“When you suffer, it’s hard, but you feel God extra-closely at those times, don’t you?”
All my life I was told this by Christians. It was like an equation – if you go through hard times (minus), you experience God’s peace and presence (plus), and that more than makes up for it. Some went as far as to desire a bit of suffering so they could be extra close to God.
And I believed it – right up to the point I went through the hardest time of my life, and God was devastatingly silent.
My story is this: I gave birth, and went home with a gorgeous baby and a new disability.
I had developed Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, a neurological and autoimmune illness, in my twenties. In 2006, I was running up to five miles three times a week. But by 2008 I needed a wheelchair for any distance longer than the end of my road.
Many people told me others had got better from ME quickly, and gave me ideas for cures and therapies. (They work for some. They didn’t work for me.)
Some said that pregnancy would cure my ME. (It does for some. It didn’t for me.)
Some said that God would heal my ME. (God heals some. God didn’t heal my M.E.)
Some said that giving birth would change my body chemistry and put me into recovery. (It does for some). But I woke up the day after I gave birth and could barely stand. Childbirth had broken my body.
Six years on, though there has been some improvement, I am basically housebound, needing to lie in bed 21-22 hours a day. I can only leave the house (in a wheelchair) once a fortnight.
Being housebound with chronic illness is cabin fever to an exponential degree – I hunger for colour and light, for the smell of rain. The heart problems and breathlessness are now more or less under control, but I never know when a relapse will hit andI’ll find myself collapsing in the corridor on the way back from the bathroom, unable to move.
One of the hardest things about chronic illness is the loneliness. Before, I had been a church minister, a lecturer in Biblical theology, an extrovert who surrounded myself with stimulating conversation and interesting people. For the first year after the birth, it was all I could do to tap out a Facebook update, just to prove I still existed.
Where was God during this time? In the hospital, at the point of emergency, when I was having a blood transfusion, I felt God’s peace. But when I returned home, and in the years following, God was notably absent.
The suffering did not abate, and there was no neat equation, no closeness of God to lessen the impact of the loss. The hardship continued, but God’s presence had vanished.
How do we as a church process my experience, and experiences like mine?
God is with us – yes. The Bible promises us that. But it doesn’t tell us how we will experience God being with us. For some, perhaps even most Christians, suffering is accompanied by God’s peace. For others, that feeling is completely absent. For Job, God-with-him felt like relentless and meaningless suffering. Like wanderers in the desert, sometimes we experience God as a clear and burning fire in the darkness; other times God is a mysterious cloud.
I want to say it loudly: the claim that you will always feel God’s peace during suffering is a myth. No matter how mature a Christian you are, sometimes you suffer and God feels desperately absent. Sometimes there’s an explanation in hindsight. Sometimes there’s a lesson learned from it. But sometimes there’s just silence and mystery.
What helps in such situations? Over the past few years of dealing with chronic illness, disability, and the loneliness of the absence of God’s presence, I have found refuge in the lived experience of Christians and their thoughts about God (which, really, is all theology is).
I have turned to St John of the Cross and Mother Theresa, who both experienced a ‘dark night of the soul’. In Mother Theresa’s case it could be more described as ‘dark decades of the soul’. Still she faithfully served God.
I have read Pete Greig on unanswered prayer, Rachel Held Evans on doubt, Matt Bays on the honesty of anger with God, Micha Boyett on reinventing prayer in the loneliness of motherhood, Addie Zierman on finding faith in dark places. I’ve listened to Christians’ stories of God and suffering.
I have turned to Asaph’s bitter Psalms, to Job’s honest frustration. I have turned to John the Baptist, who waited for the Messiah all his life, yet was beheaded even as Jesus walked the earth.
I have also turned to St Paul. We know Christ, yes – but through a glass darkly. I don’t know why it is that God would be so absent at the lowest point of my life. But I also know that I cannot see everything clearly until heaven. Now we see in part: then we shall see face to face.
Tanya Marlow was in Christian ministry for a decade and a lecturer in Biblical Theology, until she got sick, and became a writer. Her worst habits include laughing at her own jokes and singing songs without knowing the lyrics. She blogs at Thorns and Gold, where she writes honestly about the Bible, suffering and the messy edges of life. She’s a contributor to Soul Bare, stories of authenticity and vulnerability (IVP USA, 2016). At present, she’s working on a book which follows four Bible characters through the themes of waiting and doubt. She is the author of Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty, which you can get for FREE here.
Tanya Marlow’s book recommendations for a dark night of the soul:
- God on Mute – Pete Greig
- Night Driving – Addie Zierman
- Searching for Sunday – Rachel Held Evans
- Found – Micha Boyett
- Finding God in the Ruins – Matt Bays
Books by Tanya Marlow:
- Soul Bare – multiple contributors, ed. Cara Sexton, IVP USA, 2016 (preorder now for delivery in August 2016)
- Coming Back to God When You Feel Empty – whispers of restoration from the book of Ruth – get it for FREE here
Over to you:
- When have you experienced God’s silence?