James R. Aist
“The way to deal with suffering in any form – from the mildest irritation to the mental and physical agony that so absorbs and overwhelms you that you groan and scream – is to offer it to God who has permitted it, telling Him to make what He wills of it, and of us through it.” – John Eldredge
I’m not an expert on the topic of how to deal with suffering, and I doubt that I have anything really new to say about it. And I do not have the definitive answers that most people yearn for. But I do have experience with serious suffering, having been forced to suffer through a deeply painful divorce that broke up my family, and having had to deal with the death of my 20 year-old daughter who was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street. And, I tend to process and analyze thoroughly my experiences with suffering, rather than just dismiss them quickly and move on. So, perhaps, something I say here, or how I say it, will be helpful, at least in some small way, to you or someone you know who is suffering with a loss or a personal tragedy. For those of us with a Christian world view, one of the first thoughts that pops into our head when we are suffering is, “Why did God allow that to happen?” So, let’s start there.
God Has a Reason
The week following the death and burial of my daughter was a week out of Hell. I was numb, so stunned and emotionally drained that I couldn’t even go to work. All I could do was to sit in my recliner in the corner of the living room and rehearse the events of the past week. The unthinkable had happened, and there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Now, I’m usually not one to ask God “Why did you allow this to happen?”, but at one point during that week I was hurting so bad that this question was about to come out of my mouth. At that moment, I was stopped by the Holy Spirit with these thoughts that rushed through my mind: “You don’t need to know why. You know God well enough to trust that He has a good reason.” Suddenly, a peace came over me, and I no longer felt the need to ask “why?” God paints with a broader brush than we can even imagine. Put another way, God is sovereign over His entire creation and knows the end from the beginning. And, sometimes, in order to accomplish a greater good, He has to allow us to suffer in this life. Even if He were to explain it to us, I doubt that we would be capable of understanding the explanation, much less of accepting it as sufficient. Sometimes we just have to trust God to have a good reason, even if it hurts terribly and we can’t even imagine what that good reason might be.
God Does Not Delight in Suffering
“For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.” (Psalm 22:24).
In the Garden of Eden there was no suffering; that is, until Adam and Eve sinned against God. Then the whole creation, including mankind, came under a curse. As a result, sin, suffering and death became the lot of mankind in this life. Suffering is a result of sin entering the world through Adam (Romans 8:18-23). But one day, God will create a new heaven and a new earth in which the original conditions of His creation will be restored. Then there will be no more sin, no more death and no more suffering (Revelation 21:4). That is the heart and will of God toward His chosen ones, and that is the promised future for all born-again Christians.
Jesus Was a Sufferer
“He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Isaiah 53:3)
“Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering.” (Isaiah 53:4)
Because Jesus experienced the most extreme and unjust kinds of suffering, He knows what we are going through. He invites us to cast all our cares upon Him, including our sufferings, because He cares for us and He will sustain us (Psalm 55:22 and 1 Peter 5:7).
Finding the Silver Lining
Suffering can be a good teacher. My brother, Gene, used to say, “Some people live and learn; others just live.” I’m more of a live and learn kind of guy. Although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, I learned a lot from going through the divorce with my first wife. I learned what is most important to me in choosing a spouse. I learned what the roles of a Godly husband are. And I learned how to be strong in a marriage relationship. Ok, I’ll admit that there are less painful ways to learn those things, but, for some of us, it turns out that suffering through a divorce is just what it takes to motivate us sufficiently. I was determined not to make the same mistakes again. And I didn’t.
Suffering can also be a good trainer. In order to be a more effective and understanding high priest, Jesus was made like us,fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and … Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Hebrews 2:16-18). In the same way, to the extent that we learn positive lessons from our suffering, we are made wiser, more compassionate and better able to minister effectively to others who are suffering. Granted, we are not likely to be thinking along these lines while we are going through the suffering, but this can be a silver lining that appears later around the edges of our storm cloud of suffering.
And finally, suffering can produce a harvest of undeniable good. Until a couple of years ago, I struggled to find any good that can come from a long, painful and seemingly undignified illness, such as often happens with cancer patients. Death comes without any easily identifiable good resulting from such prolonged agony. Then I heard an exceptional, true story that changed my mind. An elderly, born-again lady was suffering from cancer for six months and was under sedation for severe pain most of the time. In her hospital room, she drifted in and out of consciousness, mostly out. But during this time, something extraordinary happened. Her family began to sense a very strong presence of the Holy Spirit in her room every time they came to visit. The hospital staff began to sense the same thing. The born-again Christians among them were able to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all who came into the room. Word of this spiritual experience spread among the staff, and more and more of them came into the room to find out for themselves. By the time the lady finally passed away, 18 people had received Christ as their Lord and Savior because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in her hospital room and the faithful obedience of the believers present! Now, this may sound presumptuous, but I can only imagine that this is one cancer patient who would agree that her suffering was well worth the harvest of saved souls that resulted from it.
Knowing When to Quit
When tragedy happens, it is normal — perhaps necessary – to try to understand why it happened, or why God allowed it, or if there is any good thing that can possibly come of it. I believe it can be a good thing to attempt to find answers to these important questions. Sometimes, one can come to, at least, a tentative answer that is satisfying to some extent. But, at some point, chasing these elusive answers gets to the point of diminishing returns. We find ourselves retracing our thoughts without any new revelations or any greater understanding than came to light the last time we agonized over the same thing. That’s a good time to practice self control and quit trying to figure it out. It’s time to force ourselves to focus on moving on, and to just let it be what it is.
Keeping the Faith
Sometimes, people get so angry with God for allowing something really bad to happen to people they know and love that they turn against Him, abandon their faith and break off fellowship with Christian friends. Nothing good can come from such a reaction. When this happens, it’s a good time to re-examine your knowledge and understanding of God and the nature of the faith that you did have. Was yours a natural faith contingent upon God pretty much doing what you want Him to do, or was it a supernatural faith based on a genuine, born-again experience? If you were born again, then you will not really abandon your faith; God will guard your heart and your mind and preserve your faith. You just have to stand firm until the storm passes.
Jesus didn’t promise us a “rose garden” in our Christian walk here on earth. But, He did say, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). So, hang on to your faith in Jesus no matter what happens in this world. That is the most precious of your possessions, and the one you can least afford to walk away from. Your eternal destiny is hanging in the balance.
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