Knowing Our Personal God through Suffering

Written by Mark Farnham

On February 15, 2022

“Do you remember when Dr. Behr was here yesterday?” my wife asked me. I searched my memories but had no recollection of a Dr. Behr. It was Day Six in the hospital and between the fog of opioids and the constant flow of doctors, nurses, cleaners, dining service, and social workers, I remembered few specific individuals. The people who were caring for me and keeping me alive were wonderful, but altogether in my head they were a blur. Sometimes medicine can be impersonal simply because of the volume of caretakers. 

Two medical professionals, however, I did not forget. My younger daughter, Kelcey, is an ICU nurse. During my many hospital stays she would stop in whenever she could get a break from her unit upstairs. I remember every time she came to see me because her presence was so powerful for Adrienne and me. She wasn’t just a nurse; she was our daughter come to comfort us. She could listen to what the distracted physician told us about my latest tests, and then explain it more clearly with love, empathy, and her own grief at seeing me so ill. Somehow her presence brought comfort, peace, and hope.

Likewise, my nephew, Justin, is a doctor. Although still in his 20’s, his significant experience and knowledge already brought such comfort when he would explain things to us. He accompanied me the day I had a biopsy on the tumor that had been discovered in my small intestine the week before. His incredible calmness and empathy were magnified by the fact that he is related to us. We know him and he knows us and cares for us deeply, and that made such a difference.

For many people, God is an impersonal being, a vague and elusive deity in the heavens. You may be reading this essay and have very little to say about your view of God. He is more to you like one of the laws of thermodynamics (“energy cannot be created or destroyed”); you accept his existence because it seems to make sense and so many others are convinced, but you couldn’t fill in much detail. God is like the dot-to-dot picture before the dots are connected. There is something there, but there is no one to connect the dots. 

Even if you believe in God, you may have the sense that trying to say anything specific about him is wishful thinking at best and presumptuous at worst. Who is to say who God is or what he is like? Can’t we all simply maintain an inarticulate idea of a divine spirit or force that governs all things (to some degree), cares about us (at least sometimes), and wants us to be good (however we define good).

Or maybe you believe and seek to follow God with sincere devotion. God is a present reality to you daily, and you may even attend church and read your Bible occasionally. You feel close to God, talk to him frequently, and believe that he responds to your prayers and needs. Nevertheless, God still seems somewhat distant and not really all that life-like, at least not as much as the very real people around you. You aren’t really into theology or studying the Scriptures because you may not see the point in learning more about God, any more than you review the Table of Elements from eleventh grade chemistry.

All these views suffer from a fatal flaw. They all view God in an impersonal way, to some degree or another. In other words, there is a strong sense that God is a force, a distant being, somewhat unreal, not really attached to everyday life. 

In contrast, the Scriptures present God as absolutely personal. What I mean by that is that there is nothing in God that simply moves or acts without intention, purpose, and love. While there are such energies in the universe—gravity, heat, electricity—these impersonal forces are directed by God who has given them for our good. We can take them for granted without any offense. When I switch on a light, I don’t thank electricity for the light, nor do I give it a second thought. Electricity doesn’t care whether I am grateful for the light or not. In contrast, God is personal in everything he does. That is, he has a purpose for what he does in our lives, and he loves us and directs all things to our good and his glory. He speaks to us and reveals his names and attributes to us. These words are necessary for life, true knowledge, and relationship with him. They are given to us because God loves us and desires that we be reconciled to him. 

God’s speaking is so personal that the ultimate expression of God’s communication to us came in Jesus the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1–2)

The Greek concept of the Logos, translated “Word” here, was the rationality behind the universe. The Greeks had an impersonal idea of the mind that directed all things. Here, John is saying that the Greeks were right to believe in an ultimate rationality, but they were mistaken to think it was impersonal. The Word of God is actually a person, and with the coming of Jesus into the world, everyone would be able to see and talk to God because he lived among us.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)

When God wanted to show us most clearly who he is, he sent His Son—a person—so we could see God as one who genuinely loves us and relates to us. One of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, wrestled with the relationship between Jesus and the Father. He wanted to see the “unapproachable light” in which God dwells (1 Tim. 6:16). Instead, Jesus told him that Philip has already seen God by being with Jesus. 

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? (John 14:8–9)

What does this have to do with suffering? We do not live in a world where fate decides our destiny, as the ancient Greeks believed. Nor do we contend with a distant clockmaker who wound up the universe like a clock and then walked away. No, we live, and suffer, in a broken world that is sovereignly governed by our Father, who lovingly guides us through the temporary pain of this world into eternal bliss. This is the God who has promised to never abandon us, “for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).

This is God, who has revealed himself in the names he gives himself in the Bible—Jehovah-Raah (The Lord My Shepherd), Jehovah Rapha (The Lord My Healer), Jehovah Jireh (The Lord Will Provide), and many more. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11), and who knows his sheep, and is known by his sheep (John 10:14). He is the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25), and our faithful Creator (1 Pet. 4:19). The Holy Spirit is our Helper and Comforter, the one who comes along side us (John 14:26). 

God is not a nameless, faceless doctor who pops into our lives once a week to look us over, jot down a few notes and mumble a few words of vague hope. God is our loving Father, who heals all our diseases (Psa. 103:3). Jesus is our Great Physician who came to heal us of our greatest sickness—our sin—and to take our sorrows upon himself to ensure they are not the end of us (Mark 2:17; Isa. 53:3-4). The Holy Spirit dwells inside believers (John 14:17) and testifies that we are God’s children (Rom. 8:16). And how does God feel about his children? “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him” (Psa. 103:13).So, it is this God, our God, who helps us in our suffering. He knows us and we can know him. He speaks to us, and we can speak with him. He comforts, cares, and gives hope. We will see him one day, if our faith in his Son, Jesus. And he will be the joy of our hearts for all eternity.

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