was not intended for this world. There is something evil in suffering, and we know it. Someone well acquainted with tragedy once told me she has found that “there is no theology that helps in the midst of real suffering.” When our constant prayers seem to echo unnoticed, and our anguish is unchecked, what can possibly be the Christian response?
I don’t know.
However, I do think there is some solace in this: in unbearable suffering, God does not offer us more words: he offers us himself. Tim Keller writes that “God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.” The philosopher Alvin Plantinga states “I believe God can and does suffer; his capacity for suffering exceeds ours in the same measure that his knowledge exceeds ours. Christ’s suffering was no charade; he was prepared to endure the agonies of the cross and of hell itself.” Only in the Christian faith do we find a God that who not only acknowledges our sincere suffering but experiences it for himself.
In Jesus Christ, the Son of God, we find a man who was willing to step down from glory to experience every kind of suffering. Although he had rightful claim to every kingdom, he entered Earth not on the wings of angels, but in humble, modest form, taking upon himself complete catastrophe. Jesus Christ, though he lived without sin, was rejected by those whom he loved, beaten by those he cared for, and killed by those he came to save.
In his sermons Keller frequently tells a story from when he was a young minister. When anyone in his congregation was beset by grief, he would quickly offer them abstract theological ideas about suffering. Over time, however, Keller found that it wasn’t abstract ideas that they needed, but rather the concrete presence of their empathizing minister. Hebrews 4:15 offers this consolation: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Through Jesus Christ, we have a tangible and concrete God who comes, in our grief, to be present with us.
During suffering, I do not envy unbelievers. Their theology dictates that suffering is natural, when it is clearly anything but. Anyone who has experienced genuine heartbreak knows the deep, savage unnaturalness of it. But once you acknowledge that suffering is unnatural, you must then acknowledge that there is a Creator. For if suffering is unnatural, then there must have been a natural state in which suffering did not exist. And if this natural state did exist, there must also be a Creator who created it, and then watched his creation fall.
Even if we comprehend all this, there is still the risk of missing the compassionate God who understood that brokenness requires more than words; it requires his sacrificial presence. Though he did not cause the suffering, he entered into the midst of it. And if we miss this suffering Messiah, we miss the only immediate and lasting salve to suffering.
Just as the risen Christ appeared to the unbelieving Thomas, telling him to touch his wounded side and behold his pierced hands, so too does Christ appear to us, offering his wounds. What a blessed Savior we have, who offers himself to us even in our unbelief. Let us, as Thomas did upon touching the wounds of Christ, cry out, “My Lord and my God!”
And if God himself knows the pain of incomprehensible anguish, how much greater must his passion for healing be? Through Christ’s death, we have assurance of pardon for our sins, but we have more than that, too: through his glorious resurrection we are assured that all things will be made right. If God’s passion for our redemption was enough to raise Christ from the dead, so too will God’s passion eventually erase and make untrue all the brokenness in the world.
Christianity does not promise a life free from heartbreak, but it does promise a God who has and who does and who will suffer when we do. It may be that some heartbreaks will remain seemingly incomprehensible, inexplicable, and meaningless. Our fervent prayers may seem to be unanswered. We may not leave the valley. But while it may be true that there are no words to immediately ease and overcome suffering, it is also true that there is no suffering that can overcome the compassionate presence of Christ.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not claim to reflect the opinions or views of the Defendant or its staff members.