Suffering is universal. It is not a question of if we will suffer; it is simply a matter of when. For many, the problem of pain is a stumbling block, causing them to question the existence of a loving God. Others, just yield to the pain, allowing it to define and, at times, consume them. But for a precious few, suffering, if mined deeply, yields precious treasure.
What constitutes suffering? Does the loss of a job compare with the loss of a child? Dare we compare the suffering of a war veteran and amputee with the pain of a woman living with chronic fatigue syndrome?
The point is it doesn’t matter. Our experience of pain is profoundly personal, shaped by more variables than we can count—our temperament, our childhood upbringing, past traumas, and so much more. What actually matters is how we respond to the pain and suffering that comes our way.
Choices in Suffering
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Dr. Viktor Frankl, explains:
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
As Frankl points out, we have a choice in our suffering. How will we respond? Is it possible to be grateful not only in our suffering but for our suffering?
I believe it is. At least that is my experience.
A survivor of childhood abuse, my whole world came crashing down in my late 20s when a major depressive episode nearly killed me. But by the grace of God and with the help of others, I came through that time changed—spiritually and emotionally stronger than I had ever been.
But on the heels of my recovery from depression, came a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, a systemic disease causing inflammation in the joints, which over time, digests bones and cartilage, resulting in pain and debilitating fatigue. It can cause deformity, loss of mobility, and disability. I lost my job, my ministry, and even many of my friends, who could not understand my new limitations.
Gifts in Suffering
It was odd. In the days following my diagnosis, I found myself thinking about Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who was left a quadriplegic after a diving accident in her teens. I had read her story in a book years before. Joni overcame her illness and became a popular author, speaker, artist, and the founder of Joni and Friends International Disability Center, an international advocate for people with disabilities.
I recall a picture I saw of her with a paintbrush in her teeth and the image of a vivid pink flower on the canvas in front of her. I remember thinking she would probably have never become an artist if it were not for the accident she had. What struck me most was her countenance. It appeared to glow, which I attributed to the presence and power of God.
Inspired by her story, I prayed, “Lord, stir the latent gifts within me and use them for your kingdom. Help me to focus not on what I can’t do but what I can do. Let me become better not bitter through this.” At the time, I could never have imagined how abundantly God would answer that prayer.
Latent Gifts Blossom
After grieving deeply for a year, I came across a call for stories for an anthology on the topic of depression. Since childhood, I had wanted to write for this publication, so I hurriedly jotted down my story and sent it to the address listed on the web page, unaware of proper formatting, or even, that I needed to title my story.
That was more than 20 years ago, and I have been writing professionally ever since, both as a freelancer and a commercial writer on staff at a national trade association. I later learned that an article I had written for the Journal of Biblical Counseling, which is now defunct, was being used to teach pastors how to minister effectively to those in chronic pain. God indeed gave me the desires of my heart, fulfilling a childhood dream and filling me with deep joy in the midst of chronic pain.
But not all stories of suffering end like mine.
I realize that in sharing this story, I run the risk of coming across as pithy or Pollyannaish, blind to the harsh realities of a world in pain. My story does nothing to assuage the anguished hearts of those who have lost children to sexual predators or loved ones to terrorists. Nor does it help the woman lying on her bed with Stage 4 lung cancer, gasping for air, or the 20-something mother who has just lost her father to suicide, a week before her baby is due to be born.
Suffering Transforms Us
Here is the deeper truth, but it is hard to receive. Nothing else has the power to transform or grow us as suffering.
Charles Spurgeon, a British Particular Baptist preacher, wrote, “There is no greater mercy that I know of on earth than good health, except it is sickness, and that has often been a greater mercy to me than health.”
Sickness of body or soul rids us of the illusion that we are in control of our lives and brings us to a place of utter dependence on God. It destroys idols and removes false attachments from our lives—what we do and have—and moves us to a place of deep humility.
I experienced this truth anew last fall, when I received two additional diagnoses—a pre-malignant condition that may or may not turn into multiple myeloma and a form of neuropathy, most likely inherited from my father who is crippled by the disease. He spends his days sitting in a chair watching old movies or reading his Bible. On a good day, he may make it out to Home Depot, moving painfully slow, inching his walker through the parking lot and through the front door to find the electric scooter inside.
I have seen my dad’s pain, and I fear my suffering might be as cruel as his. I am becoming more like my dad every day. This past summer, I took a few serious falls. The fact that it happened outside in front of hundreds of people gave new meaning to the word humility. Last March, I rented a medical scooter when traveling to Kentucky for a dog show, a hobby that brings a smile to my face even on a bad day. That, too, was a humbling and painful experience.
Fear in Suffering
Despite decades of experiencing God’s faithfulness, in the midst of this most recent crisis, I find myself wondering what will happen to me in the future. Many days, I find it difficult to spend time in God’s Word due to the pain and fatigue. Still, I press on, showing up on days that I can, knowing that God will meet me there, even if his Word feels dry and I can’t sense his presence.
In times like these, the words of Habakkuk bring me comfort: “Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive tree should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17-19, NASB).
Honestly, where else would I go?
In this season of suffering, I am also strengthened by the stories of others. Currently, I’m reading A Chance to Die: The Life and Legacy of Amy Carmichael by Elisabeth Elliot. I learned that Amy spent the last 20 years of her life confined to bed, during which time she wrote as many as 16 books. Even in the midst of horrific circumstances, she found joy in writing and sharing God’s truth.
Just yesterday, I came across the story of a young man with cerebral palsy, who, through perseverance and dedication, proved what scientists have been telling us for the past few years—neuroplasticity works. We can rewire our brains, which holds great hope for those suffering with neurological conditions. Stories like these strengthen me and help me to keep going. They give me hope.
But in this unprecedented season of life, one question looms large. Is it possible to be grateful for a situation that worsens by the day? A situation that shows no signs of ever improving but every indication of growing more dire as time goes on? A time when what worked before no longer works?
After wrestling with this question for nearly a year, my answer is an unequivocal yes.
Joy in Suffering
I imagine James arrived at a similar conclusion because he was able to say, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4, NIV).
As Alfred Plummer put it in his Commentary on James 1:
“This doctrine of joy in suffering, which at first sight seems to be almost superhuman, is shown by experience to be less hard than the apparently more human doctrine of resignation and fortitude . . . It is in the long run easier to rejoice in tribulation, and be thankful for it, than to be merely resigned and submit patiently. And therefore this ‘hard saying’ is really a merciful one, for it teaches us to endure trials in the spirit that will make us feel them least.”
Thankfulness moves us toward grace and mercy. It changes our focus from ourselves to God, giving us a heavenly perspective on our pain and opening our eyes to God’s activity in our daily lives. We begin to see the hand of God in little things—the phone call from a friend that came just at the right time, the estranged family member who reached out to you in your pain, the puppy you never expected to have who keeps you laughing with her antics.
A grateful heart helps us to realize it was never about the externals—the house, the job, the paycheck. It is, and always has been, about the eternal—your relationship with God, yourself, and others—those things that no amount of suffering can take from you.
A thankful heart transforms suffering. But more important, it changes you. And that is something for which we can be truly grateful.