How do we deal with mental and physical suffering, pain, illness, and death? In his commentary on Psalm 6, Gerard Wilson gives some very practical and insightful advice. He writes specifically about physical suffering but there’s no reason what he says can’t be applied to mental ailments too.
“Often we try to interpret away the troublesome evidence of a world run amok by giving pain and suffering new and more palatable names, such as “divine discipline” or “test of faith” or “opportunity for growth.” This they can be and certainly have been for many generations of the faithful. But the danger of such an approach is that it can dull our awareness of the “wrongness” of pain, suffering, and oppression. When they become just one more means God uses to accomplish his purposes, we fail to realize just how contrary to God’s will and intention for his world and his people these evidences of evil really are.
Like the psalmist, let us mourn suffering, pain, oppression, and evil in all their forms rather than rejoice in them as divine punishment when they fall on one we think deserves it. Nor should we seek to explain such things away as discipline and guidance when we experience them ourselves. We can and should allow distress and oppression to provide opportunities to shape our dependence on God to create a fierce loyalty to him, but they remain evil just the same and do not become good by the fact that God can turn them to our good.
If, as the psalmist suggests, the chief role of humans is to remember and praise God, how is it possible to do that in the midst of personal pain and suffering? It is especially difficult when all the voices around us undermine our confidence—either with words that are too negative or with those that are too positive.
On the one hand, I am injured almost beyond repair by those who claim, “There is no way out. This pain is deserved. God does not care. God does not exist!” I have to admit that I have been too long ingrained in the faith from earliest childhood to be shaken, even in times of great trouble, by those who question whether God exists. God has existed for me from earliest memory. But I can, like so many in my culture, believe that God could not possibly care for one like me, and this fear can lead quickly to despair of any deliverance.
On the other hand, my confidence in God can be shaken by those who too easily seek to put some positive cast on my experience of pain. “God is in control. God is using these circumstances to punish or discipline you. Praise God for what is happening, for you will understand the purpose for it later.” Far from helping me, such responses, while often well intended, can leave me with a sense of isolation. I am left with a feeling that my pain is not understood and is belittled. I cannot escape the gnawing feeling that this suffering, no matter how deserved, is nevertheless evil and ought not to be.
I meet regularly with a group of men who have experienced significant pain and trouble in their lives. The best solace we offer to one another is not to explain away the pain but to acknowledge its reality. We can hold up to one another our own experiences of divine grace within the continuing reality of suffering that marks our daily lives. The pain has not gone away, but God and his grace have become even more real to each of us as we acknowledge that God’s will for us is not suffering and death but abundant life, lived in the light shining out of the darkness.
Gerald H. Wilson, Psalms, vol. 1, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 186.
Psalm 6 (NIV)
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. According to sheminith. A psalm of David.
1 Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?
4 Turn, Lord, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
6 I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.
8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the Lord has heard my weeping.
9 The Lord has heard my cry for mercy;
the Lord accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.