Posts tagged Suffering
Grieving a Variety of Losses with a Full Heart

Losing my first daughter in this life was categorically different than losing the era of my second daughter’s precious newborn days. With the latter, sorrow lingered for weeks and tears lasted for days. With the former, tears remained for months—and they still come, sometimes unexpectedly.  

Some varieties of grieving are more life-altering than others—what was lost differs. But I experienced a string of similarity connecting these experiences: a familiar ache has accompanied both, yes.  

But further, as God is at the core of my heart’s focus, I am able to grieve with a full one. 

Remembrance of Goodness Because of God 

“Remember the wondrous works that he has done” (Psalm 105:5) 

While we cannot return to the past, it can enrich our lives right now through remembering. We remember the good gifts we have received and that is a way to consider the moving hand of God in our lives.  

I have known God’s gracious provision. In remembering, I acknowledge the Lord who gave—who sacrificed so that I can be alive on this earth and the new one to come. Who is present to bestow all that I enjoy and have enjoyed. And, who holds the changing world together by his changeless might.  

Grieving often effuses into artful acts of remembrance to honor past works of God’s kindness. Because these acts are not what hold the meaning of the gift, they need not be emotionally confused with the good gifts themselves or the God who gave. Were all acts of remembrance destroyed—all letters, pictures, mementos, non-profit organizations, donations, books, blog posts—the original gifts are untouched.  

From the Creator stems the value of every life, gift, and season. And tied to his eternality, the value of what has honored him in this life already endures into the next. 

Lamenting to God When Others Cannot Understand 

“You must follow me.” (John 21:22) 

For those who are not gifted in empathy and who also do not share the experience of a similar loss, entering into the particulars of another’s grieving can be a tremendous challenge. Not all experience the same areas of sorrow; not all have been given the specific comfort of God so that they can comfort me in mine (John 21:21-22; 2 Corinthians 1:3-4). 

In short, those who grieve do not always feel understood by others—it’s an expectation not often realistic of mere people. 

But even God might feel distant. Even so, we as his children are infinitely more familiar to him than he is to us. I remember with love what I no longer have, and perhaps you do too. Your home country, your earliest season of motherhood, your work prior to spending days wonderfully at home with your children that was fulfilling in a different sense, or another beloved person or part of your life that is not with you now.  

You cannot now literally see what you have lost, but you can recall it—and neither do we see God. So conflating the two experiences, especially when sorrowing, can be tempting. But he does not merely recall who we are from a distance. He calls us to mind as those he sees and for whom he has sacrificed to bring near (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25)—how we might regard him differs so greatly from how he regards us. 

God knows my sorrow (Matthew 26:36-46)—and not only my sorrow. He knows the very course of my life. Theoretically, should any unabating desire outside of God’s plans for me be presently fulfilled this moment, what would I ultimately gain? Without Christ, all is loss (Philippians 3:7-8). Even with tears of sorrow, I desire God’s plan for my life. I want my life to produce the glory he has ordained from my brief days on this ground.  

Instead of letting silent dreams fester within me, I have found that grieving my pains before God—lamenting them before the one who understands my life’s trajectory perfectly—allows me to receive the sweet answer of his sovereignty. Lament before this kind of God can introduce to my spirit a holy, more unreserved embrace of my past tears and my veiled future that both promise his glory, as I follow his ways.  

So, I have not merely told others my sorrows, and I have not merely let pain pile when others could not fully relate. I have told my sorrows to the Lord who superintends all, and says to me through his word—in all of his divinity after rising from his own cross—“follow me.” 

What Is Behind Invigorates Joy for What Is Ahead  

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17) 

Memories can be overpowering, yet peace in going forward without what has been lost can be found when what’s ahead in my heavenly country becomes more greatly desired than even the sweetness of preceding days (Hebrews 11:16).  

Accompanying grief is the possibility to sense more of the eternal joy to come; the vapid character of earthly life magnifies an illustrious future. And along the way to our home, alongside sorrow, we do receive gifts—like snippets of what’s to come, as we attend to them with grateful joy.  

When I see God face-to-face, may I only thank him for the gifts he gave, for the sovereign plan he could devise to graciously bring me into all goodness, for the way he beckoned me to follow his ways through the trajectory he has foreseen for me from all eternity, and for all of the joys he planted here that are actually the mere inaugural seeds. 

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Lianna DavisSuffering
Seven Resolutions for Unfulfilled Longings

To have both longings and peace simultaneously might seem contradictory. While longings might be associated with unrest, I have come to see my unresolved longings filled with peace—and more, I have seen them re-purposed.

First, a clarification: As I see it, good unfulfilled longings are those desires compatible with the holy will of God (i.e. not intrinsically wrong or evil) that are not within his present will for me (i.e. within his wise outworking of my life for his glory and my good). Of this kind of longing, which I am calling good unfulfilled/unresolved longings, I write here.

Because, as believers, we walk “by faith, not by sight” on this earth (2 Cor. 5:7), we are not assumed to understand all that comes (or does not come) into our lives, understand all of the intentions or plans of God (or the seeming silence), or understand all of the reasons some desires remain unresolved at present (while others that feel less important are resolved). 

But knowing we will stand before the Lord one day—seeing at last the one who has dealt wondrously with us—we “make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9) in what the apostle Paul calls the “groans” of this life before we are overcome with heavenly glory (2 Cor. 5:2). With this aim, I desire to resist temptations to be pulled away from devotedness to the Lord. To that end, here is a set of proposed resolutions:

(1) I will not draw self-created and assumption-based lines between my desires and any necessary implications in God’s plans for me. God alone is God—and he is not beholden to my feelings. 

I assume that when God says he will give me the desires of my heart (Ps. 37:4b), this means he first guides my desires. The beginning of the verse is indispensable to understanding his guidance: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Ps. 37:4a). Consequently, my directing desire—or, my desire under which all other desires must fall into compliance—is to be living for his sake. God is not subject to my feelings; my feelings are best directed by my delight in him.

(2) When I come to see or understand that one sketch I had conceived for honoring God through my life is not viable, I will not cause myself to be stuck. 

I intend to willingly lay down my prior path and trust that he can show me a new way to pleasing him—a detour around the plans I previously knew. And I will trust that in the mind of the Lord, a holy longing unfulfilled is not a detour, but my exact path to pleasing him most. 

(3) I will not doubt that his sovereign plan and goodness prevail when the sketch of my life—that I had formed—fades. 

When the trajectory for my life that I had envisioned is not realized, I will assume that occurrence as one more positive reassurance within me that I am not sovereign or all-wise, like God, such that I can plan what will work out for my ultimate good on this earth. I will welcome with gratitude every new assurance that he is God, and I am not. 

(4) I may be groaning with raw longings, but I will not seek an ultimate remedy for them apart from God. I will let them remain raw—if needed—and let them be his. 

When I let my longings be as they are, and let them ache, I find I am exceedingly sensitive to the touch of God’s Word. The suffering Savior alone is comfort; his intercession for me before God alone means peace and perseverance; the skies that will yield to his coming alone promise the display of my hope. I will not numb my longings with sin; I will let myself be open to him.

(5) I will trust that whatever I bypass on my revised life trajectory—even if what I bypass is good in principle—would not have been good in his sovereign plan for me to have.

Not only do I trust that God’s path will best allow me to serve him, I trust that his path will indeed be best for me. And when I peer closer—as I must—I find that the two are not disconnected. For I do not know what is better for me than serving him. 

(6) I will pray that the truth of his sovereign goodness becomes so lifted in my sights that my joy about him outweighs the ache of what I do not have.

I may be required to interact with the joy I know of God’s character differently than how I would have interacted with the joy that my unfulfilled longing would have brought. Meaning, the latter would have been tactile and tangible, and the joy I do know of God’s sovereignty and goodness are often neither of those, but spiritual in nature. The experience is different. But the theological/spiritual command no less direct bearing upon me—but more when considered rightly. Through the Word of God, the voice of God speaks to my spirit, and I trust that the joy I find there can outweigh other possible good. 

(7) I will not so diminish God in my sights as to believe another life sketch to be better than him. 

Another path that I envisioned for my life would have brought joy; my desire was not wrong, and I cannot—in fact, I should not—deny it. Yet, no good path can prevail over and above the goodness of who God is. And so, I compare the two. I determine to compare. Specifically, I find that God himself is my good all the time, in every fulfilled or unfulfilled longing. That this goodness remains when longings go unfulfilled leads me to thankfulness.  

When the disciple Peter started to weigh his life’s difficult trajectory against factors outside of a peace-filled singular commitment to the Lord, Christ pointedly and simply responded, “…what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22b). And when I am called on a groaning earth through the way of unfulfilled longings, I think of the same penetrating words: “You follow me.” 

God has asked me on this “revised” life trajectory; he is the one saying “follow.” Associated with him I perceive these longings to be ennobled; following God through the ache matters to him. In this my unfulfilled longings are filled with divine purpose. 

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Don’t Let Suffering Silence Your Prayers

I called the nurse into the hospital room, “I think I felt her kick. Can we check?”

A shadow passed over her face. Not many minutes prior, the doctor had told me, my husband, and the nurses that my yet-to-be-born, 42-week daughter had no heartbeat.

The nurse gave me the monitor and asked if I wanted to use it. She quietly, kindly excused herself from the room. But I think her face held some pity. Perhaps she thought I was having trouble accepting reality. But I knew my God could undoubtedly answer my prayer for renewed earthly life for my daughter.

Soon, circling my stomach, I understood that my prayer had not been answered with a “yes.” As time went on, that “yes” seemed less and less likely. 

 Home from the hospital daughter-less, I was no longer sure how to pray for new requests. I had not presumed that God owed me a “yes,” and I was not angry at him. But because that particular request had felt urgent and precious, I suddenly felt I had little I wanted to ask of him. I was silenced.

Five years have passed since the fresh grief of losing our daughter, but I was recently impressed by a biblical figure who endures terrible hardship with a far different response to prayer in the midst of his pain—Nehemiah.

God’s people had been justly exiled from their homeland, with only some surviving (Neh. 1:2). But a remnant returns to the homeland, first led by Zerubbabel and second by Ezra to relearn the law of God and to rebuild. 

The book of Ezra records the generous faithfulness of God to allow this return and rebuild:  

Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery,but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:9)

With a personal interest in this rebuild for his fellow people and for the sake of God’s name, Nehemiah, an honored cupbearer in Persia to the king, eagerly inquires about the Judean remnant. But unfortunately, he receives news that the walls around the city are broken and destroyed, for progress has been halted (Ezra 4:12, 17-23). Rebuilding efforts are dampened, leaving the remnant without the protection of walls. They receive a “not right now” answer from God that they don’t expect. 

As one who is acquainted with suffering, I wonder if the people felt a measure of finality in this development—God has said “no,” so what more should we pray? Perhaps the remnant thought: I have accepted a “no” from God on this exceedingly dear request. I have accepted it and am even ready to bear another “no.” So, for what else should I pray? This is how I felt concerning my daughter. 

Nehemiah understands what feeling sorrow upon sorrow is like. Upon hearing of the remnant: “I sat down and wept and mourned for days” (Neh. 1:4a). Yet, what directly follows from Nehemiah’s mourning is an invitation for God’s people who are suffering to still see purpose in prayer. Nehemiah offers exemplary words to the Lord amidst his tears (Neh. 1:5-11). He remembers God’s character and covenant with a clear belief that the Word of God unalterably stands. Because of this, he knows that he has a legitimate basis for coming before God. 

In tears and after hearing of opposition, he is remarkably able to pray, “let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant” (1:6a). Instead of his suffering stalling him from prayer, he expectantly requests God’s “ear” and “eyes.” One commentator notes, “The superficially curious juxtapositioning of ‘eyes’ and ‘hearing’ provides a fully intelligible metaphor.”[1] With earnestness, Nehemiah requests God’s attuned attention. I admire Nehemiah’s fervor to seek the face of God after his homeland and many of his fellow people had been destroyed, after rebuilding efforts had been stilted, and more—after the fame of his God might have seemed to be discounted among the nations due to the exile. He had faith in God’s Word. And therefore, he trusted that a “not right now” was different than a “never”—and he knew that a “not right now” was only a reason to keep praying.

While my daughter will never have more breath in this life, Nehemiah was granted success for further rebuilding efforts. Though our requests and results are not parallel in that sense, I think about the grander principle of the reputation of the Lord in both. God would allow Nehemiah to rebuild the walls and further pursue restoration after exile for the sake of His covenant name and faithfulness. And God did demonstrate the power of His name through His presence and the strength—spiritual and otherwise—He gave me even in the early hours of birthing a still child. After the sorrowful “no” I received to prayer and after likely seeming illogical to the hospital’s medical staff in my knowledge of God’s capabilities, God was not done.

And He is not done with us who believe. His name is great—all will see it, and we are right to have faith in the silencing moments. We are right to keep praying. That is the hope intrinsic to Nehemiah’s story. And that is the hope intrinsicto the story of all believers. Devastating circumstances and prayers that are met with “no” or “not right now” may introduce the darkest times of life, but even these cannot thwart the holy arc of God’s glorious plans that reign above this earthly existence. 

Soon, God would help me pray again. I would find words before Him. I started with a sentence from the apostle Paul, turning it into a prayer for tear-filled days. May what has happened to me actually serve to advance the gospel (Phil. 1:12). Reminiscent of Nehemiah’s prevailing concern for God’s name and reputation (Neh. 1:9, 11), this kind of prayer can well pour from the suffering soul. For when our anticipated trajectory for life crashes, we know God’s forever-plan still stands. And as long as God’s plan is unfolding, we will have a reason to fold our hands and say, “hear the prayer of your servant” (Neh. 1:6).

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Early Martyrs’ Witness to Christ's Worth

persecution and martyrdom to the glory of the One whose Name they bore: “Yet, if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter. 4:16). As I have been learning of the history surrounding these men and women who loved Christ more than life on this earth and reflect upon their voices that echo through the centuries, I am led to honor Christ for His suffering, power, and worth.

Martyrdom as Reality

In classical Christian times (roughly 100 to 600 A.D.), persecution varied according to who was in power of the Roman empire at the time—each emperor having the power to create his own policies and climate for Christians. In summary of what I have been learning, here is an anecdotal sketch from these years when martyrdom was a reality for many:

  • Nero, who came into power in 54 was a persecutor of Christians, especially in his nearby vicinity. After receiving blame for a widespread fire, he diverted public attention by blaming the Christians.

  • Under Domitian existed scattered persecution across the empire for those who participated in “Jewish practices” [in early years, differentiations between Judaism and Christianity were unclear to authorities].

  • Emperor Trajan set the policy that, essentially, Christians ought not be sought out with state money, but also ought not be pardoned if accused before imperial authorities.

  • In 161, Marcus Aurelius became emperor and saw fit to persecute the Christians more pointedly—believing them to blame for growing challenges, like natural and military disasters.

  • Septimius Severus issued a syncretistic edict in 202 intended for the unification of the empire; worship of various gods was permitted as long as Sol Invictuswas given superior status.

  • Decius, in 250, instated an empire-wide edict that governors and magistrates enforce sacrifice to Roman gods and to the emperor, resulting in amplified persecution of Christians who refused.

  • Under Diocletian, who became emperor in 303, another edict was formed. This time, all Christian sites of worship, Christian writings, and Christian acts of worship were illegal, prompting a severe period of hostility.

  • The emperor Galerius—who began his influence in Christian persecution—ultimately deemed these edicts and acts futile due to Christian steadfastness. Year 311 saw a cessation of persecution, leading soon to vastly altered times under Constantine’s leadership.[1]

Martyrdom as Honor

Amidst these adverse times, the church regarded martyrdom as an honor. They wrote of Peter having “born his testimony” in martyrdom and of Paul, who “won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith”[2] in his.

Bishop of the church at Antioch, Ignatius, was sentenced to death in 107. He was sent to Rome for trial, and on the way—in one of seven letters—he wrote to the church at Rome,

Only pray that I may have power within and without, so that I may not only say it but also desire it [martyrdom]; that I may not only be called a Christian, but also be found one […] Yet if I shall suffer, then am I a freed-man of Jesus Christ, and I shall rise free in Him […] The farthest bounds of the universe shall profit me nothing, neither the kingdoms of this world. It is good for me to die for Jesus rather than to reign over the farthest bounds of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; Him I desire, who rose again [for our sake].”[3]

Early Christians wrote of the martyrs of their own times,

For who could fail to admire their nobleness and patient endurance and loyalty to the Master? seeing that when they were so torn by lashes that the mechanism of their flesh was visible even as far as the inward veins and arteries, they endured patiently, so that the very bystanders had pity and wept.[4]

One young believer, Germanicus, was advised to deny Christ when facing death to preserve his youth. But he only indicated to authorities his desire to even more quickly “obtain a release from their unrighteous and lawless life.”[5]

Bishop Polycarp of the church at Smyrna was also asked to recant multiple times. Once he replied in faithfulness: “Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He hath done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” And another time he replied with eternal truth: “Thou threatenest that fire which burneth for a season and after a little while is quenched: for thou art ignorant of the fire of the future judgment and eternal punishment, which is reserved for the ungodly.”[6] The saints at the time wanted to emulate his example, “seeing that it was after the patter of the Gospel of Christ.”[7]

Martyrdom for Christ’s Glory

When reading these martyrs’ accounts, I think of the temptation to become man-focused. No doubt, these believers’ willingness to die in faithfulness to the Lord is an example to me. At the same time, according to 1 Peter 4:12-14, the glory resting over these faithful men and women belongs to God:

“But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”

With that in mind, one record has particularly stayed with me because of how it held me back from a man-exalting perspective on martyrdom—the Apostle Peter’s:

…after being scourged, he [the Apostle Peter] was crucified with his head downwards. It is related that he himself chose this painful posture because he did not think he was worthy to suffer in the same manner as the Lord.[8]

Peter didn’t consider that he ought to experience his martyrdom in the same form as Christ—his humility and love for the Lord Himself is evident in his request. His eyes were on Christ, with honor, thinking of how awfully the Lord had it and not wanting to remotely resemble the crucifixion.

In light of the example of many persecuted believers who knew their Lord was worth their lives and thinking of the Apostle Peter who did not consider himself worthy of his martyrdom in view of Christ—taking a step back, I am presently processing what in my life is properly called suffering. I don’t suffer nearly as I think I do. While martyrs expected the slaying fires of this earth to be cold to them,[9] I recently prayed that I might—please, please—never grow cold to God. I have also been asking for far too little.

Finally, I take tremendous comfort in the Lord’s sacrifice for me, possible because He walked this earth as the God-Man—fully able to relate to my circumstances. At the same time, Peter’s love for the Person Jesus Christ exemplifies that my difficulties are still not reason for me to relativize the cross to my experience—but to all the more live in view of the Lord Himself who hung on the cross and bore the wrath of God.

I am fully God’s through the cross—such is the complete grace of Christ to receive. Yet, I am unworthy to be His, who motivated the faithfulness of His servants to earthly death. I worship, “Lord, you are the worthy, yours is the power, and yours was the suffering.”

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Nourished by Christ in the Wilderness

About four years ago, I experienced my first full-blown panic attack. Those experiences accumulated, and I grew to have increasing difficulty with leaving my home. I remember willfully dumping myself into the passenger seat to be driven to my parents’ nearby home—only to feel an urgent pull two minutes later for the car to be turned around. I remember my husband and I taking our trotting dog for a walk, yards from our home, and I was unable to carry a simple conversation because of the mental pain. By God’s grace, I was directed to a health cause for this anxiety. 

Yet, in my months without answers, I experienced the temptation to dwell exclusively upon the question, Will my life now always be like this? Yet, it was because I had peace with God through Christ that I did not despair—and I could see beyond it.

Hunger and Thirst in the Wilderness

David writes of his vision on God in Psalm 63. It is a Psalm from the wilderness—David describes his setting as a waterless, vapid, weary place. 

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;

    my soul thirsts for you;

my flesh faints for you,

    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (v. 1)

And Scripture speaks of different categories of wildernesses.

We can see John the Baptist in the wilderness before the beginning of his ministry of proclaiming the coming of Christ (Luke 1:80). He was in a place of knowing that God had issued a calling upon his life, while, for years, he was not at a time of fulfilling that calling—he was waiting. 

A wilderness might also be a place of temptation where evil moves—consider Jesus being brought into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil (Matthew 4:1). Christ knows what it is to feel the pressures of being sinned against or to face relentless lies. 

The Wilderness of the Soul

Scripture also speaks of another kind of wilderness; John the Baptist proclaimed it (Matthew 3:3), and this is when the Christian faith starts to get especially personal. Scripture says that without Christ, there is a wilderness within us. As our state without Christ is described further by John the Baptist, we see that it is the kind of wilderness we cannot pull ourselves from, and that time alone will not rectify. 

Now, David, in his wilderness, said, I thirst, I hunger. And we might similarly say, My soul aches.Yet, David adds two sweet words—for you. In every kind of wilderness, he hungered for the Lord. 

The first verse of the Psalm speaks to why he can say these things. First, he says, God; he confesses that God is God, whether or not he and those around him acknowledge it. God.

He goes on to say, You are my God. Now, that is an entirely separate statement—he wanted God to be God of his life and have that exclusive role. And because God was invited to be God of his life, he had formed this habit of praising God in his most barren times. 

In fact, he says that doing so was his rich, hearty, meaty, satisfying meal.

The Everyday, Eternal Bread of Life

Jesus says he is the Bread of Life, and that in him, we will never hunger. As Jesus teaches this truth, the theme of wilderness continues. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they received manna from heaven—yet, Jesus says, They died(John 6:49). Jesus is saying that the kind of food he comes to give us is in a completely different category.

He comes to us in our direst and deadliest of wildernesses—the one of our souls. He says his food fills us entirely with life even there. So, surely, he can fill us in every other kind of wilderness. 

Strikingly here, Jesus speaks about eternal, spiritual, significant realities—life, the living Father, the resurrection, being alive forever—but in terms of the everyday, basic human reality of eating a piece of bread. 

Jesus expresses what he is to us as the Son of God, telling us, Eat my flesh, drink my blood.This is what he invites us to do! How much more applicable to our everyday lives could this be? 

Three Truths About Christ’s Meal to Nourish You

Here are three truths about Christ’s meal to nourish your soul today: 

1. This is not a meal of ourselves.

This is a hopeful reality. If you feel, like I did with anxiety, that you are in a depleted, weary, empty, starving space, don’t despair. This is an honest human place to be. You weren’t made to be or produce your own food. Before God, we are like children—we receive the meal; we take and eat what is provided. 

2. This is a resurrection meal.

Perhaps you have difficulty connecting with these truths because you cannot see them; they seem abstract. But Jesus says his food and drink are real because they will allow us to live on the last day. And on the last day, we will not need to wait longingly any more; there will be no more lies, temptations, or evil pressures or pain; and there will be no more sorrow of the sin of our souls. Our hearts will be completely clean and cleared—and we will be freed of the wilderness. The food Christ gives is real, for it is the food we need—and the only food we can possibly eat—to allow us to live on that last day, and live forever. 

3. Christ is the food. 

He did not send someone or something else; he came himself to be flesh—to sacrifice his body and pour out his blood to give us peace with God. This is God getting very personal with us. 

With this kind of food in mind, read Psalm 63:3-7:

Because your steadfast love is better than life,

    my lips will praise you.

So I will bless you as long as I live;

    in your name I will lift up my hands.

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,

    and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,

when I remember you upon my bed,

    and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

for you have been my help,

    and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.

This is a Christian meal for us today: the daily bread of the surpassing truths of Christ—which is just as personal a help to us as Christ intended—and the rich, satisfying meal of harvesting those truths in our souls to praise him in the wilderness.

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Speak Scripture into Suffering

When my first daughter went to be with the Lord, one friend wrote to me, “There are no words.” There are no words to describe, quantify, or eliminate the pain of child loss—it was a depletion of my person in nearly every possible manner.

There are no words for the kinds of suffering we can endure on this earth. Yet, experiencing that kind of depletion is not a reason to despair with hopelessness, for it can give way to great rejoicing. Through it, the abundance and sufficiency of Scripture become unmistakable. There are divinely-inspired words—that can never be depleted—to speak into intense suffering.

God Speaks through His Word

Many who have not personally experienced intense suffering feel depleted of words the minute they hear about someone else’s deep pain. Perhaps that is you. You feel you cannot relate well to others’ agony. Perhaps you have heard the wide-spread advice that the best approach to someone who is suffering is to be present and only listen. Or, perhaps you have only had occasion to read or learn about what not to say when someone is suffering, so you are at a loss for exactly how to act or be. God’s Word is an abundant, sufficient help for you too.

In The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom was familiar with her own suffering and that of others. She recounts that women with her in a Nazi prison camp would encircle her and her sister, pressing in closely and attentively, as they read the Word of God (thanks to a Bible God miraculously provided). Precisely during this level of suffering, they desperately needed and wanted the Word. The God speaking there—through those pages—was their only hope. This remarkable account shows the Word bringing hope and light to a dark and, from an earthly perspective, hopeless circumstance.

So as a Church, as disciplers, as teachers, as leaders, as friends, as one who is suffering intensely—right where you find yourself—let’s do well at speaking Scripture into suffering. In order to do so, we will need to learn the Word itself, not just verses we pluck from the book, but the meaning of passages and, then, the application of passages to our overall theology and the way we view the world. Then, we need to become good listeners. I have learned that there is no substitute for these—learning the Word and listening—and that when they are done well, I have much more to offer someone who is suffering in addition to myself.

Applying Scripture to the Aches of Suffering

Think about your life and heart. What often results in your own spiritual growth? You have an ache. And you bring it to the Lord and his Word. Whether through an article, a conversation with someone else, a lecture, a small group meeting, a sermon, a book, reading the Bible in the quietness of your home, you have a realization about that ache. That is, you learn what the Bible speaks into that ache. When you do, you grow. You are made more whole with the truth of his Word. One experience like this after another, after another is what carried me through grief.

So, if you have a suffering friend, listen for the ache when he or she speaks. If you cannot identify it or if you do not yet know how the Bible speaks into it, then be satisfied with being a good listener—after all, you would only be speaking for the benefit of your friend. Make no assumptions, for a response of biblical perspective to the ache they feel might not be the words you think they need to hear.

If you can indeed identify another’s ache and can grow to interpret and apply the Bible well to the aches you begin to hear around you, then trust that the Word of God is your sufficient and most compassionate resource to share with someone who is suffering.

SCRIPTURE FOR THE ACHE OF SUFFERING’S PRESENCE

When suffering is new, resonate with the ache. A sorrowful reaction to suffering is biblical.

  • When everything in life now feels meaningless, remember that there is reason for this feeling—the world is not as it should be (Ecclesiastes).

  • When the experience of grief is life-consuming, remember how consuming David’s grief was over his baby’s impending death (2 Samuel 12:15-17).

  • When suffering makes you feel lonely, read the Psalms to know you are truly not alone.

  • When you feel angry with the woeful way of the world, think of Jesus’ troubled, even angered, response to death because of death’s impact upon those grieving the loss of Lazarus (John 11:33).

  • When this life feels full of anguish, think of Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. The burden he felt when anticipating the cross demonstrates the miserable state of the world (Luke 22:44).

  • When suffering makes you feel ostracized, take heart that you are in good company when suffering (1 Peter 4:12).

  • When suffering makes you feel misunderstood, look to the account of Job and the mistaken assumptions of his friends (Job 4-31) or to the gospel accounts to see how constantly Jesus was unappreciated, misunderstood, unrecognized for who he is. People are flawed.

SCRIPTURE FOR THE ACHE OF SUFFERING’S PURPOSE

Listen for the aches longing for light, hope, comfort, or purpose amidst suffering.

  • When friends and family members do not meet all of your needs, be encouraged that the comfort we receive—even when given through others—is comfort ultimately from God (2 Corinthians 1:4).

  • When you see debilitating sickness or death overcoming your body or the body of someone you love, remember that we believers will one day have resurrected, glorified, and redeemed bodies just like his heavenly one (1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 15:42).

  • When the force of emotion is strong and your words won’t suffice to express your heart, take comfort that the Holy Spirit himself intercedes for you (Romans 8:26).

  • When you feel forgotten in your suffering, remember that God memorializes every tear that falls from your eye (Psalm 56:8), just as he knows the number of hairs on your head (Luke 12:7).

  • When suffering severs a relationship, remember the ultimate relationship forsaking willingly endured within the Godhead for you (Matthew 27:46). God understands.

  • When you do not feel the compassion of others, remember that Jesus’ suffering (Is 53) and overcoming-power makes him a High Priest who relates to us and causes us to overcome with power too (Hebrews 4:14-16)—giving grace for the present and the promise of heaven.

  • When death or the fear of death seems to conquer you, remember that he has ultimately defeated death (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

  • When you feel distant from God, dwell upon the truth that he has given a love that no suffering, pain, or heartache can pull away from you (Romans 8:38-39).

  • When suffering makes you feel unmoored, haphazardly walking through life while wondering when you will finally be free from earthly concerns, remember that you are truly and solidly anchored through Christ to the world to come (Hebrews 6:19).

  • When suffering makes life feel slow, remember that by God’s definition—in view of the eternal state—this suffering is light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17).

  • When you need to be reminded of the treasures that can come alongside of suffering, learn why Jesus said that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting (Ecclesiastes 7:2), or why Peter said that faith refined through suffering is gold (1 Peter 1:7). God’s glory can be evident in your faithfulness, giving you purpose and joy.

SCRIPTURE FOR THE ACHE OF SUFFERING’S PAIN

Listen for the ache of being stuck when suffering.

  • When you experience unending bitterness toward God, look to the story of Jeremiah, who also felt bitterness at his intense suffering. Hear how patient and sure were the words of exhortation and restoration that God spoke to him (Jeremiah 15:18-21).

  • When others avoid you or when you are tempted to always avoid others who do not fully understand, think of how you might give someone opportunity to enter into your mourning or suffering with you. Then, take heart that when you can share their joy, it truly becomes your own (Romans 12:15).

  • When you can think of no reason to not blame God for the suffering that has come into your life, look to Genesis 3; the original sin of Adam and Eve is what broke the world. God is One in whom there is no darkness (1 John 1:5), who created the world good (Genesis 1:31), who cannot tempt with evil (James 1:13), and so, cannot be convicted of wickedness, malice, or evil.

  • When you simply cannot understand your suffering within God’s sovereign plan, rest content that his ways are beyond yours (Romans 11:33; Matthew 18:2).

  • When suffering makes you stuck in a cycle of looking only inward, remember that you have gifts that can be employed for others’ good and God’s glory (1 Peter 4:10).

  • When you, Christian, are having difficulty being grateful for what you do have, remember the wrath from which you have been saved (Romans 5:9; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).

  • When escape from suffering has become your focus, remember that Jesus Christ, and his good pleasure, is your reward (Matthew 25:23).

  • When you are tempted to blame yourself for circumstances beyond your control, remember that God has purposed all of the events in your life and the lives of those you love—including birth and death, and every circumstance in between (Psalm 139:16)—just as he planned from the beginning of creation that Jesus would die for us (1 Peter 1:20). Remember his sacrificial love as reason to move forward, and move forward in devotion to him.

  • When you question if your suffering has any meaning or purpose, trust in the sovereignty of God to bring his purposes to fruition through the circumstances of your life, all of which are a part of his plan (Genesis 50:20; Job 42:2).

  • When you question what miracle of goodness God can bring from your suffering, meditate on Romans 5:3-5 and trust that suffering can teach you, give you a depth of knowledge of God like never before, and bring encouragement when the genuineness of your faith becomes evident (1 Peter 1:17).

This list is far from exhaustive. What would you add?

Listen for the Ache

Whatever the circumstance, listen for the underlying yearning or longing. Let’s keep learning how to carefully apply Scripture to all of the aches we experience. The process of teaching and discipleship is God’s to faithfully lead. And our aches are often the impetus and route God uses for our growth in order to increasingly display his glory through changed and faithful lives. The kind of lives that display his glory like this are grown from his Word.

While it’s not ours to invent or assume others’ aches, it is ours to listen well, to acknowledge back to the sufferer what we hear, and trust that for every need of the heart, God has spoken abundantly and sufficiently in his Word. You can learn skillful application of his Word to human aches and be empowered to give others more than yourself—you can speak his Word. Take heart that this is your source of compassion for the sufferer and this is your source of comfort when suffering, for putting his salve of truth skillfully into our aches is always our good.

If or when a circumstance of suffering comes into your life that cannot be described in words, remember, he speaks.

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