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God’s Presence in Suffering

Written By Guest Author

By Natasha Layman 

The call came on a rainy, chilly afternoon when I was preparing for oral surgery the following day. A woman who had mothered me as a young adult and continued to love me generously and steadfastly collapsed suddenly and was on life support. I took a deep breath and turned my attention to Jesus, placing myself in his loving presence. Another phone call came a few hours later. She had passed away. In this loss, I experienced as I never have before the safe, strong, and deep tender love of God as he held me close and invited me to run to him and feel. God invites us to experience his presence tenderly and powerfully in our suffering, grief, and loss. 

This was not my first experience losing a loved one. My dad passed away in my mid-twenties after a short-lived battle with cancer. I was there when he died, feeling the last pulse that went through his body. My relationship with my dad was tenuous at best, and I had no framework for how to sit with a mixed bag of emotions and grieve the losses. I detached and dissociated because that is what I knew, and it felt safer than sitting in the grief. I frequently asked God, “Why?” Why did my dad die? Why did we have such a distant and rocky relationship? I felt alone, angry, and bitter toward God as I tried to make sense of my suffering. A friend graciously recommended a counselor who listened and taught me how to engage with my feelings, my history with my dad, and all the wounds that were part of that story. But something was missing in this process. 

Fast forward a decade and a half to the moment I learned of my friend’s death. How was this time so different? How did I experience God’s presence and comfort in my suffering now? Because of my relationship with my dad, I’d envisioned God as distant, uninviting, and rather cold. I invite you into my past year’s journey, as God has rooted out my flawed views of him to form a deeper, more beautiful relationship between us.  

About a year ago, after years of longing to experience God, and not simply more head knowledge or good theology, I started leaning into habits to create space to meet God. I began sitting on my couch each morning for 5–10 minutes and imagining God sitting next to me, his face lighting up with joy at me. This was hard work—I was easily distracted, my mind prone to wandering. Yet God met me there, gently bringing me back to his presence when I wandered. He began to lay a foundation of joy, delight, and trust. In my daily prayer time, I experienced God’s presence. God fully knows me, my limitations, my wounds, and wholly loves me. In this time, God brought healing to deep wounds as well as freedom, laying the groundwork for deeper trust in him. 

As I prayed during the weeks leading up to my friend’s death, God brought me from a beautiful image in prayer of a safe, secure garden, walking with him, resting with him, and knowing his loving arms that held me, to an image of Jesus inviting me to follow him into the wilderness. The wilderness? When this shift happened I didn’t know what the wilderness held, but I knew God was trustworthy, and I could follow him. Days before my friend died, while in prayer, God gave me an image. I was scared and weeping on the side of a trail, with Jesus sitting next to me, arms around me, comforting me. He comforted me with his presence, not words. This image was at the forefront of my mind the day the call came that my friend had collapsed. God’s immediate invitation was to come, lament, and grieve with him

My journey of grief and lament began immediately. I wept tears that felt like they would never stop. The following day, I sat with God in prayer through the Beatitudes in Matthew 5. The verse that the Holy Spirit highlighted for me was verse 4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Jesus was gently telling me that he didn’t say we will not mourn, but we will be comforted. I wept more, with the image of Jesus weeping with me. I grieved that there would be no more hugs from my friend, no more sitting with her and hearing her stories. Most of the time I spent lamenting and grieving, there weren’t words, simply God’s presence; the intimacy of being fully loved by the God who knew my human experiences and limitations and loved me just the same. Jesus didn’t distance himself from me but held me in my woundedness with his scarred hands. The same hands that knew the pain of death were tending me, holding me with gentleness. 

God invited me to sit and lament with him several times in the week and a half following my friend’s death. I knew healing, wholeness, and knowing Jesus more deeply would only flow from continuing to come when he invited me, even when it was hard. In a podcast I heard author Tish Harrison Warren describe a concept from St. Thomas Aquinas as an “arduous good”. The word arduous means requiring great exertion; laborious; difficult. Lament is an arduous good. Lament requires that we be present to our pain and be present to God. Like so much else that God calls us to, lament is a process

My grief over my friend’s death will not disappear this side of eternity. Every room of my house has reminders, large or small, of her influence on my life. Yet, as Curt Thompson so wisely said during his time at Christ Community, “We discover joy finds us in suffering because community is sitting with us in the midst of it.” That journey starts by being present with the community of the Holy Trinity in my suffering and in Christ’s body, the Church. 

As I grieve, I have the hope that Jesus will return and set to right all that sin has broken. But there is a more pressing hope for this life right now. Our loving Lord Jesus, whose face lights up with joy and delight at us, is also sitting next to us, arms around us, holding us in all the storms of our suffering, grief, and loss. He invites us to grieve with him, just as he did with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus—death is not how it ought to be. He will not leave us in our suffering because he is “Love Loving,” in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He is inviting us to come to him and abide, even in our sorrows. 

Before my friend died, as I was processing the news of her collapse, I was interrupted by an image. My friend was running with joy and delight into the arms of her Savior. She no longer bore the frailties of her body in this life but was whole, healed, and at peace. The wounded hands of Jesus held her as a beloved daughter. We are his beloved, and he is inviting you and me to experience his presence in our suffering. 

 

Additional Resource:

Comer, John Mark, host. “Luminary Interview: Tish Harrison Warren.:” The Rule of Life Podcast, Sabbath season, episode 5, Practicing the Way, 2022. 

Comer, John Mark. Practicing the Way. Waterbrook, 2024, 

 

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