Where is God in the midst of our troubles? According to Psalm 34:18, He is close by: “The Lord is near the brokenhearted; he saves those crushed in spirit” (CSB).
The question of evil and suffering remains one of the critic’s quickest objections to the existence of God, or at least to the existence of the Christian God. Many Christian thinkers have written insightful books on the subject, and there’s a lot to gain from these resources. However, knowing that suffering can coexist with a good God only solves part of the problem. What about when we are suffering? Theodicy may not help much. We need more than that.
The Christian is expected to run to God’s Word for help. Among other passages that bring comfort, Psalm 34:18 offers a reassurance that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
How does this work? How does God stay close to the brokenhearted? If He’s God and we’re not, shouldn’t He be far away?
A distant god is the deistic conception. The God of the Bible is nothing like that. While He’s self-sufficient, He is interested and vested in His creation. In the pages of Scripture, we see God taking an active role in human history. He communicates with people, gives instruction for proper behavior, judges when needed, and ultimately comes down to redeem them from the guilt of sin (Ephesians1:7).
Here are some ways God remains near the brokenhearted:
1. He offers comfort. The apostle Paul is not a stranger to suffering, pain, and persecution. In 2 Corinthians 11:24–28, we get a glimpse of what life was like for the apostle. It certainly was not the American Dream:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
Paul’s suffering is more than many people will ever experience, yet at the beginning of the same letter is a doxology that shows what must have helped Paul go through the difficulties: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).
There are many ways God comforts us. He gives the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:6). He reminds us of His promises in Scripture. He moves through the people around us. This is why we should continually fellowship with God and other followers of Jesus. The cliché “no man is an island” applies to the Christian faith. Fellow believers can offer resources, advice, a listening ear, and shoulders to lean on.
Furthermore, God is sovereign over everything that happens to us—good or bad (Romans 8:28). This pushes us to rest in His wisdom, even when we don’t understand.
2. He delivers us. Besides offering comfort, God can also show us a way out of the situation. In the Lord’s Prayer, we’re instructed to say, “Deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13). Jesus wouldn’t have included this part of the prayer if it weren’t necessary.
This doesn’t mean God is a genie and we can rub the lamp (à la Aladdin) to escape all suffering. God’s perspective is different from ours, and sometimes He lets us go through particularly difficult situations. We don’t always know why this happens, but there are good reasons.
For the non-Christian, suffering is a wake-up call and a reminder that this world doesn’t satisfy (Ecclesiastes 1:2). For the Christian, suffering is a means by which God sanctifies us to become more like Jesus (Romans 5:1–5; Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 4:12–16).
That being said, God is also our deliverer, both in this life and the next. We can be reassured that God at times does take trouble away from people; when He doesn’t, we can trust that He has a better plan.
3. He walks us through suffering. The evergreen poem “Footprints in the Sand” comes to mind. God carries us through the suffering while trimming out sin in us so we will be “conformed to the image of Christ” (Romans 8:29).
It is worth noting that Christianity doesn’t promise a life void of suffering. A trouble-free life is the promise of prosperity preachers and the view of some Eastern religions, but that’s not what we get in the Bible. Jesus promised His followers that “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
Paul also told Timothy that “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Even the incarnate Son of God didn’t have all His wishes met here on earth. When the ordeal in front of Him seemed too much, He entrusted Himself to the Father’s will and was comforted (Matthew 26:36–46; Mark 14:32–41; Luke 22:40–46). This should serve as a good example and an encouragement in our trials. God understands our weaknesses, and both the Son and the Holy Spirit intercede for us (Romans 8:26–27, 34; Hebrews 4:15; 7:25; 1 John 2:1).
4. He remains faithful. Finally, God remains near to the brokenhearted by being faithful, even if we struggle with remaining faithful to Him (2 Timothy 2:13; Hebrews 10:23; 1 Thessalonians 5:23–24). Just as He remained faithful to Israel in their times of rebellion, He remains faithful to His people today. God never abandons those He calls His own.
God is our compassionate comforter and deliverer. Even when we don’t feel Him near, His promises remain unchanging. We should pray for help during times of trouble while trusting in His goodness. We should also be willing to comfort the brokenhearted around us. God comforts us so we can extend that comfort to others (2 Corinthians 1:4).