I think there are several answers to that question. The first answer is this: potentially, there could be something wrong, and that in two different ways.
One way something could be wrong has to do with the biological and biochemical aspects of suffering. Part of the biochemical result of particular kinds of suffering comes because we are what they call “psychosomatic unities.” We’re not a spirit on one side and a body on the other; we are body and spirit united together. As a result, what happens in our bodies does actually affect our spirits.
Most people, when they get the flu, feel worse emotionally than when they’re well. So, there may be instances when we need to be conscious that physical suffering may have a spiritual effect on our lives, and there is something wrong with us, but it’s not something that’s wrong with our spirits.
I think this is particularly important for us to understand in our later years. What happens physically to people can have alarming effects on what they seem to become. As Christians, it’s important to understand the impact that the disintegration of our bodies can have both on our mental conditions and even on our spiritual sense of things. So that is one element: there could possibly be something wrong with us at the medical level, at the physical level.
The second thing to say is that God has given us at least one book in the Scriptures that speaks so often to the question, How do true believers respond when they’re suffering? The book of Psalms is full of descriptions of true believers—and some eminent believers—who, when they have suffered, have felt that God is absent from them.
So, is there something wrong with the psalmists? No, they are reacting to a world that is not the way it should be. And since it is God’s world, there’s always a temptation to wonder if God has become the way we didn’t expect Him to be.
When that happens, almost inevitably—and you see this in the Psalms—the psalmists turn in on themselves. They begin to read God and His presence in terms of their own feelings and inner conditions. What you notice in the progress of the Psalms is that, invisibly, but really, the Spirit begins to drag them out of that turning into themselves, where they feel the absence of God, and He drags them into the reality of God’s omnipresence. He shows them the evidences of God’s presence, the blessings that God has given to them in the past, and especially His promises that He will never leave us and He will never, ever forsake us.
When we are with people who are experiencing this feeling of the absence of God, one way we can help draw them out of the condition that Martin Luther used to speak about as naturally being incurvatus in se, where we instinctively turn in ourselves, is to point them to these promises. The Word of God helps us to turn out of ourselves to the promises of God, and especially to the promises of our Lord Jesus Christ that He will never leave us and He will never forsake us.
Looking back, there is a word in the little letter of James that I think is very helpful for Christians, and it’s James’ promise, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). That’s a promise that He will keep. And you must, in that sense, turn away from your sense of God’s absence to His promise: “You draw near to Me, and whether you feel it or not, I will draw near to you.”
I think most of us begin to discover that as we are drawn out of ourselves to God’s promise, we are re-stabilized to become more sensitive to the fact that He really is with us. As we cling to His promise, our eyes open to begin to see the different ways in which He has been with us.
So, I think that’s a great principle for us. Our tendency is to turn in on ourselves, and the Word turns us out of ourselves to the promises of God and to the presence of Christ with us, and this particular promise: He will never leave us and He will never forsake us.
This transcript is from an Ask Ligonier Podcast session with Sinclair Ferguson and has been lightly edited for readability. To ask Ligonier a biblical or theological question, email email@example.com or message us on Facebook or Twitter.