Where is God?: Finding God in the Depths of Suffering

By Boram Lee
hope in darkness

Two decades ago, in response to Christ’s call to offer care and counseling for the suffering, I embarked on a journey of caregiving. Throughout my now twenty-two years of serving as a psychotherapist and pastoral caregiver, I have immersed myself deeply in the realities of human suffering and confronted the prevailing darkness within our society.

During my time as a hospital chaplain in one of the United States’ largest trauma centers, I encountered numerous patients and their family members who were experiencing the impact of various traumas: ranging from vehicular collisions to industrial accidents to gunshot injuries. Despite trauma’s multiformity, each instance left behind both physical and emotional wounds.

In my role as chaplain, at that time I provided emotional and spiritual support to the family members assembled outside the trauma-ward emergency rooms, awaiting their loved ones’ surgeries. These waiting rooms often served as the backdrop for profound anguish – trembling, tears, fear, shock, and despair permeating the atmosphere.

The inherent unpredictability of trauma, much like that of life itself, intensifies the burden of human suffering. No one foresees tragedy befalling their loved ones, and shock and anger often erupt as immediate responses to such sudden and unforeseeable distress. Denial often follows, as it is difficult to accept the harsh reality of a loved one’s acute suffering.

However, as patients transition to the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) and spend more time in the hospital, family members gradually come to terms with the painful truth: that their loved one has indeed experienced a tragedy. This journey from denial to acceptance is fraught with emotional turmoil, characterized by profound anguish and heartache.

As a chaplain, I bore witness to this emotional rollercoaster, my heart heavy with empathy for those enduring such depth of grief. My role extended beyond words, becoming a ministry of presence and prayer, a commitment to walk alongside them during their darkest hours. Holding trembling hands, offering prayers, I shared in their sorrow, embodying the scriptural mandate to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

The most poignant question I have encountered as a chaplain is: “Where is God in suffering? My son is a genuinely good person; he doesn’t deserve what’s happening to him.” This question, often posed by those facing immense hardship, speaks to the deep existential struggle inherent in the human condition itself.

Particularly in cases of trauma resulting from industrial injuries, many patients come from socially vulnerable backgrounds, often working in immigrant or undocumented status and so lacking access to proper insurance benefits. Consequently, their families not only grapple with the tragedy of their loved ones' injuries but also bear the weight of additional challenges related to their socioeconomic status and financial issues. My heart was pained by the harsh reality that these weak and vulnerable individuals had to endure heightened suffering exacerbated by social inequality.


Where is God? Is God as distant and impassible as he feels, seemingly absent in the face of human anguish?

Throughout my ministry of pastoral care and counseling, I have observed the most prevalent emotional reactions displayed Christians facing adversity. Many grapple with feelings of abandonment by God, wrestling with anger and doubting the existence of a benevolent deity in the face of suffering.  The complexities of human suffering prompt people to search for meaning in the midst of adversity, exploring the depths of their faith in pursuit of solace and understanding.

In the face of profound suffering, the question inevitably arises: Where is God? Is God as distant and impassible as he feels, seemingly absent in the face of human anguish? For those in the throes of suffering, these questions, feelings, and strivings are not uncommon: they have vexed theologians and seekers alike for centuries.

 In his seminal work Experiences of God Jürgen Moltmann delves into this complex of questions by drawing on his own harrowing experience as a young prisoner of war during World War II. Confined to Allied prison camps, Moltmann confronted the depths of human suffering and the seeming absence of divine intervention. He endured physical suffering and deprivation, as well as a loss of meaning joined with the feeling of being abandoned by God amidst the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Upon witnessing the despair of his fellow prisoners – some of whom would succumb to hopelessness and illness – Moltmann himself teetered on the brink of despair, saying that “they gave up all hope, sickening for the lack of it, some of them dying. The same thing almost happened to me.”[1]

However, in the middle of this bleakness, he began to perceive the presence of God. A compassionate army chaplain offered him solace by giving him a copy of the New Testament and Psalms. In these sacred texts, Moltmann found comfort in the notion of a God who stands with the broken-hearted, a God who is present in the midst of suffering. He said, “they opened my eyes to the God that is with those that are of broken heart.” This transformative encounter began to shape Moltmann ’s understanding of the crucified Christ who not only embodies God's forgiveness but also demonstrates solidarity with all who endure suffering.[2]


The Crucified Christ Exists in Solidarity with Sufferers Enduring Pain and Hardship

The undeniable truth we must always hold close is the profound love of God. The pinnacle of this love, boundless and unconditional, is found in the sending of His only Son into the world:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16).

The incarnation of the Son of God stands as the ultimate demonstration of God's empathy and compassion towards humanity. By willingly taking on human form and experiencing the full spectrum of human existence, Jesus has entered into the depths of our suffering, sharing in our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and tribulations. It is in the crucified Christ that we find the embodiment of divine solidarity with all who endure pain and hardship, offering hope and redemption to a broken world. Theologian Yi Jong Young in God Suffers for Us highlights:

Divine passibility was not the consequence of incarnation, but the incarnation was the consequence of divine passibility. … The incarnation is certainly not the beginning of divine passibility but the continuation of it with an intensification in time and space.[3]

The cross is the fullest expression of the eternal nature of a suffering God. By means of the incarnation and crucifixion, we witness the fullest disclosure of a passible God. God was in Jesus’ violent death on the cross not a distant observer, but rather wholly present. Dietrich Bonhoeffer aptly notes, “Only the suffering God can help,”[4] and Moltmann adds, “A God who cannot suffer cannot love either.”[5] The God who can suffer understands the depths of human suffering and the cries of social injustice, and it is he who empathizes with the extremities of our pain.

Amid our suffering, God is present. He was there when I encountered trauma patients in tears, there in the emergency room weeping alongside those who mourned. Our God who can suffer can therefore empathize with our pain and sorrow.

The patient’s family who in the midst of their profound sense of abandonment posed the question “Where is God?” remained in the hospital for several months. During that time, I checked in on them with frequent visits. Upon entering one day I was greeted by a sight that touched my heart deeply: the room was adorned with gifts and letters from their church community, a tangible expression of unwavering support and love. In that moment, it became clear to me that God had never forsaken this family: His love and protection were evident in the compassion of their fellow believers.

Ultimately, God's response to the suffering is not one of aloofness but of empathetic and compassionate love. Embracing this profound truth, we discover solace and reassurance, recognizing that God accompanies us all throughout our darkest moments, extending His unwavering love and support.

Hebrews 4:14-16, Since then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences of God (Philadelphia: Augsburg Fortress, 1980), 6–9.

[2] Moltmann, Experiences, 6–9.

[3] Jung Young Lee, God Suffers for Us: A Systematic Inquiry into a Concept of Divine Passibility (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 56.

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 4th ed., ed. E. Bethge, trans. R. H. Fuller (London: SCM, 1971), 361.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God: The Doctrine of God (London: SCM Press, 1981), 38.



Dr. Boram Lee is Professor of Pastoral Theology at Wycliffe College.