When we endure suffering as Christians, it can be tempting to believe that God is no longer present. Today, Sinclair Ferguson offers tools from God’s Word that can help us in our darkest hours.
NATHAN W. BINGHAM: We’re recording live from Ligonier’s 2023 National Conference, and we’re joined by Dr. Sinclair Ferguson. He’s one of our teaching fellows here at Ligonier. Dr. Ferguson, is there something wrong with us if we feel God’s absence in our suffering rather than His presence?
DR. SINCLAIR FERGUSON: Is there something wrong with us if we feel God’s absence rather than His presence when we are suffering? I think there are several answers to that question, Nathan.
The first answer is: potentially, there could be something wrong, and that in two different ways. One is because of the biological, biochemical aspects of suffering. Part of the biochemical result of particular kinds of suffering is because we are what they call “psychosomatic unities.” We’re not a spirit out here and a body out here; we are body and spirit united together, and what happens in our bodies does actually affect our spirits.
So most people, when they get the flu, feel worse emotionally than when they’re well. And so, there may be some instances when we need to be conscious that physical suffering may have a spiritual effect in 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 what I am now in—i.e., later years— that what happens physically to people can have alarming effects on what they seem to become. And it’s very important for us to understand, as Christians, the impact that the disintegration of our bodies can actually 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 of, How do true believers respond when they’re suffering? The book of Psalms—or Psalms, as you and I as Commonwealth people try to pronounce the book but usually fail—which is full of descriptions of believers, true believers, and some, obviously, eminent believers who, when they have suffered, they have felt that God is absent from them.
And so, is there something wrong? No, what is happening then is we are reacting to a world that is the way it shouldn’t be. And since that is God’s world, there’s always a temptation to wonder if God has become the way we didn’t expect Him to be.
And when that happens, I think almost inevitably—and you see this in the Psalms—the psalmists turn in on themselves. And they begin to read God and His presence in terms of their own feelings and inner conditions. And 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 drags them out into the reality of God’s omnipresence, 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.
And so, when we are with people who are experiencing this, I think one of the things that we need to help them to do is to draw them out of the condition that Martin Luther used to speak about, as naturally being incurvatus in se—we instinctively turn in ourselves. And 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, I think there’s 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.”
And I think most of us begin to discover, as we are drawn out of ourselves to that promise, we are re-stabilized to become more sensitive to the fact that He really is with us. And as we cling to that promise, our eyes are 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: that He will never leave us and He will never forsake us.
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