I’m teaching a class this semester about counseling people through traumatic experiences. Early in the semester, students write a paper on what they would say to a counselee who asked, “Where was God when I was suffering?”
The paper is almost a trick question. Even though we can outline answers to the philosophical problem of evil, factual arguments don’t adequately answer emotional questions.
Students write this paper early in the semester because our personal answer to the theological issue of suffering impacts our ability to sit with others in their own pain. We have to deal with our own fear of abandonment by God before we can love others well.
So many people today seem to be living in fear. This fear blinds us to the hurts of the needy as we attempt to preserve the ones closest to us. Fear deserves empathy, but God calls believers to move beyond fear to love. Fear as a motivator is as shoddy a substitute for love as sex is a cheap stand in for intimacy.
God, in his mercy, built the emotion of fear into our brains so that we would be preserved in a world that is broken by sin. From the time we are small children, a small part of our brain called the amygdala logs every experience we have as either “safe” or “not safe,” which allows us to literally stay alive and to focus our energy and attention on higher-order functions, like critical thinking and creativity. Fear is God’s common grace.
But fear was never where God intended us to live.
Since our amygdalas pull only from our own experiences, they don’t always reflect the broadest, truest reality. They usually reflect our historical reality, but our historical reality doesn’t always take into account the truths we learn in Scripture about who God is or who we are. A reality ruled by fear is a life of constant, low-level stress. A life ruled by fear can also be considered a life burdened by the sin of refusing to trust God.
Thankfully, God built into our brains a feature called neuroplasticity—the ability to continuously learn and change. The neurological equivalent of Semper Reformanda, if you will. Neuroplasticity is where hope enters the scene. Our brains don’t have to be stuck in old, outdated patterns. They have the capacity to learn new ways of thinking, as well as new views of reality.
The reality is that God is good and His providence is trustworthy. He is sovereign over our suffering. The New Testament is very clear that believing on Christ is choosing to enter into a life of suffering. We cannot let a fear of pain rule our lives or we are living in direct contradiction to what we claim to trust as the character of God.
Fear is inward-looking and self-protecting. Fear does not allow creativity, exploration, or growth. When you are in danger, your brain kindly shuts down your higher-order functions so that you can devote all your mental capacities to survival.
Love is other-focused and self-giving. Love is self-forgetful, risk-taking, and generous. Love allows us to thrive.
Only by being satisfied in and fully convinced of God’s perfect love can we have the neurological capacity to love others. To be satisfied in God’s love, we must wrestle with God about where he is in the midst of our suffering and the suffering of those we love. Only by being completely convinced of the unchanging character of God can we feel safe, even in the middle of suffering. And only by feeling safe in God’s perfect love will we find our fear driven out and discover the neurological, emotional, and spiritual capacity to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Friends, please do not be content to live in fear. Your fear is understandable in the context of your experiences, but you are called to live in a broader reality where Christ is King and God is good.
Amy Morgan currently serves as the Associate Dean of Students here at NOBTS and is preparing to defend her dissertation in order to complete her PhD.