Approaching God in Times of Unbearable Suffering


Alone, helpless, desperate… at times nearly all of us experience these strong feelings. In fact, life is filled with problems and setbacks. However, there are times when we face crises of such a serious nature that we question whether or not we can survive, times of…

  • excruciating physical pain or handicap
  • mental or emotional anguish from a tragic event in our lives
  • overwhelming financial crisis
  • betrayal by a loved one or a trusted friend
  • loss of employment or the inability to find a good job
  • death of a spouse, parent, or child
  • life-threatening illness or injury of a loved one
  • divorce or desertion by a spouse or guardian

These and many other devastating events—events that result in unbearable suffering of body or soul—can cause us to feel alone, helpless, and desperate.

In many of the psalms, we find the author crying out to God when facing a dangerous or distressing situation, and each time God answers and delivers him. This is exactly how David felt in Psalm 22. But this psalm is different: he cries and cries but no answer comes; nothing changes. He receives no comfort, no strength, no relief, no salvation. He cannot feel God’s presence, nor can he do anything to change his dire circumstances. If God does not intervene, he is going to die.

The New Testament declares that David was a prophet as well as a poet (Acts. 2:29-30). During a time of intense suffering in David’s life, the Holy Spirit spoke prophetically through him as he composed Psalm 22. Scripture provides no insight into the specific occasion that caused such anguish. The two darkest periods of David’s life were when King Saul pursued him and when his son Absalom rebelled against him. It is reasonable to conclude that an episode in one of those periods is the setting for this holy psalm.

In this hour of deep grief, when David felt totally abandoned by God, the Lord gave him an amazing gift, a holy privilege. The Holy Spirit lifted him up above his pain and revealed to him the suffering of one who would come approximately 1,000 years later. In striking, precise detail, David foretold the agony of the Messiah on the cross. He described the Roman method of crucifixion hundreds of years before it was known to the Jews. There was no deliverance from the cross; Jesus endured its punishment until the price for sin was fully paid and He yielded up His spirit to death.

Though David’s pain was severe, neither he nor any other man endured the specific agonies described in this psalm (vv. 14-18). The sufferings in Psalm 22 are Christ’s and Christ’s alone. Hebrews clearly establishes that this is a Messianic psalm and that David was speaking of Christ (note the quotation of Psalm. 22:22 in Hebrews. 2:12):

  • “For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee” (Hebrews. 2:10-12).

Jesus taught the disciples that He came to fulfill that which was written in the psalms (Luke. 24:44). Many scholars believe that Jesus actually quoted this psalm while on the cross. Because it mentions so many details that were fulfilled in the New Testament, some in the early church labeled Psalm 22 as “the fifth gospel.”

The beginning of Psalm 22 includes a unique heading: To the chief Musician upon Aijeleth Shahar, a Psalm of David. Aijeleth Shahar means doe of the dawn or morning. This was likely an existing song, and David instructed the chief musician to sing Psalm 22 to its tune.

Psalm 22 does not end with suffering and death but with triumph and life. It testifies of “the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow” (1 Peter. 1:11). God would hear the cries of the Afflicted One, and He would greatly reward Him for paying the ultimate sacrifice of His life. David prophesied the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth and the recognition of Christ as Lord by all. “God brings life out of death; beyond Calvary is Easter and Resurrection.

David began this psalm with a desperate and passionate cry: he felt that God had utterly abandoned him (v. 1). David had known God’s presence throughout his life, but now he felt that God’s fellowship and protection were missing. He wailed out the question of “Why?”

Today, we know the answer to David’s question, an answer he likely did not realize. When we read these opening words, we are immediately thrust forward 1,000 years to Calvary, where Jesus Christ quoted them in his native Aramaic language (Matthew. 27:46. Part of God’s purpose for seemingly deserting David in his great need was to point us to the somber truth that God would one day turn His back on His beloved Son when He bore our sin on the cross. Almost 1,000 years earlier, God had ordered Abraham to offer Isaac upon an altar as a sacrifice to Him. In so doing, Abraham had portrayed the anguish of the Father at Calvary. Here, in this Psalm, David was given the incredible privilege of portraying the anguish of the Son.

Sometimes, we face trials that are so severe, so excruciating, that we feel God has deserted us. As much as we pray, no answers come. It seems that our prayers never reach heaven, that God does not care, that He is ignoring us. Our circumstances do not change. No comfort or relief comes. The psalms teach us what to do during these times: pour out our hearts to God openly and completely. The psalms also offer models to follow in seeking the Lord and pleading for His help. Several lessons can be gleaned in this passage:

(1) Seek God’s reason for your prolonged suffering. Ask Him why He is not responding and what He wants you to learn during this chapter of your life.

(2) Continue to pray and cry out to God. Do not give up on prayer when answers do not come immediately. Be assured that God hears your prayers. Remember that He does not always grant a “yes” answer. Sometimes, in His wisdom and love for us, He denies a request. He does not give us what we ask but what He knows is best for us. At other times, He does not grant our requests because He has a different purpose for us. Indeed, some answers to prayer are delayed because it is not yet the right time for God to grant what we request. Therefore, we should seek to pray according to His will, and we should genuinely desire His will over ours. Prayers offered in agreement with God’s will are guaranteed an answer (1 John. 5:14-15).

(3) Stay strong in your faith. Do not doubt God nor accuse Him unjustly.

(4) Acknowledge God’s holiness and continue to praise Him.

(5) Remember that it is a privilege to suffer for being a Christian—to be persecuted for Him (1 Peter. 4:14-16).

(6) Rest in the promises of Christ: though it may seem God has abandoned you, He promises that He will never forsake you (Matthew. 28:20; Hebrews. 13:5).

God’s Presence Assured in those Difficult Times in Life

sheep in the valley “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me” Psalm 23:4

For many people, the word valley calls forth an image of a flat, grassy expanse lying peacefully between mountains, like a dale or a meadow. However, this is not what the word means or what Old Testament valleys were like. A valley was a deep ravine or gorge. It was narrow, dark, and damp and usually encased by steep stone walls, making it virtually inescapable. Valleys were frequently located at the foot of towering cliffs. They were extremely dangerous: snakes, wild beasts, and criminals lurked in their darkness.

Since grass grows in Palestine during a very short season, shepherds struggled to feed their flocks the rest of the year. Often, it became necessary to lead their sheep into valleys where green plants grew in the cool, damp soil at the bottom. Passing through valleys was also necessary at times in order to reach pasture on the other side. Some scholars think the valley of the shadow of death was the name of an actual valley, an extremely dangerous one, through which shepherds and their flocks were forced to cross.

Valleys are symbols of the darkest times of life. The valley of the shadow of death speaks of life’s gravest circumstances, fearful occasions when death is a real possibility, such as…

  • severe illness or disease
  • a sudden attack on your health
  • a serious accident
  • deadly weather conditions
  • a violent, criminal attack
  • war
  • a terrorist attack
  • famine or extreme poverty

David testified that he was not afraid to walk through life’s darkest valleys. Although he was defenseless in himself, he was not alone in the peril: his Shepherd was with him. The Lord would protect him and keep him close to His side. David was comforted—turned from fear and terror—because his Shepherd was skillfully armed with His rod and His staff. The rod was a club the shepherd fashioned and carried to fight off wild animals and thieves. It was a deadly weapon. The staff was the instrument the shepherd used to deal with his sheep. It was not a weapon but a tool. The shepherd leaned on it for support as he journeyed across rough ground and rocky crags. Most staffs had a hooked end that the shepherd used to catch a sheep’s leg or neck to pull it out of a hole or back into the fold. The shepherd would nudge a sheep with his staff when it began to stray or when it was hesitant to move along with the flock.

David was fearless in the valley because he knew his Shepherd would protect him from all deadly threats, including his own waywardness. His Shepherd would keep him close to His side in the darkness and would be with him through every step until he passed safely through to the light on the other side.