There are two fascinating stories from the Old Testament that illustrate the need to rely on God in the face of suffering. As we examine both of them, remember that no one handles suffering and loss exactly the same. Each of us faces them in a unique way considering the circumstances and our upbringing. However, trusting in God should not be unique. Consider first, David and the loss of his son.
All of us struggle when someone we love is suffering, especially when we consider that suffering needless. In the case of a child, no one finds value in the pain and anguish that a young person endures. We see that suffering as unfair or uncalled for. We ask questions like “Why is this happening?” and “How is this possible?” We struggle to come up with the right words to say to make our family feel better. We grow angrier and angrier at the situation. For too many of us, we eventually grow angry at God. We cry out to Him and ask for the impossible: “Give me the pain; I can take it.” Or we ask the unthinkable: “You can’t truly be a good God and let my child suffer like that, can you?”
Christians should not blame God for the randomness of this world, for its accidents and diseases. But we do. We know that God never wants a child to suffer, but to make this world the best place possible for our spiritual growth, pain must exist. We understand the temporary nature of this place. We understand that eternity will be so much better than this place. We understand that this is our probationary period – the time where we become children of God and brothers to mankind. We know pain and suffering are a part of that package.
In a moment of peace and calm, pain and suffering make complete sense, but not when our child is suffering. Not when a loved one we value and cherish is in pain. Not when we feel helpless. Not when all we want is an easy answer. That easy answer is one we reach out to God for with eager anticipation. To us, that answer is more than just the right answer; it is the only answer. However, that answer is not always God’s answer. We want immediate gratification. We want the pain to be gone. We want the pain to never return. We want to move on with our lives just as they were before the pain began. Within that possibility lies a problem; namely, what if God’s answer is not our answer? What will we do? How will we remain faithful? How will we ever move on?
The story of David and his child found in Second Samuel 12 gives us an idea of how we can handle a situation like the one mentioned above. In chapter 11, David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. She became pregnant and David devised a plan to cover his actions by murdering Uriah in battle and marrying his wife. In the first fifteen verses of Second Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan visited David and told him a parable to highlight his sin. David repented but learned the child growing in the womb of Bathsheba would die. At this point, his story and our stories intertwine. David was heartbroken like we often are. David was beside himself and upset because there was nothing he could do – nothing but pray.
In that moment, David retreated to his home and prayed with all his might. According to Second Samuel 12:16-18, David fasted and prayed for several days. At the end of those days, the child died. Upon learning of his child’s fate, David got up, cleaned and fed himself, went to worship in the temple, and moved on with his life. How was this possible? How did a man at the end of his rope get up and move on? David gave us some insight into his thinking with his very own words. In Second Samuel 12:22 he said to his servants, who wondered about his actions:
While the child was alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, “Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?” (ESV)
David’s desire throughout the entire ordeal was a healthy life for the baby. David surely felt some added pain because of the burden of his sin upon the child. Nathan told David in Second Samuel 12:14:
Because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.
At that point, David had to accept the consequences of his actions. Notice how Galatians 6:7-8 sit right alongside God’s pronouncement:
For whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.
Unfortunately for David, the consequences of his sin (and what he sowed) were grave – far beyond what he probably expected. In that moment, David felt the same pain every parent in that situation has felt: helplessness. However, his attitude is important to notice.
In his moment of helplessness, David turned everything over to God. He literally fell down at the feet of God.
In that moment, he did not question God. In that moment, he did not blame God. In that moment, he did not cry out, “This is unfair!” None of those things ever happened. David was unique. He handled the situation better than most people would. David turned over everything to God. He accepted God’s answer.
In our worst moments, we must act like David and turn our grief over to God. We must focus on prayer. We must not question God; we must rely on God. Perhaps, the answer to our prayer will be what we want; perhaps it won’t. No matter how God answers our prayers, He will always care for us and our well-being. He will never ignore our heartbreak, wishes, or prayers. He will always be listening. He will always answer. Our responsibility is to be like David and embrace the answer God gives us.
Hannah was a Jewish woman who lived with her husband Elkanah, and his other wife, Peninnah, in ancient Israel. As a Jewish woman, her greatest responsibility, even her duty, was to honor God by bearing her husband children and then teaching them to fear and worship God. She suffered, however, because of her inability to bear and child and the public taunts of her husband’s other wife, who had several children (see First Samuel 1:6).
Hannah was beside herself as she went with her family to worship and sacrifice on the yearly trip to Shiloh in First Samuel 1. There, she prayed from the depth of her heart. First Samuel 1:10 says,
She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.
In her agony, she cried out to God. She was praying in that moment for the immediate relief of her suffering. The immediate answer she wanted was the ability to have a child. Hannah’s plight is economic, religious, and social. without children, she is vulnerable to economic hardship if her husband dies, she lacks the most palpable evidence of the favor of God who is the giver of “blessings of breast and womb” and she is vulnerable to the condescending pity of other women – especially her co-wife – who have themselves received such blessing in abundance.¹
Hannah suffered because of her personal situation. To her, the only answer was to ask the same God who had “closed her womb” to open it. Hannah’s prayer was personal and it sought to remove the perceived shortcoming of her barren womb. It is very similar to the prayer many people utter when they face a situation that seems unthinkable. To her, this situation could only be removed by the hand of God. Hear her words and feel the anguish:
O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.
First Samuel 1:11
She sought a resolution to her suffering, but in that resolution, she never forgot the power behind the relief. She gave God all the praise for hearing and (eventually) answering her prayer.
Hannah’s situation begs the question, can we pray for the relief of personal suffering? Absolutely. God expects us to reach out to Him. In fact, the very purpose of prayer is to bridge our connection with God from our hearts, minds, and souls. We reach out to Him in prayer, asking for help when we need it the most. We ask things of Him that we wouldn’t ask for from anyone else.
We must learn from Hannah that God can answer every prayer the way we hope; that doesn’t necessarily mean He will.
God has a plan for our lives. His plan for Hannah was for her to be the mother of Samuel. Hannah’s path in this world included the suffering those years brought so that Samuel would be born at the right time to the right mother who would truly recognize where he came from and why he was born. Hannah’s prayer was answered by the will of God. She found the answer she was looking for. So did God.
We should consider her prayer before we go to God with any request. We can ask for the removal of suffering and we should ask for God to help us; as long as we accept and understand that the answer to those prayers will always be His answer, not our answer. That answer may take a while for us to figure out. It may fulfill our immediate desires, it may not. It may be difficult to digest or hard to appreciate. In the end, however, His answer will always be the right answer. Remember that idea as you pray.
¹ J. Gerald Janzen, “Prayer and/as Self-Address” from A God So Near, Essays on Old Testament Theology, (University Park, PA: Eisenbraums, 2003), 124.
All Scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version ® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.