Today, I found out that a childhood friend I have occasional Facebook contact with has not only one rare cancer, Histio, she has been fighting for years, but now two. She suffers daily as she fights the illnesses all while raising two beautiful children with her husband.
I was about to post another blog, when I read her Facebook update and this topic seemed more important. It reminded me of the message I heard in church today. It was about “In the meantime” moments by Andy Stanley. When our situations seem hopeless, when there is nothing we can do, when the odds are stacked against us. What do we do? What do we do when there is nothing we can do?
I approach this topic with a heavy heart, hesitantly, and treading lightly because I have no answers and I do not want to put anyone, including those who suffer with ailments and heart-aches I do not understand or God Himself, in a box. I will not pretend to have a cookie cutter answer. Suffering sucks. It hurts. It hurts the body. It hurts the heart. It just hurts.
However, I felt compelled to explore the idea of suffering briefly and see what God says about it. This is not a sermon, just an exploration. Maybe I’ll learn something.
So I did what any non-seminarian student of the Word would do when looking for verses on a particular topic. I googled it. I typed in “scriptures on suffering” and got eleven million hits in less than a half of a second. Clearly a topic of concern to all of humanity.
A lot of what I found was unhelpful.
God uses suffering to bring people into closer relationship with Him is a paraphrase of almost every site I clicked on. And while I do not think the statement is incorrect, for I have myself, drawn closer to God in the midst of my own emotional and spiritual seasons of suffering, it is not enough, and in fact can seem quite cruel to the non-Christian and even to many Christians. It cannot stand alone.
Another common response is that the world is sinful and with the entry of sin into the world all those years ago, sickness came to the earth and it just infects us. And one day, in Heaven all sickness will cease. This is also not inaccurate, but doesn’t provide much comfort right now.
Words, true words, can be used as a weapon if not used properly. Just look at the Pharisees. They knew the scriptures. They knew the facts. They quoted Moses correctly. And yet, they were dead wrong, and they killed Jesus. The point here? Truth without love isn’t truth at all.
To the young couple whose child is hanging on for dear life in the NICU on a ventilator, with feeding tubes, repeated seizures, temperature spikes, and unknown brain activity
To the wife and mother who suffers daily with a chronic rare cancer, who battles the monster with chemo, diet, and every other possibly helpful treatment available just so she can see her babies swing on the playground and blow out their birthday candles
To the single teacher who was diagnosed with cancer, who is living in a foreign country away from all family, who serves as her sole financial provider, who must take unpaid leave to have and recover from surgeries
To the others who suffer in ways the world does not know:
You are heroes. True heroes. I do not understand for I have not walked in your shoes. I do not know why or what good will come from your pain, but I pray to God that He will allow you to see even a glimmer of good fruit produced from it.
Remember and give thanks
What I have learned this past year from seeing the people I love suffer is that every moment matters.
To the parent of a healthy child, treasure the day you bring your baby home from the hospital for the first time because it was a gift and not a guarantee. Each breath is a gift from God. Don’t feel guilty that your child is healthy while another parent’s child suffers to breathe. Just thank God for giving your child breath and remember to love and not judge those who have a different path.
To the woman whose annual health check came back normal once again. Give thanks for clear test results. Each heart beat is a gift from God. And remember those women who have a different result.
To each parent who is healthy enough to enjoy every moment of your child’s life, embrace it, for it is not a guarantee. And remember those families who have a different path.
Letting go of unhelpful advice and replacing it with truth
And for the love of all God’s people, let us all stop saying catchphrases such as “Let go and let God.” As someone who has tried to let go and let God do all kinds of things in her life and in her heart, this is not helpful.
I also encourage people to stop saying, “God will not give you more than you can handle.” I admit that I have been guilty of this! While well-intentioned (I believe or hope), it’s not Biblical. He always gives us more than we can handle. Sometimes, I can’t even handle getting through a normal day where my health is not in question, I can’t. I just can’t. The best advice I have heard and that replaces this phrase, came from the previously mentioned sermon by Andy Stanley. He suggests we say to God daily, “I can’t. I can’t. But God, you can.”
The Bible actually says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.”
This verse is talking about temptation to act on sin. Suffering is not an act of sin. We may be tempted to sin as a result of our suffering, just like anything unpleasant could cause is to cope in unhealthy ways, but suffering is not a sin.
Regarding suffering, or rather mourning which I argue is directly related, the Bible does say this in Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Sometimes, we just can’t. We must and yet, we can’t. My friends who nearly lost their firstborn and one month later are still with him daily at the hospital couldn’t. They just couldn’t. And you know what, God never expected them to. God did. He comforted them.
Sometimes, we just can’t.
Fall apart. Mourn the loss of what is no longer. It is okay to fall apart. Tell God you can’t but recognize, do not forget to recognize, that He can. He somehow enables those who suffer to manage life. It may not be how they would prefer, but people do it. They are heroes. And He does comfort the broken-hearted and the broken-bodied. I don’t know how. He’s just a very big God.
Sometimes, I fall apart in God’s lap, metaphorically speaking of course. I believe those are His favorite moments with me. They are definitely my most favorite moments with Him. Moments of truth. Parents like it when their children humbly admit the truth.
I had an experience some time ago where I was in a minor fender bender and it wasn’t my car. And insurance wasn’t covering it for reasons I will not get into. No one was hurt, but I caused it, and I couldn’t afford to fix it. I fell apart. I cried. And then I told my dad. He scooped me up in his arms and told me he would fix it. And I fought him because I wanted to do it on my own. I thought I deserved whatever consequence would come for not being able to fix it myself since I caused it due to “stupidity” I claimed. But the truth is I couldn’t. I had no money and definitely no skills. And no insurance. He had the skills and the tools. I let him fix it. It hurt because I didn’t know how it would turn out. But it turned out fine. He didn’t care that it was my fault. He didn’t care that he would lose an entire month’s rent to pay for the damage that I had caused. He is my papa and he could and did when I couldn’t.
And he is human. God is so much bigger than our humanness. He loves us more. He provides for us bigger.
Back to the other point- telling people to let go and let God is simply not enough and when we do it, we miss the point. Perhaps a better thing to say is to Squeeze God around His broad chest instead of using those arms to carry our burdens alone because when we let Him hold us, he naturally carries the weight of the burden too. Even that is philosophical to many many people, and unhelpful to a large part of the population.
I have no perfect advice or solution here just experiences, mine and a few from other people. And God’s Word. That’s supreme.
Through the suffering of my friend’s first born, through the love poured out to them through the church, through their friends, through their community, a lens was placed on them, and the love they have for Jesus Christ was witnessed by hundreds, if not thousands. People who have never trusted Christ started a discussion. I witnessed one of these discussions in my own classroom during lunch as students talked about and admired their steady faith.
I am not saying that we all suffer so we can be put on display, but when we do suffer, what if we could be real and honestly admit that we can’t handle it without the judgement of others being poured on us, without people telling us to be strong when we know we are not. What if we could hand our giant pain over to God and then climb up in his lap and cry.
So then, what can we do?
This article from Focus on the Family offers some advice to those around people suffering that (I think) might be helpful. You decide.
What can we do practically to help those who suffer? Give a dollar or 1000, whatever we can when they are in financial need. Pray unceasingly. Send them a note. Babysit. Play with their kids. Bring them a cup of tea and sit next to them in their own home. Remember them. Do not judge them.
And try to help find a cure. Support them by helping to bring awareness for the purpose of promoting empathy and increasing funds for research.
This was not a sermon. Just an exploration. And I learned something.
God be with you all.
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