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The Last Thing Sufferers Need to Hear

“If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I’m going to punch them in the face!”

I almost choked on the cookie this elderly sister had brought to Bible study. These were strong words from such a sweet lady. She was recounting the gutting experience of losing her son in his 30s many years earlier. Well-wishers assured her God is in control and her son’s death was part of his plan.

It wasn’t what she needed to hear.

The conversation came up because my wife and I had just returned from sitting with dear college friends who, after multiple miscarriages, had a son who lived for only 23 minutes. We were in their kitchen when the mail came bearing cards with verses affirming God’s sovereignty over all things.

It wasn’t what they needed to hear.

In those dark depths, they only had the stomach for Psalm 44 and Psalm 88—songs of lament that don’t end happily but with crying out to God, “Why are you doing this?” and “Are you asleep?”

On Good Friday this year, my phone cascaded with messages: our drummer, who played at our Maundy Thursday service the night before, had died early that morning from an undiagnosed heart disease. He was 40; his death was an utter shock. He and I had been meeting every other Saturday in view of him stepping into roles of greater spiritual leadership in our church. He was eager, servant-hearted, teachable, and entrepreneurial—the kind of member every pastor dreams of working with. And suddenly he was gone.

When someone told me, “This was God’s plan for him; he’s with God where he’s supposed to be,” it wasn’t what I needed to hear. Indeed, in my disoriented distress, it felt like the last thing I needed to hear.

Untimely Truth

Those statements are gloriously true, of course. He is in a better place. She isn’t suffering anymore. God is working all things for the good of those who love him, “for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God is sovereign over all things. I’ve sat with many families for whom these truths are a salve in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death.

But for others, these truths—prematurely applied—can bypass the grieving process that needs to happen to fully reckon with and heal from a loss. Our brains often work in binaries, assuming that if God is in control, we shouldn’t make a fuss about it. Good theology can be used to heal the wound lightly, pronouncing “Peace, peace” when, in the raw heart of the bereaved, there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).

This is why the psalms of lament are so instructive. They create space within the covenant between God and his people to ask the hard questions. Unlike Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness, lament doesn’t question whether God is able to provide water in the desert or defeat the giants in the land. Rather, lament cries to God in agony, wondering why the Almighty isn’t doing mighty deeds when he could. Unlike Adam and Eve biting the fruit, lament doesn’t question God’s goodness or believe the lie that he’s holding out on us. Rather, lament wails, asking our good God why he isn’t doing the good we crave.

God inspired and included these songs in his people’s hymnal for a reason. He’d rather us wholeheartedly grapple with his sovereignty than merely cauterize our wound and affix a theological affirmation on top. The tentpole command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5) allows the hard questions to echo deep into our motives and longings and the narratives we believe.

God would rather us wholeheartedly grapple with his sovereignty than merely cauterize our wound and affix a theological affirmation on top.

These questions move not only deep downward but also far backward, where wounds remain from previous seasons when we staunched the pain rather than giving it full voice. Unlike tree rings that merely bear testimony to fires endured, these scars continue to shape our assumptions and reactions in ways we may not understand. Asking Godward questions of “Why?” “Where were you?” and “Will you do good?”—not only of the current loss but of previous losses still tender to the touch—can unleash a torrent of emotion and often requires the help of trusted counselors and friends. But the healing and wholeness that await on the other side are well worth the good, hard work.

Lest we forget in our culture of automated efficiency, God is patient while we process. “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14).

When we give our wounds time and attention to heal, we find Scripture’s teaching about God’s sovereignty is indeed the last thing we need to hear. It’s the final word, the fundamental affirmation we must ultimately settle into.

Patience in the Dark

For me, this came through weeks of meditating on Psalm 23. The sudden loss of a rising young church leader—especially during a precarious rebuilding season—felt like the “darkest valley” of which the psalmist sings. I had to name my fear of the unknown, relinquish my perceived control, and share my feelings and longings with counselors and friends.

The healing and wholeness that await on the other side are well worth the good, hard work.

Somewhere amid this prolonged lament, I came to rest in the realization that “even when I walk through the darkest valley,” the good Shepherd “guides me along right paths” (Ps. 23:3–4, NLT). The hard paths are also the right paths. I may never understand them, but as I walk them, “I will not be afraid, for [he is] close beside me” (v. 4).

Let’s walk patiently with our brothers and sisters through seasons of lament, giving space for questions and the silence that comes before answers. Let’s remain attuned to their visceral responses to our affirmations of biblical truth. Let’s show love by calming our own anxious need for resolution, allowing the bereaved to walk at their own pace. May our presence and words point to the truth: “God is here, with you, even in these depths.”

After they’ve exhausted their questions and exposed their hearts, let’s settle together into this last thing we need to hear: God is absolutely sovereign and always good.

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