How God Gives Us Biblical Language to Help us in our Suffering: Toward a Biblical Theology of Suffering, Part II

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Dave Shive lives in Catonsville, MD, and has been married to Kathy for 52 years. They have 3 married children and 11 grandchildren. Dave writes, not as a clinician or therapist, but as a pastor. His thoughts on suffering emerge from his study of the Bible, reading widely, pastoral counseling, and personal experience. This is Part II of a multi-part series on suffering.

Have you ever found yourself at a loss for words to express the hardship, loss or grief you are going through? Have you ever felt that God seems silent when you need Him most? In my last post, I shared about how God allowed my dream job to be unexpectedly withdrawn. It was a shock to my spiritual system and led me down a 30 month “night shift” journey of suffering and trying to understand what God was doing in my life. Although we may feel like God is absent, He speaks in our suffering and is present with us in our affliction. Today I will share some of the biblical language God has helpfully provided to enable us to express the pain we are experiencing.

There are the terms that the Book of Psalms uses to accentuate the potential devastation affliction can generate. By naming a few – watery depths and waves, narrow confinement, bulls, dogs, lions, bees, storms, desert, being surrounded, the pit – we all may recognize a passing acquaintance with these metaphors from our reading of Psalms. They illustrate for us the miserable antagonists who bear affliction to our doorsteps. But upon closer examination, could these metaphors become friends who help by providing us access to Scripture’s teaching on suffering?

Grit in the Pit

In Psalm 40:1-3, the key text for my 30-month “night shift”[1] experience, David calls his suffering a “pit.” The choice of this term bears some explanation since the concept of “pit” fits the Ancient Near East milieu better than the modern western world. The term is used three ways in the Old Testament.

First, the majority of occasions when “pit” is used refer to literal, physical hole-in-the-ground circumstances. There is the “cistern” Joseph was thrown into (Gen. 37:20-29), Joseph’s “dungeon” (Gen. 40:15; 41:14), and the “dungeon” of Jeremiah’s incarceration (Jer. 38:6-13). In each case, the “pit, dungeon, cistern” is a literal hole in the ground. “As we familiarize ourselves with the stories of Joseph and Jeremiah, we acquire fuel to stoke our ability to better understand our own “pit.”

Second, on occasion the “pit” has reference to the inescapable reality of death and may be understood as referring to “grave, death, Sheol” (Ps. 28:1; 88:4; 143:7).

But our concern is with the third usage. Here, “pit” is used metaphorically. We are unable to escape the pit in our own strength, it leaves us feeling utterly alone and abandoned, and we experience the pit as mysterious, even scary. In Ps. 7:15; 40:2; 88:6, “pit” is the term of choice for providing a mental picture of affliction’s misery. Let’s look at Ps. 69:15,

“Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
            or the depths swallow me up
            or the pit close its mouth over me.” (Psalm 69:15, NIV)

Through David’s writing, the reader can see his feeling of being trapped, with no way of escape.

The psalmist also uses a particularly clever metaphorical device to contrast the confinement of the pit with the liberation of deliverance. In Psalm 4:1 as, “You have relieved me in my distress (NASB). The Hebrew word relieved means to “broaden, expand” while distress refers to “a narrow, compressing, restricting, confining situation.” Get the contrast? A more precise translation might yield, “In the straits, you have set me free” (Alter) or “Though I am hemmed in, you will lead me into a wide, open place” (NET). The Message paraphrases Psa. 4:1 as, “Once in a tight place, you gave me room.” This same device is used in Psa. 25:17; 31:8b-9a; 18:6a with 19a; and 118:5.

In reflecting on my 30-month “night shift” experience, I know that I was confined in the narrow straits of affliction on April 1, 1991. But thirty months later I was freed into the liberation of the wide-open spaces of opportunity. Psa. 4:1 perfectly captures my experience!

The point is that we develop “spiritual grit” when we recognize the various nuances of the pit experience and come to believe that there are benefits that accrue from affliction.

Developing Grit in the Midst of Affliction

Two New Testament texts provide a launching point for development of spiritual grit in the midst of affliction.

The first is Rom. 5:2b-5: “…We rejoice in hope of the glory of God…We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not put us to shame because God’s love for us has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit…”

The second text is I Thess. 5:16-18. Here we find a simple, yet awesome, recipe for the sufferer: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

These two passages indicate that the development of “spiritual grit” calls for practical responses. First, both passages speak of “rejoicing” (see II Cor. 7:4), but joy during affliction is difficult and can be easily feigned and inauthentic if it does not get help.

Help for joy comes in the form of gratitude, the second response. We can be thankful for our misfortune, not because God necessarily caused it, but because we know he loves us and will only allow those things into our lives which He can use for good (Rom. 8:28). Being thankful possesses an inherent power that produces joy. Try it! Repeatedly thank God sincerely (but, if necessary, even through clenched teeth!) for something you do not enjoy and notice the gradual change of heart.

Third, giving thanks and being joyful is buoyed by hopefulness. While the pit’s hold on us may seem to be without remedy, we are fortified by joy and gratitude as our anticipation increases of God’s loving care for His children.

Wouldn’t it be nice if God would educate us in ways that involved less painful pedagogical techniques? Yes, but such thinking naively presupposes that we are naturally good learners and teachable. This blog acquired its name “because it explores the topics of counseling, Christ-following, biblical community, and soul care in a practical way.” And nothing is more practical and “spiritually gritty” than the nurturing of a hardy spirituality that can function dynamically in the arena of affliction.

Some Questions for Reflection

  1. Is Scripture helping you develop a biblical vocabulary to apply to your suffering?
  2. Are you finding yourself seeing a more biblical view of suffering?
  3. Is there any particular Psalm that has God used in your life to bring comfort and insight in your suffering?

In the final blog in this series (“Part III: Carpe Diem! Seize Affliction and its Benefits!”) the “upside” of affliction will be examined as I share the wonderful story of my own personal deliverance from my “night shift.”

[1] See “Part I: Toward a Biblical Theology of Suffering” for an explanation of this term.

  • Joy Gould
    January 16, 2021

    The daily practice of what I call the “gratitude attitude” makes every day better whether in a “pit” or on the “mountaintop.” It draws me toward God and His presence in my life.

    Ann Voskamp has some great ideas and tools on recognizing God’s gifts and blessings in the midst of life, especially the difficult times of life. See 1000 gifts –

    • RobinBarnes
      January 17, 2021

      Agreed. A thankful heart to God definitely helps one’s perspective and maintaining hope when life is hard.

    • Dave Shive
      January 18, 2021

      Thanks for your thought, Joy. You are so right. Thankfulness is a game-changer. It is such a significant part of the Psalms approach to life in general, and specifically when in suffering. Counter-intuitive, isn’t it? And yet so practical. This same idea surfaces frequently in the NT, as well. I appreciate your thoughts. Dave