Knowing the Goodness of God in Suffering, Part 1

Written by Mark Farnham

On January 31, 2022

As I write this essay (summer 2020), I am five months past my last chemo treatment. My hair is almost fully grown back, although I think I will keep it shorter than I used to because it is easier to manage. It is July and I have been swimming in a friend’s pool for exercise three mornings a week. Yesterday as I was glancing at the bottom of the pool through my goggles in between strokes I began to think about the goodness of God. Swimming is like that for me. After the first few laps my body goes into neutral and I ponder and pray. The thought that struck me during that rhythm was, “How hard it is to consider suffering and believe that God is good!”

Sovereign? Yes. All-powerful? Yes. Loving, even? Yes. But good? My normally serene mind while swimming suddenly felt troubled. It was as if a dark cloud had suddenly obscured the sun. I could still see every time I turned my head to gulp a lungful of air that the sky was still blue and the sun still shining. So, I began to question the doubt in my mind.

Why would it be so hard to believe in God’s goodness? “How can you ask that?” challenged my troubled thoughts. “Let’s recount the last year.” I did a quick review of the year in my mind while my body still pumped away at the water. The review was painful. I am not one to review past pain. It’s over, move on, focus on the here and now. I did allow my thoughts to survey the year, though. Was God good in the suffering he allowed? There is no doubt I learned from it, grew as the result of it. 

“But, is God good in light of all I went through?” My thoughts were demanding an answer. It was difficult to answer the question. It was a painful year—physically, emotionally, relationally, and in many other ways. There were times I thought I would die a slow, difficult death. I agonized over my wife’s grief as she agonized over me. I saw the fear in my adult children’s eyes while they reassured my grandkids that “Bear” (what they call me) would be OK. I have often said that just as parents allow and even lead their children through difficult situations for their own good, so does God. 

Do you remember the first time you brought your newborn in for immunizations? I do, because it was difficult for my wife to hold them down while the nurse stuck them with the needle. As a result, I was there for most of my children’s shots. I will never forget the look my oldest gave me when she was six months old. As soon as the nurse injected her she looked up at me with a look that screamed, “Why would you let her do that to me, Father???” I knew right then that she would remember that experience, and she did. Until she was five years old, as soon as we pulled up to the doctor’s office she would break into hysterics.

And good parents continue to lead their children through difficulty, which to the child seems like death—like eating their vegetables, cleaning their room, taking a nap, and putting on sunscreen. To the child this seems like tyranny and torture. Yet good parents do all these things for their good.

When we get to be adults, however, we chafe against someone bringing difficulty and pain into our lives, most of the time because we believe that if we need something difficult, we can bring it into our own lives. We think we know enough about what is good for us that we don’t need help from the outside. This is a delusion.

Just as little children have no concept of what is good for them, neither do we apart from the Holy Spirit illuminating our minds to understand the Scriptures. And what does God say about suffering? Three things for our purposes here.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12–13)

First, we should not be surprised when trials come. Trials are the tests that help us grow deeper in our knowledge of God. As C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God is more determined to work for our good than we are. Lewis also said that our problem is not that our desires are too great, but that they are too small. 

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Trials are for our eternal good, but most of the time we are only concerned with our immediate good, characterized by our comfort, convenience, and pleasure. But God is determined to produce in us lasting good. 

Continued in Part 2.

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