Pain, heartache, and grief can often feel like a prison. That’s how the psalmist describes it when he says that “some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons” (Psalm 107:10).
I feel the touch of that when despair causes real, physical pain in the body. Since Davin’s death there is the feeling that a heavy weight is sitting on the lungs, making it hard to breathe; the long days when the face burns and every effort has to be made sometimes to hold back tears; waking up at 2 am, unable to sleep and only thinking about the same thing you thought about all day long; the long, vacant stares that fill your day. The shadow of death is real, it touches the entirety of who we are, and it is inescapably painful.
Of course in the same psalm there is tremendous hope and the promise of deliverance for those who cry out to him: “He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and burst their bonds apart… he shatters the doors of bronze and cuts in two the bars of iron” (v. 14, 16). Peter saw that first hand, when God sent an angel to quite literally break the bars of his prison door apart.
We remember Joseph, whom God rescued out of prison to raise to the throne of Egypt and through that to turn his bitterness into joy (Gen 41:51). It says God made him forget his hardship, all the years of despair and exquisite pain. God showed Joseph favor even in his prison and brought him out of it into better days.
And we reflect on God, who stills the waves of our sorrows (Ps 107:29), raises up the needy out of their affliction (v. 41), turns our deepest darkness into light (Job 12:21), and brings the sun in morning to end the night (Amos 5:8). Weeping may tarry, but joy comes in the morning (Ps 30).
These promises are all true, and we hold on to all of them in the prison of our affliction. By them we have life (Ps 119:50). But they have to be held together with the reality that, mercifully, God often leaves us there for a long time, with biting injuries—way longer and more hurtful than we’d ever choose. Sometimes it’s easy to see the plight of verse one, the deliverance of verse two, and skip the agony in between.
We all know that suffering is normative, but we don’t take the time to really talk about the pain involved in suffering. After all, it isn’t suffering if it doesn’t hurt. When we read about saints of the past, we hear about their suffering, which is immediately followed by their triumph through Christ. Rarely do we truly enter with them into their dark night of the soul, when all around them nothing makes sense.
Let us not so quickly go from the affliction to deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between. God’s promise of deliverance does not mean that he will immediately deliver us (Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, 179).
Right now the reality is that there is intense pain, the chains of affliction, the agony of loss. We cling to God’s promises as a lifeline. But that doesn’t make the pain go away. I hope in the day, either here or in heaven, when the sorrow turns to joy, but that day is not today. Graciously there are moments of joy mixed in with deep sorrow, but it is sorrowful nonetheless.
Sometimes in my mind, if I’m honest, I expect a Cinderella story out of my life. Go to ball, slide into glass slipper, race to the throne, live happily ever after. But that is so not life. It’s more like Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, scraping away at his prison wall for 18 years with the words, “God will give me justice.” God did give him justice, but not right away.
Wait for the Lord. The sun is coming to rise. But know that the night is long and the pain is intense. He will meet you in the midst (Ps 23:4). God always delivers, but he does not always deliver (as we would have it) right away.
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.” (Ps 130:5-6).