Updated: Jul 27, 2022
The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:17-18 NIV)
I’ve witnessed a lot of suffering in the last few weeks, both publicly and personally. The news and social media have been flooded with coverage of people who lost their lives to unjust violence—Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd—and the righteous anger of the protesters who understand that it could have been them.
I have also watched my cousin struggle to hold onto optimism as her daughter was born with multiple genetic defects. Despite the best medical care in the world, she’s spent over a month in the NICU, and my cousin still doesn’t know when they’ll get to bring their baby home.
Given these circumstances, it’s hard for me to read verses like Psalm 34:17. The promise that God will deliver the righteous from all their troubles seems so far from real life. Worse, it can get twisted to say that if you have troubles, you must not be righteous. We have the book of Job to assure us that not all suffering is due to sin, but I don’t find that very comforting. In fact, I find his suffering even more unfair. How can a just God allow “the righteous” to suffer?
It’s a question that has troubled believers since God first spoke. My favorite Psalm (73) begins with a litany of complaints against how the wicked prosper, wondering whether following God is worthwhile. No small number of theologians have tackled the problem of suffering over the years—namely, why God allows it, but the inescapable conclusion is that he does.
Yet he promises our ultimate fate is to be with him in a place with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4 NIV). As the apostle Paul wrote, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17 NIV). Measured against eternity, our lives our short whether we suffer or not. Even David came to that conclusion:
My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life. (Psalm 119:50 NIV)
I would find that very troubling—to think that our only hope is heaven—except that we know God is not watching our grief from afar. Immediately after proclaiming that God delivers the righteous from “all their troubles” (eventually), Psalm 34:18 promises that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” Jesus, the perfect image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), felt compassion for those around him (Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34). He wept when his friend died (John 11:35), even though he knew he was going to bring Lazarus back to life. When he promised the Holy Spirit to his followers, Jesus called him paracletos, which can be translated helper, advocate, intercessor—or comforter.
If you’ve ever known someone troubled by great grief, you know that sometimes the best you can do is sit with them in their sadness. God has plans greater than we can comprehend, that might include suffering we also cannot comprehend, but he promises that he will not be far from us. I do believe that God is just—but that doesn’t mean life will seem fair to us at every moment. Instead we cling to him as both our future hope and our present solace.