God says, “This far, but no farther” to our suffering because of what Jesus accomplished on our behalf. Looking to Jesus, as Hebrews 12:1-2 exhorts us to do, is the surest, deepest source of comfort in our pain. Yes, we have access to many sources of comfort in suffering. In my suffering, comfort has often come via other people: talking about their experiences so I don’t feel alone, selflessly making meals or playing with my kids, or comforting me through physical touch, like giving hugs which we all miss so much! But similar to the old Levitical law, those things point to the truer and better. They were created by God to reflect him but never to replace him. They are forms and shadows, but Jesus is the true substance.
I stand in the same spot at the ocean’s edge as I did one year ago. I can’t help but think about the innumerable changes that have filled the days between then and now. Taking in this indescribable, natural beauty last year, I was filled with awe of God as ultimate creator. This year, something new about this ancient ocean will soon catch my eye.
I wrap my sweater tighter around my shoulders as I walk along the shore. Colder temperatures this year accompany the same salt-filled breezes. This rare moment of solitude seems full of lackluster hope. I wish that I would be inspired by the ocean again, that the months-long drought in my writing would end, new ideas washing up as suddenly as the tide over my feet. But the same thought drags my hope back out again: “What good could my words possibly do?”
Suffering and persistent trials have a way of inducing a type of “learned helplessness.” Although there are vast differences in what we have all endured in 2020, I think it’s fair to say our shared cultural experience has been one of trial. In reality life is always out of our control, but we’ve believed the opposite message for so long that the truth is jarring. Thankfully there are degrees to which we can affect change, and those are no trivial matters! When we can’t see clear progress, however, doubt and hopelessness begin to seep in. For the redeemed people of God, there is a clear, though oft overlooked message of hope.
This Far, But No Farther
What catches my attention on the shore is the foam-filled edge of the tide, lapping up to the dry sand. In near disbelief I watch the water flow perfectly into the still-dark outline that the previous wave created, just before receding again. An exact match. “Maybe I saw that wrong,” I think, wondering if it’s really all that unique for wild water to move in such a consistent pattern. And immediately the truth of God’s sovereignty springs to my mind. I remember that he tells the waves how far they can go. He says, “Who enclosed the sea behind doors when it burst from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and total darkness its blanket, when I determined its boundaries and put its bars and doors in place, when I declared: ‘You may come this far, but no farther; your proud waves stop here’?” (Job 38:8-11, CSB).
This far, but no farther. As only the Spirit of God can, he used that simple phrase to wash fresh hope into my heart. Our suffering has a boundary marked by the same sovereign finger of God as the waves.
Many wonderful books on human suffering and the glory of God exist in our world right now. I know I lack the ability and present opportunity to summarize or add to them in any significant way. I only hope to point you, dear reader, to the good news that there is a loving God who sees you, knows your deepest hurts, and has powerfully and graciously set a finish line for your suffering.
One specific type of suffering I’ve walked through is now recognized on October 15, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I’m thankful for this awareness and support for mothers and fathers who have sunk in the cold, dark depths of a child’s death. Whether you held them with your arms for moments, months, or only with your eyes on a grainy ultrasound screen, willing their heart to beat again, it is heart-rending suffering. The pain is never erased from our memory, like the waves clearing our footprints as we walk in the sand. The loss isn’t gone, but God mercifully tells it, “This far, but no farther.”