Perhaps the only thing worse than suffering is watching one you love suffer. When I sit beside my mom at her nursing facility, I am helpless. There is little to do for her other than be present. I fiddle with the knobs on her heating system because she can never shake the chill from her brittle bones. I try to figure out something she will eat; chemo has made it so that everything she puts in her mouth tastes like metal. And I ask her the questions I want to ask, before the time comes when I will no longer be able to.
It seems a great injustice for my kind, tender mom to have a small, fragile body so riddled with pain. But one thing we know: Cancer never plays fair. These days, much of my mom’s life is spent with doctors, her time marked by visits to oncologists, physical therapists, and pain specialists. Between these appointments, there’s nothing we can do. We can’t fight the enemy coursing through her veins. The doctors try their best, but most of the time they’re stabbing at the wind. All we can do is wait and pray and hope.
There have been a number of times in my life where I can only wait and hold on. It’s a place of living between. Between the question and the answer. Between disappointment and relief. Between hope and fulfillment. I’ve enjoyed experiences of God’s nearness and tenderness, but I have also endured intervals where God seemed so deathly silent that it terrified me.
These distressing seasons threaten to unhinge us. One friend who has faced a difficult, tenuous four years recently told me, "If something does not change and God does not act, I'm not afraid that I'll stop believing in Him—but I am afraid that I might stop loving Him. That's where my heart is, and it scares me." Will we be able to hold fast in those places that test everything we believe, everything we thought we understood? Will our heart stay true, or will we whither under the strain?
Will we be able to hold fast in those places that test everything we believe, everything we thought we understood?
These experiences are nothing unusual to people of faith. The apostle Paul spoke with painful clarity of being in the tenuous position between life and death. The psalmist agonized over his fear that God had abandoned him. “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). C. S. Lewis spoke of this between ground as the shadowlands—that misty space where nothing is clear, everything grim. In the shadows, the best we can do is watch through the gray veil in hope that light will break through.
As was true for the psalmist, our most acute fear in these spaces is the disorienting sense that the Lord has abandoned us. Our theology insists that God’s love will never let go of His children, but our experience tempts us with another story. If the silence and the uncertainty and the isolation continue, some of us will hear the haunting suggestion that the God we thought we knew is, in reality, only a mirage.
I traversed an extended dark season that sapped my soul of joy and hope. I was a pastor, a husband, and a dad to two young boys. I was supposed to possess the answers for others, but all I knew was disillusionment, fear, and doubt. There was no quick escape, and the experience gobbled up several years of my life. One midnight, as my family slept, I assaulted heaven. “God where are You? Do You even exist? Do You care about what is happening to me?” I saw no flash of lightning, no jolt of divine love. No voice assuring me of God’s presence. The room was as still as death. Eventually, I simply fell into a fitful sleep.
Jesus was no stranger to this experience of His Father’s seeming absence, no stranger to the stark stretch between God’s promise and the fulfillment of God’s promise. Jesus came to earth in order to bear all of our evil and suffering. Though Jesus never knew sin, He was not spared a single shred of our human plight. From the cross is heard the climax of Jesus’ agony: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Jesus hung at the crucible where light and darkness each sought to make their claim.
Jesus’ love compelled Him into the world, and His triumphant resurrection would ultimately rescue the world. Between these, however, Jesus would walk through betrayal, a cruel cross, the Father’s silence, and the final dagger: death. To save us, Jesus had to walk through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4).
Mother Teresa penned a remarkable discovery: If she was to truly know Jesus, she had to know the dark suffering.
After Mother Teresa died, researchers found eight volumes of documents offering rare insight into her long life of humble service. Among them were a number of personal letters revealing vulnerable, spiritual turmoil few knew existed. On Sept. 10, 1946, Mother Teresa sat in the coach of a passenger train en route to a spiritual retreat. During the excursion, she received a dramatic call from God. Those who have read her accounts of the experience define the encounter as “intense” and “ecstatic.” God told her to create a ministry to the poorest of Calcutta.
This experience was short-lived, however. At just the time you would expect God to intensify the communication—as the difficult work in Calcutta began—her sense of Jesus’ presence dissipated. Her raw, emotive letters spill her acute anguish. Mother Teresa lamented her sense of abandonment. She felt she had been “thrown away by God.” Her journals bleed with the remorse of love lost. “I call. I cling. I want. And there is no one to answer. The darkness is so dark, and I am alone.”
Yet in her final entries, Mother Teresa penned a remarkable discovery. She came to believe that it was actually in her spiritual desert that she was able to identify with “Christ’s abandonment on the Cross.” If she was to truly know Jesus, she had to know the dark suffering.
These unsettling stretches of our life are an inevitable part of a maturing faith. For most of us, they cannot be avoided. In one way or another, we will eventually find ourselves encountering God’s silence or our doubts. We will have questions that are not answered or fears that will not be quieted. In these “between places,” we cannot regain secure footing by devising some scheme for avoiding or escaping the journey we must make. Our hope will rest solely in the God who is Lord over every speck of life, even the places where He may seem so terribly distant. Our hope is in Jesus, who went through the darkest space any human will ever know, and then rose from the dead, promising that He will never leave us nor forsake us. God is with us in the beginning and will be with us in the end.
And He is with us every step between.
The author’s mother, Virginia Collier, passed away in January. Winn says that God’s love carried his mom to her last breath and further into her life with God.