Has any time or season of suffering caused you to question or doubt God?
When this question was raised in my Bible study group it elicited powerful responses, stories of Cancer. Addiction. Murder. Depression. Suicide. Death. Rejection. Pain. Sadness.
My group is a pretty typical cross-section of American women who seem to have suffered extraordinary pain, but is such adversity really extraordinary? As I carried their stories with me through my week I realized that while I categorize suffering as the exception, all that hardship in one place suggests something different, and so does Jesus:
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. John 16:33
Our first response to suffering is often to cry out, “Why?”,”Why me?” or more pointedly, “Why, God, are you allowing this to happen to me?” The Bible offers two causes of suffering:
- The first is as a natural consequence of living in a fallen world; it is somehow easy to overlook that we are engaged in a spiritual war between good and evil (opposition).
- The second is that, as any good Father should, God allows us to experience the consequences of our choices so we can learn and grow (refinement).
While it’s natural to seek a reason for suffering it’s not always possible. And if we insist on it we may miss the bigger story God is telling, as He reminded Job:
Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone — while the morning stars sang together and all he angels shouted for joy? Job 38: 4-7
How Do We Endure Suffering?
One of the longest seasons of suffering in my life was the four-and-a-half years my husband and I struggled to start our family. I’d like to tell you that I walked through that experience with humble endurance, but at the time my walk with the Lord looked more like a sprint, with me glancing back only occasionally to see if God was following.
When prayer “failed” I tried putting my faith in everything from conventional medicine to hypnosis, and I even resorted to wearing Kokopelli jewelry (a cute, if impotent, fertility idol). After exhausting my own resources I slowly turned back toward God, out of ideas and ready to hear His. You see, suffering and faith tend to go hand in hand because the arrival of the first precipitates a confrontation with the second.
We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Romans 5:4
It turns out the traits in this passage are interdependent and essential steps in a victorious journey through suffering. Let’s break them down:
- When we suffer our survival instinct motivates us to seek some way to bear it, and that often leads us toward God.
- God is faithful to comfort and strengthen us, even if He does not intervene to end our suffering. (See Joseph’s imprisonment, the persecution of Daniel’s pals and Paul’s persistent, yet purposeful physical suffering as Biblical examples). As a result we develop what the original Greek refers to as a “proven character.” In other words our character is not reliable until it has been tested, and suffering accomplishes that work.
- And then we begin to realize we are in fact standing up under circumstances with the power to crush us — and that it is because God’s strength undergirds us — and so we experience hope. We start to “expect good” because we are empowered by the One true source of hope.
- And we’re never made of fool of for hoping in God because, regardless of the outcome to our current situation, we experience the enduring blessings of God’s abundant grace and the comfort of His Holy Spirit.
As God explained to Paul in denying his pleas to be relieved of the “thorn in his flesh”:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. 2 Corinthians 12:7
Paul then writes to the Corinthians and to us: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
What Good is Suffering?
Paul’s powerful words are challenging to internalize when real suffering shows up in our own lives. Unlike Paul I lamented my struggle and became blinded to the good God was doing all around me, and as a result I missed out on many blessings and much joy during that time.
Despite my lack of cooperation my suffering was not wasted. I joined Resolve, a fertility support group where I met my lifelong friend, Wanda, whose friendship and family have been a tremendous blessing. And I heard others’ stories of “resolving” to live child-free, pursue fertility treatment or adopt.
I regularly revisited the notion of adopting; it was something I had felt called to do since my youth, but like an insolent child I remained insistent that life happen on my terms. Then I met a woman who was adopting from Korea and something inside me clicked. I felt an immediate, strong draw to that story, and began to research Korean adoption. I knew in my heart that was the direction in which God was leading us.
At the time we made the decision to adopt we had a 50/50 chance of being able to conceive in the coming months as the result of a long overlooked medical issue. But even with that potential at-hand our will had at last been submitted to God’s will. We wanted our choice to adopt to be just that, so we moved forward without waiting to know the outcome. As it turned out I was pregnant when we finalized our first adoption and pregnant again 15 months later. God then called us back to Korea to adopt our fourth child.
Now more than 20 years later I need only reflect on the journey or look into the faces of my four children to see the beautiful tapestry God was weaving, and I would not change a single day of that heartache and pain for the blessings they gave birth to.
Another important fruit of this season was an increase in empathy for others. We have since supported many couples walking through infertility and adoption. We share our story of the good work God did in our family, and we encourage others to persevere and hope confidently in God, while acknowledging that it is a difficult and painful road to walk.
He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. 2 Corinthians 1:4
Ready to learn more about suffering? Try reading, “Today is the day to…trust God in our suffering” on the After-Oakdale Chronicles blog.