Affliction comes in many shapes and forms and it ‘afflicts’ in more ways than we often imagine. There are obvious sides to such sufferings that flow directly from whatever they happen to be; but there are not so obvious dimensions as well.
The suffering associated with illness is primarily physical, but very often it is emotional and psychological as well. The struggles bound up with relationship problems in marriage, family, friendships or more widely manifest themselves in tension and conflict between the parties concerned; but they also have complex and deeply personal components that can linger on long after the conflict seems to have been resolved.
Given the prevalence of suffering in our world, it is hardly surprising that the Bible has a great deal to say on the subject. It takes us to the dark root from which it springs in the record of Adam’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden, with all its tragic implications for him, the human race as a whole and indeed the entire cosmos (Ge 3.1-23). The book of Job – all 40 chapters of it – can be seen at one level a ‘theodicy’: an exploration of the vexed question of how to reconcile the goodness and sovereignty of God with the reality of evil in the world he made and continues to govern. The Psalms are laced with references to suffering. The New Testament letters repeatedly address the issue as the early Christians faced it. Indeed the very heart of the gospel message finds its focus in the worst imaginable suffering this world has ever witnessed in ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1Co 2.2).
Reflecting on the depths and dimensions of Jesus’ suffering on the cross brings us face to face with one particular facet of suffering that is so profound and personal we often fail to recognise what it is and why it is so intensely disturbing. It is the loneliness that comes with it. David refers to it in several places in the Psalms. Notably in the opening verse of Psalm 22 – the psalm that so powerfully prefigures the crucifixion – he cries out in his acute sense of forsakenness. But, just a few psalms later, he echoes that sentiment when he says, ‘I am lonely and afflicted’ (Ps 25.16) and goes on to express the anguish of that experience.
This detail is hugely significant in terms of how we understand and are able to deal with the troubles we face in life. We instinctively focus on the obvious symptoms of whatever we are facing: whether physical, psychological, emotional or a psychosomatic combination of all three. But, even when all those aspects are under control, we can still be left wondering why our underlying angst seems to linger on.
In part this is true because all suffering has an intensely personal dimension to it. Although other people have experienced what we are going through, we are not them and they are not us. Our uniqueness as individuals means that no two people will face their difficulties in precisely the same way. This is especially true when it comes to bereavement.
Another reason why this sense of being alone is so unsettling in suffering is because it strikes at the very heart of our humanity. When God said of Adam in the Garden, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’ (Ge 2.18), he was saying something about the very essence of what it means to be human. As human beings were made in the image of God (Ge 1.26-27) – the God who himself has never been alone, because he is Trinity – so no person can exist in total isolation and be truly at peace. In John Donne’s words, ‘no man is an island’.
To understand this little detail about our suffering will, at one level, help to defuse its troubling impact on us. We can make sense of why we feel this way. But at another level, it enables us to appreciate the multiple repetitions in the Bible of God’s promise that he will never abandon his people. In particular his promise, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ (Dt 31.6; He 13.5). No matter how we may feel in the apparent loneliness of our dark hours, we are never actually alone. God is with us. His Spirit is supporting us in our weakness and calming our fears. And he has pledged to bring us through.
How do we know this? Because God’s Son endured the ultimate aloneness our sin deserves, so that his parting promise will be forever guaranteed: ‘And surely I am with you always: even to the end of the age’ (Mt 28.20).