Many of us have had to deal with suffering in the past months and we can see now that this suffering comes in many forms during a pandemic. We all know someone who has grieved the loss of a job. We all know someone who has been denied their graduation ceremony. We all know someone who has lost a loved one and has been unable to properly bury and grieve the loss. There is no doubt that suffering has taken many new shapes during this season of life.
Unfortunately, many of us have been unable to grieve these sufferings as we usually would, with the presence and embrace of other people. So I want to commend the book A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken as a potential comfort. Therein lies the story of a non-Christian couple, deeply in love, who come to know Jesus through their correspondence with C.S. Lewis. As the story unfolds Sheldon’s wife passes away in her thirties, leaving him pondering the nature of suffering and reflecting on God in the midst of this suffering.
C.S. Lewis writes to Sheldon after his wife’s death saying, “you have been treated with a severe mercy” (210). And it was this phrase that stuck with me. It stuck with Sheldon too. He reflects on the phrase when he says, “It was death—[my wife’s] death—that was a severe mercy. There is no doubt at all that Lewis is saying precisely that. That death so full of suffering for us both, suffering that still overwhelmed my life, was yet a severe mercy. A mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love” (211).
Sheldon comes to realize that in a strange way God’s permission of his beloved wife’s death was a severe mercy towards him. He realizes that his faith and trust in God was an inch deep at best and that his wife’s death forced him to turn to Christ for strength rooting him in his love, a severe mercy indeed.
And I think, this points us to a reality of suffering we all need to recognize. God’s permission of our suffering is his “severe mercy” towards us that draws us closer into fellowship with Him. Even in suffering, God is a God of grace who uses suffering to draw us to him, the great comforter.
In the book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis writes, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (91). God actually utilizes our suffering to reveal Himself to us and to bring us the lasting joy of life with Him.
We see this theme in Scripture as well where Paul tells us that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Likewise, amidst the trials of persecutions—which most certainly would have included the death of fellow believers—he tells the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” (Phil 4:4) This is only possible when suffering is understood as a “severe mercy.” When suffering is seen as “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Therefore, in the midst of your suffering, I want to encourage you with the knowledge that through it, God wants to draw you closer to Himself. In the midst of your trial God will “cover you with his feathers and under his wings you will find refuge” (Psalm 91:4).
Below I have written a prayer that you may find helpful as you struggle to find words to bring before God in this season.
Prayer: Heavenly Father, I pray that you would allow me to trust that the suffering I am dealing with is your severe mercy towards me. Lord, I pray that you would comfort me in the midst of this season of life. Let me have faith to believe that in my weakness your grace is made perfect.
I pray that you would help me to look towards Jesus who suffered for my sake. Draw me closer to him through this. Lord, I pray that you might help me, by the Holy Spirit, to trust in the promise of Scripture that all things work together for the good of those who love you. Father, I know there is no greater good than knowing you. Help me, Lord, in my suffering to grow in relationship with you. Amen.