This Light, Momentary Affliction: Suffering and Faith

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Location: Jervis Bay // Canon EOS 600D

In a world where suffering is an acute reality, where people struggle daily with pain, abuse and trauma, how is it possible to maintain faith? Last week I shared an article –  The Reality of Living with an Invisible Illness – seeking to honestly explore the battles people with chronic physical and mental illnesses face. Here though, I want to articulate how it is possible to have faith in the midst of chronic illness, in the loss of a loved one, in the shock of a cancer diagnosis, in the hunger of famine, in the chaos of a natural disaster. Suffering and faith are not mutually exclusive; I would argue, from my experience and the testimonies of numerous friends, that faith is essential for surviving suffering.

Whether you know God, are searching for truth or believe God can’t possibly exist, please know that I’ve wrestled with these truths for almost a decade, reading widely in the hope of finding answers to my own suffering. I’ve battled with doubt, and by no means walked in ‘blind faith’; my faith and hope have been hard won. I’ve questioned and looked for truth in other worldviews and religions, but nowhere have I found a solution to suffering, a promise in suffering and a purpose for suffering that even come close to explaining my personal experience and what I see in the world like the Bible does. I write this with certainty, and I hope that whatever your background or present circumstance, you can read this with an open mind.

The problem and solution to suffering

Many people think that the God of the Bible (if he even exists) is an impersonal being who has the power to end suffering but doesn’t. However, the biblical narrative does not ignore or minimise suffering; it unapologetically addresses the cruel reality of our world, in which suffering is an unavoidable problem, inherent to life on this earth. It explains suffering’s origin: human sin and the resulting brokenness of our world; and it provides the solution: Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God became fully human – facing all the pain and temptation we face daily, in total obedience to God. He chose to enter into our weakness, so that He could minister to our brokenness. Jesus was mocked, whipped, crowned with thorns and ultimately crucified on a Roman cross – taking all our sin upon Himself and experiencing the agony of our separation from God. He rose to life, conquering death and bringing, through His resurrection, the hope of a new creation. He did this all for us – so that we could have life and the hope of ultimately being freed from our sin and the pain and suffering of this world.

John Stott once wrote: ‘I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’1 No other worldview or religion provides a solution to suffering that involves a loving, relational God humbling Himself by becoming human to suffer on our behalf. In this, the God of the Bible is unique, and He is a God we can relate to personally. He understands our pain, and He does something about it. In the midst of suffering, our world questions how a good God can allow it to continue – while refusing to acknowledge that He’s already worked, through Jesus, to bring it to an end. Revelation 21:4 says: ‘…and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.’ God has promised a new creation free from suffering and sin, and though our present pain is very real, we can look forward to the day when it will be a distant echo of reality.

The promise in suffering

The God of the Bible does not promise a suffering free life to those who believe in Him; in fact, He promises the opposite! We will suffer in this life; this is inevitable. John 16:33 recounts some of Jesus last words to his disciples – the men who walked alongside Him as He did his ministry on earth, the men who watched Him suffer and die on the cross, only to come back to life and appear to them. Jesus said: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer, and they did. Yet they had courage even as they faced death for preaching the gospel, knowing that Jesus had overcome death for their sake. We too have this promise, and can take heart in the midst of our own suffering!

God does not leave us to suffer alone; the Psalms speak to God being present with us in our suffering. Psalm 23 says: ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ The Psalmist recognises that God provides for us in the midst of our suffering, that He walks beside us as we face death and pain and trauma, that He guides us and comforts us in our suffering. In my previous article I explored how chronic illness can be isolating, as the sufferer faces stigma and the assumptions of misguided people. The Bible reveals a God who does not leave us to suffer alone in our illness, but provides us with His word: pages filled with accounts of people who suffered in numerous ways, yet trusted in God not just to deliver them, but also to equip them to endure their suffering. This faithful God promises that no suffering – no matter how great – can separate us from His love

The apostle Paul recounts the suffering he experienced as he shared the gospel: imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, thirst and all kinds of danger (see 2 Cor 11:23-30). He later says that though he pleaded with God to take away his suffering, God didn’t – rather, ‘He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. And how does Paul respond? ‘Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). In our weakness, like Paul we can learn to rely on God more – to recognise how much we need Him. When our bodies are weak, overwhelmed by pain and fatigue, we can look to God for strength, knowing that His grace is sufficient. When our minds are in chaos and anxiety leaves us reeling, we can pray, knowing that God not only hears our prayers but is already working for His glory in our lives.

The purpose of suffering

As well as God providing a solution to our suffering in Jesus and the sufficiency of His grace in our weakness, the Bible is clear that our suffering has purpose: both in this life and the next. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 explains that God comforts us in our affliction so that “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” I’ve seen this in my own life through the love of my family and the friendships I’ve been blessed to form with others who suffer from similar chronic illnesses. As I shared in my previous article, our experiences of suffering enable us to empathise with others who struggle; we can learn to live outwardly and comfort others even in the midst of our own pain. In a world that has no answers for those who suffer in isolation, God provides – both in Himself, and in the blessing of community with fellow sufferers.

Furthermore, God works in us in the midst of our suffering. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, Paul writes, ‘So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.’ When we suffer, as our bodies decay with age or sickness and our minds weaken, God is working to strengthen our character through perseverance, to prove our faith genuine, uniting us with Jesus. There is not only hope that our suffering has purpose now, but also a hope that our suffering has purpose beyond this world. Seeing our present suffering in light of eternity changes our perspective. The temporary suffering we experience in this life, however painful and frustrating and unfair it may be, is what God uses to prepare us for the eternal glory that awaits those who hope in Him.

Resources:

Here is a (by no means exhaustive) list of books I’ve read that articulate – with greater clarity and depth than I am capable – the truths I’ve sketched above. I’ve ordered them from most academic to most accessible.

How Long O Lord?: Reflections on Suffering and Evil by D. A. Carson

Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical by Timothy Keller

Suffering and the Sovereignty of God edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor

Is God to Blame: Moving Beyond Pat Answers to the Problem of Suffering by Gregory Boyd

Where is God When It Hurts by Phillip Yancey

Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free by Tullian Tchividjian

Suffering Well: The Predictable Surprise of Christian Suffering by Paul Grimmond

If I Were God I’d End All The Pain by John Dickson


My story: If I’m Honest: Life With Chronic Fatigue

1 Quoted in: The Reason for God by Timothy Keller, p195.

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Chronic Fatigue and the Sufficiency of God’s Grace

storms (1 of 1)-9 Today marks seven years since the day I awoke to the pain that would develop into chronic fatigue syndrome. At 19,  just over 5 years of CFS, I shared this testimony:

Five years ago, in June, just after I turned 14, I was diagnosed with Glandular Fever. I was bedridden for 6 months, and then recovered (but not fully). But then just over a year later (which had been a year of heartache, pain, and terrible loss, but also so much blessing and grace) I got really sick again, even worse this time, and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue. It has now been five years since the original diagnosis, and I’m still recovering. These years have been the toughest, most painful, frustrating, heartbreaking years of my life. And yet, they have also been the most wonderful. I have lost so much, but I have gained so much more than I ever thought was possible. 

Through the midst of suffering, I have come to understand, in a way that I know would not be possible if it weren’t for what I’ve been through, what faith really is. It’s easy to trust in God when everything is going wonderfully in life; but when your whole life falls apart and everything you found worth in is stripped away, that is when your faith is really tested. And in this moment, in the midst of the blazing furnace, is where faith is refined, and God’s grace shines brightest.

“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)

I have days when I am still very weak (physically), where the fatigue is so strong that it hurts just to open my eyes. There are days when the pain in my body is so intense that I cannot bear to move. Today is one of those days. But these days are also the days where God is most present – when His strength fills me, lifts me; His grace overcomes my weakness. He says to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And though I am weak, I am made strong.

Two years later, these words remain true. I am no longer enslaved by the fatigue that plagued my body for most of my adolescent life, but I do still feel tiredness beyond the norm. The days where I am unable to function at a basic human level are very rare, but pain is still an ever present reality in my body. God has healed me in incredible ways – physically, emotionally, spiritually – and I am able to do things I never thought would be possible. I look back on my years of sickness and praise God for the ways He worked in me and through me for His glory. His grace truly is sufficient.

Fearless

fearless“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear.” – Meg Cabot

Today my best friend gave me a necklace for my 21st birthday; a golden chain with an old, worn key as the pendant. Engraved into the key is the word FEARLESS. She expressed to me that ‘fearless’ is a word that describes me – the way that I approach life, the way that I endure through suffering, the way that I love those around me and the way that I seek God. This present could not have been given to me at a more important time; of all the words I need spoken into my life right now, ‘fearless’ is the one I need most.

I do not feel fearless. Lately I have been feeling confused and overwhelmed by what has been, what is and what will be. I have felt lost and spiritually low. I have felt emotionally (and physically) exhausted. Not that I reveal any of these things to the world; only those closest to me see my brokenness. Too often I allow anxiety to consume my being, cutting me off from the people and my God who I love most. Fearless is the last word I would use to describe myself.

Reflecting on fearlessness with another dear friend this afternoon, I have realised that being fearless is not being unafraid. Being fearless is persevering in spite of and through ever-present fear. Being fearless is trusting that God is at work for His glory in every circumstance in a world that proclaims the exact opposite. Being fearless is waking up each day and surrendering each moment to God, asking Him to act through us and in us according to His will.

In the midst of change, broken relationships, sickness, spiritual warfare, financial uncertainty and the innumerable issues we face in life, it is easy to lose sight of the God in whom we trust. Being fearless is not a matter of conquering fear, but surrendering our fears to our God who is greater than our fears. Being fearless is trusting in His sovereignty and goodness, in His enduring love, no matter how deeply anxiety is gnawing at our souls. Being fearless is having confidence that God’s purposes are greater than our own, finding strength in this knowledge, and persevering through disappointment and despondency.

This morning, in a deeply fatigued, emotionally low state, I typed “fear” into my phone’s bible search tool, seeking a verse that would point me to the God of all comfort. I found this:

‘Is not your fear of God your confidence, and the integrity of your ways your hope?’ – Job 4:6

Though I don’t like to read verses out of context, this was a great encouragement. I am not fearless because I am not afraid of anything – I am afraid of many things. Fear is an important emotion to experience; our bodies and minds respond to dangerous and uncertain situations with fear. I am fearless because I place my confidence in Christ, who sacrificed His life to deliver me from bondage to sin. I find courage and strength in what He has done, what He is doing and what He will do. My ability to endure through the trials of life comes from Him alone; it is His strength at work in me. I am able to love fearlessly because He first loved me – and paid the price for my sin in love.

I experience anxiety daily, and am often consumed by it. Yet God is greater than my anxiety, and in Him I do not have to be a slave to fear. In Christ I have been set free, and though fear still overwhelms, He gives me the strength to hold on to the truth of His love and grace. In Him, fear has no power over my life. In Him, I am able to endure through fear and uncertainty. In Him, I am fearless.


 

Photo captured with a Canon Eos 600D.

Key necklace designed by The Giving Keys.

New Years Resolutions: is change really possible?

New Years Resolutions. We all make them. We decide the new year is a time to transform ourselves: to get off the couch and run more, to eat less take away and more home-cooked meals, to read our bibles and pray more. We make plans to transform our lives: to climb mountains and sunbake on exotic beaches, to find that dream job that utilises our true potential, to peel our eyes away from screens and actually experience life. We dream of doing our bit to change the world: to grow vegetables and invest in a worm farm, to donate more to charities and less to multi-million dollar corporations, to campaign for justice and raise awareness for the less-fortunate.

Yet, seldom do we ever see these plans to fruition. The question is always asked: how long do you think you will hold fast to your Resolutions? The answer, I’ve found, is reflected in the person’s rolled eyes and awkward laughter. It seems that we desire change, yet don’t believe it possible. We aspire to greatness yet don’t consider it achievable. No matter whether our intensions are genuine, we ultimately fall back into old habits. If this is the case, then why do we bother making resolutions at all? I think it is because we want to believe that change IS possible, that greatness IS achievable, that old habits and addictions CAN be broken. On our own, however, we cannot achieve these things.

The answer is found in a man who walked this earth 2000 years ago, whose birth humanity celebrates every year at Christmas, but is overshadowed by mass consumerism and a hairy guy in a red onesie. A man who willingly gave His life on a Roman cross in order to bring us to salvation and reconcile us into relationship with God. A man called Jesus. It is only in and through Him that true, lasting change can occur, that we who were dead in our sin are brought to life. The problem with New Years Resolutions is that we seek to evoke change ourselves, rather than seeking inward and outward renewal through the Spirit. We plan and dream and strategize, yet forget to pray! We fail to acknowledge His sovereignty over our lives. We are motivated by our own desires and purposes rather than by the glory of our God who is sovereign over all.

My one resolution for this year is to wake up every day and intentionally acknowledge God’s sovereignty over my life; to open my eyes and surrender every day to God, to be used as a vessel for His glory. I need to be willing to set aside my own selfish desires so that His far greater purposes can be fulfilled in and through me. In doing so, I have to acknowledge that in my own strength I can do nothing, but by the work of the Spirit in my heart, mind and soul, true transformation will occur. I will make plans, set goals, dream and strategise; but, in the words of Psalms:

Many are the plans in the mind of man, but it is the purpose

of the LORD that will stand. ~Proverbs 19:21