Perseverance in Suffering

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

 

Why, God?

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.

 

Honor Thy Birth Mother and Father: Reflections of an Adoptive Mother on Her Daughter’s Birthday

Adoption is a part of our family’s story as it is for millions of other families. As an adoption counselor once wisely told me:

Without God adoption makes no sense.

In this and future posts on adoption we will wrestle honestly and vulnerably with this truth. Thank you to my She Speaks 2015 prayer partner and now friend, Maura Byrnes, for leading the way with her thoughtful and beautiful post below.

Tomorrow is my daughter’s 10th birthday, and I cannot stop crying. No, it is not because my “baby” Natalie is growing up so quickly, although that fact does stab my heart.

I weep because every year around Natalie’s birthday I think, more than ever, of her Chinese birth parents. Although I never met Natalie’s birth mom, and no one knows who she is, I imagine her with stunning clarity. I see her long, silky, dark hair, like Natalie’s, pulled back tightly. Her eyes dart quickly from side to side when she is thinking hard about a problem, and they light up as she laughs or sings. Her delicate hands have long, slender fingers. Her father, too, I can see. He is also quiet and intelligent, quickly adding sums or multiplying double digits in his head like Natalie does.

Most of all, I imagine their grief. I picture them crying, regretting that they had abandoned their newborn daughter, and wondering how and where in the world she is. I have no problem picturing Natalie’s birth mom standing alone at a sink and watching the water run over her hands and wondering, “Do my girl’s hands resemble mine? What are her hands holding? Who are they holding, and who is holding my baby?”

I long to make things right and—nonsensically—want to divide this girl in half, so we can each have a part of her. I weep as I lament this broken, messed-up world where loving parents have to make the heart-wrenching decision to relinquish their baby, whatever the reasons. This is not the way God intended our lives to be.

Friends and acquaintances tell me I am blessed to have this child. I always agree and tell them I am more blessed than she. Inside, however, I pine that my greatest blessing is only because another mother’s heart is torn apart.

I long for heaven at these moments, where perfection and peace prevail and there are no broken relationships. In heaven there will be no marriages (Matthew 22:30, Mark 12:25), so I think it is fair to conclude there will also be no “my child,” “your child,” “birth mom” or “adoptive mom” scenarios. There only will be worship of our one true parent, our forever Father. I imagine children will run happily free from loving adult to loving adult, never knowing ambivalence, rejection or despair. Pastor and author Dan Vander Lugt writes:

All the joys of family love will be far surpassed in heaven by the joys of perfect intimacy and trust.

I am counting on this! While I wait for that day, I take steps to help assuage my own grief and to make a difference in this shattered world. Among the things I do:

  • Participate in an adoptive parents support group. It is in this sacred space that I spill out my feelings and am met with empathy and wisdom from other adoptive parents.
  • Ask God to reveal Himself to my daughter’s Chinese family. I ask Him to send Christians into their lives. I pray these believers will share the Gospel and the hope of eternity with them. I pray for her first family’s hearts to be softened and for them to accept Jesus as their Savior.
  • Send monthly donations to World Vision, Wycliffe, Young Life, and Voice of the Martyrs. While there are countless charities to support, I chose these four Christian organizations because they work, respectively, to provide education and relief in desperate communities, translate the Bible into languages for which there are no Bibles in existence, introduce kids to Jesus and help them grow in their faith, and support Chinese families whose loved ones have been tortured, imprisoned, and murdered for their faith in Jesus.
  • Meditate on the verse that every child is a gift from the Lord—not “mine,” “yours,” or “ours.” My child is the Lord’s. I am to train and raise her up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. I must remember each day she is  His beloved child, and He loves her perfectly and infinitely more than I or  any other parent ever could love her.
  • Stay informed about what is happening in my daughter’s birth country. I tell Natalie that even though Chinese Christians are being persecuted, these brave women and men are not giving up their faith in Jesus. In fact, according to Purdue University Professor of Sociology Fenggang Yang, “China is poised to become the largest Christian nation in the world.” This is because persecution has caused Chinese Christians to unite like never before in their history.

Persecution is not some obscure or far-away issue. Some adoptive parents maltreat their children’s birth parents, wielding their words and attitudes as swords. Christ commands us to honor our parents, and although he didn’t specify it, I am quite certain He means all parents—birth, foster, and adoptive. As my daughter’s birthday recedes and a new holiday is before us, I pray her birth parents would supernaturally know they are esteemed in our home.

As I was writing this, I realized my silent and dreary imaginations of my daughter’s birth parents’ regret might be lies, possibly dishonoring them and most definitely stealing my joy.

So, to stop these ruminations I now meditate on Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

I commit myself to focusing on what is true: God intended this child to be raised by my husband and me; He is sovereign in all our lives; Natalie’s birth parents must have many admirable qualities because they are apparent in this precious child, and I thank God for imparting these traits. In addition, I ask the Holy Spirit to empower me to have faith to believe that Natalie’s birth parents are peace-filled, and they would supernaturally know their daughter is not only alive but also joyfully alive in Christ. I also pray we will meet face-to-face in Heaven someday, where we will worship our Father together as one joyful nation.