This subject has been scheduled on my calendar for weeks. I’m always hesitant to choose what I write about or what I teach, because it never seems to fail that whatever subject I choose, a circumstance will crop up in my life where I’m challenged to believe and apply what I’m going to teach or write. The subject of trial and suffering will be no different, as I’ve just learned in the last few days that I have to have surgery to excise a tumor which will determine whether or not I have developed breast cancer. I have a history of endometrial cancer dating back to 2003, and anyone who has ever had a cancer diagnosis knows that you never want to hear the “C” word again. It’s a disease to be feared, for sure, and I never wanted to hear it twice.
So, how do I process this? If I start with my emotions, then I’m toast. This postmenopausal girl can alternate anywhere between heart palpitations and full-blown panic attacks if I let my feeling-oriented, victim mentality rule. And I know if I let that happen, I may file for a divorce from myself! So, I’d prefer to start with what I know to be true (not how it feels), because then I’ll begin to see more clearly how to think about the situation. I surely want to know how to go forward with as little anxiety as possible. I’m acutely aware that it’s entirely feasible to face a fearful situation with confidence, instead of calamity, knowing that God’s plan can be trusted and that suffering has meaning.
The subject of trials and suffering is probably one of the most difficult things to understand about life. I think it’s helpful to clarify some of what we can know….
Suffering can come upon us in multifaceted ways. The definition of “suffering” is, “the experience of physical pain or mental distress.” When we suffer, we go through a mental or physical circumstance of extreme discomfort. Manytimes, we think of the term “suffering” as being reserved for horrible situations or merciless persecutions. There are definitely degrees of suffering, no doubt, but ANY experience that causes a certain level of mental anguish or physical discomfort can fit this term…. to be in agony over something or someone, to hurt, to be in distress, to ache, to endure, to experience hardship, to grieve,… or to wait on a diagnosis! What do we do with this experience?
Suffering always commands a chosen response of some kind. If you cut your finger, you can choose just to stand there and bleed, or you can choose to clean the wound, put pressure on it, and bandage it. It’s your choice, but there’s a decision to be made as to how the cut needs to be handled or mentally processed. We don’t experience suffering without also thinking about how we might be able to respond to it, and then take some kind of action. So, as I’m waiting on surgery and a more definitive diagnosis, I have to respond to the uncertainty somehow. At the same time, I’m aware that suffering is a battlefield…. one that ends up either cursing God, or one that ends up praising God. So, I move on to what this may look like….
Right now, my situation offers me the opportunity to prove that my confidence and faith in God will be demonstrated through my belief that He has a higher purpose for this trial, and that my suffering has meaning. The definition of the word “trial” is, “the action of trying or putting to the proof.” When a new drug is being developed, a pharmaceutical company does clinical trials to determine how the drug acts when taken, or if the patient improves, or if there are any side effects, and if the drug performs up to a given standard that makes it efficacious, among other things. In other words, the clinical trial is the fleshing-out or proof that the drug is genuinely going to do what it was developed for… what it is intended to do. My trial isn’t clinical, but it’s spiritual. We were all created for worship, and I intend by the guidance of the Holy Spirit to prove this trial to be praiseworthy. How we respond to suffering is an indicator of just how much we believe that God already has this. I know He didn’t just find out about my tumor this morning, as though someone else has been running my life. He has known about this since the beginning of time.
The story of Job is a case study on human suffering. Although Job’s suffering was extreme by any standard, it mirrors the experience of anyone who has suffered and has been perplexed about why God has allowed such a thing to take place. These painful experiences can come to us through physical, social, economic, and spiritual circumstances. No matter what the event, at some point we’re all shocked into the reality that life on earth is not heaven. I believe that Job posed the same questions to God in his suffering that you and I often have as we go through situations of extreme distress: Does God really know what He’s doing? Is He trustworthy? Why is this happening? If God is good, why are there trials and suffering?
Sometimes our suffering is a direct consequence of our sin. Reaping what we have sown is a principle of cause and effect. God afflicted Miriam with leprosy as a judgment upon her for her sin against Moses (Numbers 12:9-10). On another note, Job’s friends were repeatedly trying to convince him that his suffering was a direct consequence of his sin, and that if he’d repent he’d start reaping good rewards. This wasn’t true….we know that Job’s suffering was a test for God to prove to Satan that Job would remain faithful. Whatever the reason, there are times God will extend grace and mercy to us, and there are times we’ll suffer for our sin. However, in light of Gods grace of the cross, we will never suffer the full consequences of our sin…. Christ is the One who suffered that for us.
Sometimes, because we live in a broken world due to the Fall of man in the Garden, we experience sickness, death, and the effects of evil. Ultimately, just as before, Christ has overcome the permanency of death through the resurrection, but we’re still exposed to the ravages of a fallen creation.
Sometimes, our suffering is strictly for the glory of God. In John 9:1-3, Jesus was asked a question about a man who was born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. ” The disciples wrongly considered only two possible explanations for the blind man’s plight…. either the blindness was a direct result of the man’s own sin, or it was the result of his parent’s sin. They were mistaken thinking that suffering could only come from a direct outcome of guilt. As we go through life, we can see that this principle doesn’t consistently operate, in seeing through experience that suffering seems to have many counterintuitive truths. There are times when it seems that a person suffers far less than what is merited for their earthly sin, and there are times where it seems a person has to endure a greater proportion of earthly suffering than others, despite their faithfulness. As we lament to God in our pain which may understandably feel unfair, whatever the cause, there must be the realization that any suffering short of hell is still the mercy of God.
Sufferers may never know why God has caused or allowed destructive forces into their lives. However, it can be known to man that there is more going on than meets the eye. God, by his sovereign design, allows pain to exist that it would somehow bring him him great glory. When Jesus declared, “Neither,” in John 9, He had an understanding that the man was born blind not because of his sin, but so, “that the works of God should be revealed in him. ” The man was afflicted with blindness for the glory of God. Likewise, at the end of the Book of Job, after God had spoken to him out of the whirlwind, Job acknowledged that God had a sovereign design for his suffering, although he didn’t know exactly what that design was. Job said, “I spoke about things that I didn’t understand, things too lofty for me, of which I am ignorant.” (42:3) He began to understand that God had a purpose (a design) for his suffering, even though God never really explained to Job that the point of his suffering was for God to get the glory due Him from Satan.
When we’re able to put pain in a context, it somehow gives us great hope. It helps us to understand that suffering has meaning. God knows what he is doing as He primarily considers the greater good of the kingdom, before He considers whether an individual will be inconvenienced. His plan and purpose always has that end in mind, with the ultimate goal of His being worshipped for His own sake. Thankfully, one day, God will finally bring people to the place where they will see Him as he really is, not who they have assumed Him to be.
Job didn’t fully understand why God had called him to suffer, but he knew who was at the bottom of his suffering. He questioned why, but never questioned who. Even though we may complain, mourn, grumble and cry, we know that God is the ultimate source of our life story and He can be trusted. My trust may waver at times, but I know that God has demonstrated His character to me for over 40 years. One of my favorite verses in Job is in 13:15, when he said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.” Right now, I feel slain, but I know that’s just emotion talking. The Holy Spirit reminds me of what is true, and that I can depend on God’s outcome to be for my best…. fear overlaid with trust.
If God’s purposes are for His glory and our good, then we know that whatever He has for our future will have a trustworthy outcome. Romans 8:28 answers the greater good for which things happen…. to conform us to the likeness of Christ. As God is getting us ready to be with Him, He is cleaning us up. If we believe and hold to that truth, then we will see that the process of sanctification (making us more like Christ) can be trusted because no matter how it feels, it is necessary to develop holiness. Remember… God has the long view and we only have the short view. Some things are beyond human comprehension, but knowing that God will restore us someday helps to encourage us and give us perspective. In the words of Paul, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. ” (Romans 8:18) For the sake of our eternal joy, God sometimes uses trial and suffering to speak loudly of His love for us.
My hope is that as I go through this process, no matter the outcome, I will always remember that He is faithful to turn me away from fear, and turn me toward trust, which brings peace through His grace to my soul. He is good. Turn Around and see… cancer is a fearsome word, but the eternal Word we can trust. He has more power, and has been here since the beginning of time. Amen.