I was talking with a friend the other day. He had called to pray with me and we talked about long term suffering. My friend commented that “a lot of people don’t understand it if they haven’t gone through it.” He is right. Healthy people or people not going through setbacks can lack patience to “stay with” the suffering one. They can even inwardly hold a judgmental view like, “You must have brought this on yourself.” But, is that true? Often it isn’t true. Yet, why does God allow suffering, particularly long term, unrelenting suffering? And, can He work all things together for good – like the Bible says?
“Can I Find Any Good in My Suffering?”
When you’re suffering, you hurt, and you’re weak and weary, it’s hard to find anything good or useful about suffering. And suffering comes in all kinds of “packages.” It may be cancer, autoimmune disease, living under a dictator, being impoverished. We could endlessly name painful and difficult things that go on and on.
Yet, the apostle Paul could write, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed…” in 2 Corinthians 4:8.
My husband’s story of growth
My husband, as I’ve shared here and on my podcast, has dealt with cancer for about 14 years. There have been so many moments of hospital operating and waiting rooms for us. We sympathize with others who have carried long term, unrelenting experiences that are difficult. We’re with you. We know.
But, it is my husband who will tell you how much he has learned and grown. He will tell you how much he loves and trusts God. He is at the “center of the target,” yet he is the one who will say, “Praise God,” with exuberance. That tells me that suffering, mysteriously, holds its blessings, too.
1. Suffering brings us closer to God.
In an article by Mary Yerkes on chronic pain and illness, she mentions Job “who endured unspeakable suffering.” As you may remember, Job lost almost everything, his children, wealth, property, livestock, and his health. But having experienced that level of pain and loss, and after “wrestling with God” to understand, he said, “My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you.” (Job 42:5 NIV)
Being in such chronic grief and pain, Job found solace in talking with God. It was there that he found his peace. Yes, people who are hurting might turn from God, asking, “Where are you? Why did You desert me?” But often, it is the opposite. We turn from God while really comfortable, but in pain, we cry out and search for Him.
I so often think about the story in John 6, where after Jesus taught the crowd that He was the Bread of Life, many grumbled and deserted Him. He asked the Twelve (disciples) at this point, “Do you want to go too?” (John 6:67 NIV) But Peter answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68 NIV)
Only God the Son could satisfy their need. And ours.
2. Suffering Softens Our Hearts
It is true that when we suffer, our response can be to become jaded, angry, and resentful. That can happen. But often, going through suffering makes us more tender and compassionate towards others – because we know what pain is like. This is the ideal, hoped for, godly way of processing our pain.
The apostle Paul wrote about it in what is called his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul said, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
You may feel unusual compassion
We have been in Texas for treatment for my husband. It’s been a hectic schedule of flights back and forth, numerous appointments, and so on. We’re grateful for the help, but it’s wearing. And yet in the midst of it, surrounded by other cancer patients, we find ourselves unusually good-natured and aware of others, as they are of us. And we have extraordinary patience that only comes from God.
The other night, we booked a ride with Lyft from the hospital to the hotel. Lyft is a wonderful service and app. You put in where you’re going and pay online. Shortly thereafter, a driver shows up. You can see his or her progress towards you on the map on your phone.
We set our suffering aside to be gentle
On this particular night, I noticed the spelling of the driver’s name and thought, “I wonder if he’s from Cuba.” Many Cubans, I know, have names beginning with “Y.” We watched the driver’s progress, coming toward us, then going away, “looping loops” all over the map. “He doesn’t know where he is going,” we commented while sitting on a bench in the dark.
When he arrived, he said nothing to us, just grunted. He held his phone nervously in his hand, checking it continuously. I thought I heard the instructions in Spanish. He was searching street signs nervously and didn’t seem to know where he was going. When we got to the hotel, he pulled way past the front door towards the delivery entrance and then gestured that he would back up.
Finally, he got to the front door. I asked him in Spanish if he only spoke Spanish (and I know only a little of it). He nodded yes. I said to him, “Cubano?” He said, “No, Venezuela.” We thanked him and blessed him. It felt good to feel such a richness of kindness and patience even in our own troubles. God does that for us. Makes us kind even in hard times. And that feels so empowering and blessed – to be the light while in the dark.
3. Long Term Suffering Strengthens Us
I used to feel on the brink of tears and of “losing it” in the beginning years of our journey. It was all so new to me to have illness and death hovering constantly over us.
But now, I feel so much stronger. And I can tell disease and fear to “back off” in the name of Jesus with a pretty awesome snarl. My husband and I take communion almost daily as we see it as a healing meal as well as the meal in which we remember Christ’s forgiving us of our sins through the cross.
In chronic suffering we can learn to fight.
The classic story of Smith Wigglesworth awakening during the week of a big meeting and seeing something demonic in his room is a favorite of mine. According to those who tell this popular story, Smith Wigglesworth, noted the evil presence in his room and just said, “Oh, it’s you,” and went back to sleep.
We gain the insight over time that we are engaged in a supernatural battle in this world. Disease and suffering are not of God. They are the devil’s works and Jesus came to destroy them. (See 1 John 3:8) We need to be of that mindset too – fighting in the name of Jesus, not collapsing with fear or self-pity. God IS good and wants to sustain us in our trouble. He would help us overcome our reactions to the difficulties we find in this life. Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but in me, you will have peace.” (from John 16:33)
4. Suffering Makes Us Like Christ
The beautiful opening of chapter 12 in the Book of Hebrews from the Bible tells us that “for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and [then] sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV) The author of Hebrews tells us that we’re to “consider Him” so that we don’t “grow weary and lose heart.”
Jesus had the “big picture.” Yes, He agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane and asked His Father if there wasn’t some other way to accomplish God’s goal to rescue humanity. But then He surrendered and said, “Not my will, but Your will.
If we really believe that eternal life is ours through Jesus Christ, then the temporary suffering here however wretched it is, pales next to the eternity of knowing and being found in God. We must get, again, the apostle Paul’s mindset. He wrote, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18 NIV)
5. Suffering Can Amplify Our Gratitude
I have been reading and just finished a book by Esther Ahn Kim. She was originally known as Ahn Ei Sook, prior to her marriage.
A Korean and a Christian, Esther would not bow to Japanese shrines as ordered by the Japanese occupiers of her nation. During World War II, she was eventually imprisoned for her faith, and entered into many years of incessant suffering.
The prison was often icy cold. She and her fellow inmates were starving. Many were beaten and tortured. It was a horrific time. Yet, Esther not only held onto faith but grew in it and was an amazing witness and leader in the prison.
Grateful even for rotten apples
Esther tells the story, in her book, of a more merciful jailer coming to oversee her cell. The jailer brought bits of food. And around this time, Esther felt an intense longing to have an apple.
Only rotten apples were available, but the jailer got a sack and handed the apples in one by one through the slot in the jail door.
Because the apples were overripe, they were extremely juicy and soft. Esther describes how they relieved her dehydration and were much easier to digest. She gave endless thanks for the gift of the rotten apples and praised God for receiving them in this condition. They were better for her!
Esther described one of the prisoners weeping as she watched her. The prisoner said, “I have always eaten good food, but I never acknowledged it by thanking God as you have, even for rotten apples.” (If I Perish, p. 227).
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