Suffering is everywhere.
From those who are dying of COVID-19 to others feeling crushed by our economic crisis to workers who are daily risking their lives, nothing feels safe anymore. Some have lost loved ones and many more have lost dreams. Countless people are lonely and fearful, overwhelmed and weary, hopeless and depressed, wondering when this pandemic will end.
We collectively cry, “How long, O Lord?”
For years I cried those words to God, wondering when my suffering would end. My story includes 21 childhood surgeries. Years in the hospital. Bullying from classmates. Multiple miscarriages. The death of a child. A debilitating disease. Chronic pain. Betrayal. Abandonment. Unwanted divorce.
Gut-wrenching as those were, through each painful loss God taught me more about Himself. Elisabeth Elliot would agree. She says, “The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.”
Suffering teaches us deep things about God, but how do we learn them? Since many turn away from God in anger, trials themselves do not guarantee a stronger faith. To learn the deep things of God, to endure with hope, we must begin by focusing on what we know—not dwelling on what we’ve lost or fear, not obsessing over unanswerable questions. Questions like: Why did this happen? How long will this last? What will the future look like? Those heavy questions can keep us up at night, tearing away at our ragged peace.
So what do we know that we should focus on? What do we know with rock-solid certainty? We know that the entire world is under God’s control. We know that God loves us enough to send His Son to die in our place. We know that if a sovereign God, who tenderly loves us, permits suffering in our lives, He must have a purpose. We know that He who tells the ocean how far it can come will not let us suffer any longer than necessary.
Since we know God has a purpose in suffering, we can be sure that our trials will accomplish something invaluable, both in us and through us. While the specific reasons for any suffering are a mystery, we know that when we lean into God and not away from Him in our pain, we can glimpse part of what He’s doing. This is what I have learned through those glimpses:
God uses suffering to deepen our faith and draw us closer to Him. In pain, we pray more earnestly because we need God’s help. We read the Bible more intentionally because we need to hear God’s voice. We ask, seek and knock more consistently because we’re desperate. And when we do that, we find the Lord’s reassurances throughout Scripture. Our love for God can be weak in times of prosperity, our thoughts focused on the things we want, but in suffering our thoughts are riveted on God. When our dreams disintegrate, we begin to long for something more lasting. It is there that we find Jesus and realize that He is more valuable, more precious, more fulfilling than anything that He can give us. He is our greatest gift.
God uses suffering to refine our character. We’ve seen our sin clearly as the days of social isolation have dragged on. Our flashes of frustration and anger at those we live with. Our resentment at being inconvenienced for others. Our desire for endless distractions to please ourselves. Suffering can bring our selfishness to the forefront where we can recognize it and confess it, so that God’s grace and power can begin to transform us.
God uses our suffering to encourage others in their trials. Hearing believers speak of God’s faithfulness in the midst of extraordinary loss and pain inspires me. I know that the same God who has strengthened them will strengthen me. Their courage makes me braver. But even in our ordinary trials of challenging children and chronic pain and financial stress, we have the opportunity to share how Christ has sustained us in our struggles. People are watching how we respond. Trusting God when life feels crushing, not giving into bitterness and fear, is a powerful witness both to Christians and non-Christians. Suffering well, becoming better and not bitter through loss, can change a world that lives to avoid pain. During this COVID crisis, we have an unprecedented opportunity to encourage others to put their trust in Jesus.
God will never leave us. In suffering, that promise becomes exceedingly precious. God’s Word says: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isaiah 43:1-2).
The assurance that God is always with us can take away all our fears. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we need not fear evil because God is with us. Even if our suffering takes our very life, we will never be separated from Jesus. He will bring us safely home, and we will not endure one moment without Him. Even if the worst happens in this life, God will carry us. He will comfort us. He will care for us. God doesn’t promise us a trouble-free life, but He promises to be with us through every trouble.
Your suffering will end. Your pain will not last forever. But as you wait, God is deepening your faith, refining your character and encouraging others to trust Him by your example. Don’t waste your suffering, for it will be the making of your faith. God is using it in a thousand ways you may never see in this life, but one day, when your faith becomes sight, you will be grateful for them all. ©2020 Vaneetha Rendall Risner
Vaneetha Rendall Risner writes and speaks about finding hope in suffering. Her upcoming memoir, “Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption,” as well as her book, “The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering,” encourage readers to turn to Christ in their pain. Vaneetha and her husband, Joel, live in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she blogs at Vaneetha.com.
The Scripture quotation is taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
Photo: Courtesy of Vaneetha Rendall Risner