Is My Suffering Meaningless?

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A few weeks ago, I met with a friend who believes that while God draws near to us in our trials, people often suffer in ways that God never intended. God reacts to our suffering but never causes it.

To her, the view that God has ordained all our suffering is inhumane. She sees it as completely against God’s loving character — hurtful at best, and vindictive at worst.

Personally, I couldn’t disagree more.

Reformed theology has offered me life-giving hope in the wake of unspeakable sorrow. I understand it sounds cruel to say that God willed my infant son’s death. But believing that my son died against God’s will is far worse. That would mean that God is not in control, evil can ultimately win, and my future is uncertain. Moreover, it would mean that my son’s death was random. Meaningless. Without purpose.

I honestly cannot imagine a more depressing scenario. As someone who has endured adversity, my greatest comfort is knowing that God is sovereign. He has ordained all of my trials, and therefore, my suffering has purpose.

Purpose.

That one word changes everything. It comforts me when pain envelops me and darkness is my closest friend. Jesus draws close as I call out to Him and holds me as I cry. He does not delight in my suffering, but weeps with me as He did in John 11.

But His tears are not all that He gives me. He gives me hope and assurance that my suffering is not in vain. Just as Jesus cried with Mary before He raised Lazarus, the Lord cries with me, knowing He will redeem my suffering.

If I had God’s perspective, I would be grateful for all I have endured because I would see God’s good purpose in it.

Tim Keller puts it this way: “If we knew what God knows, we would ask exactly for what He gives.”

God always gives us what is best for us. From Romans 8:28-29, Keller says, “If we follow Christ, our bad things turn out for good, our good things cannot be lost, and our best things are yet to come.”

Joni Eareckson Tada echoes this idea in her book When God Weeps. She says, “Every sorrow we taste will one day prove to be the best possible thing that could have happened to us. We will thank God endlessly in heaven for the trials that He sent us here.”

It is comforting to know that everything God sends is the best possible thing for me. Nothing can derail His plan. No sin, no accident, no affliction. Satan does not have the last word on my suffering. God does. He has decreed it all and will use it all. As we see in the book of Job, God is not reacting to Satan’s agenda — God alone is in control of all things.

This view of suffering is what led me to Christ. I was born in India and contracted polio at three months old. I endured numerous operations and was tormented throughout grade school for my disability, leaving me angry and bitter at God, doubting his very existence. I couldn’t understand how a loving God could let this happen.

But at age 16, I opened the Bible to John 9, where the disciples were wondering whose sin caused the blind man’s condition. Jesus explained that his blindness was unrelated to sin. His affliction was given so that “the works of God might be displayed in his life.”

That passage undid me. Just as God had a purpose in the blind man’s suffering, God showed me there was a purpose to my suffering too. Both were for the glory of God. My bitterness dissolved when I realized that the God of the universe had chosen me to display his glory.

While I saw God’s purpose in my contracting polio, I didn’t believe all of my trials were sent by him. Some ordeals felt like they came from Satan. But decades later I heard a sermon by John Piper which radically reoriented my understanding of God’s hand in our affliction.

He quoted Charles Spurgeon who struggled with depression all of his life and died of gout and Bright’s disease at age 57. Spurgeon said, “It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity.”

God weighs every minute detail of my suffering. Not a hair falls from my head apart from his will. That assurance sustained me as I weathered the onset of post-polio syndrome and my husband’s abandonment. While I was brokenhearted at both, I knew that God would ultimately use them for my good and his glory.

God is never the author of evil and how He uses our sinful choices to accomplish His good purposes is a mystery. Yet Scripture is abundantly clear that He does.

I will never know all that God is doing in my trials, but I have seen that he has refined my character, drawn me closer to him, and enabled me to minister to others through my afflictions. And it is my earnest prayer that through my suffering, the works of God are being displayed in my life.

My greatest joy is that my suffering has purpose. Yours does as well.

To God be the glory.

 

(Adapted from my post on Desiring God dated July 12, 2014)

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar
  • August 7, 2015 - 9:14 am

    Rani - Hi Vaneetha,

    I want to listen to the John Piper message you mentioned. Could you send me a link of that sermon. Many thanks for sharing .Your article has blessed my heart. I have been going through a rough time lately.
    Believing with you that this rough phase of mine does have a purpose.

    Have a blessed weekend.

    RaniReplyCancel

  • August 7, 2015 - 2:33 pm

    Lisa - Rani,

    I, too, have recently gone through some tough times, & I, too, have had chronic pain for over 20 years that has been debilitating at times. Last year, when the pain was so bad & so terrifying, the Lord dropped this encouragement right into my hands as if it was by personal delivery from heaven. I hope & pray that you & Vaneetha will be encouraged by it. It’s a song with a sermonette in the middle by John Piper & the song is by Shane & Shane:
    http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-song-for-the-suffering-with-john-piperReplyCancel

  • August 7, 2015 - 6:51 pm

    Rani - Thanks Vaneetha & Lisa.ReplyCancel

  • August 8, 2015 - 12:25 am

    Effie Darlene Barba - Another amazing post–I loved it. I often write how God’s greatest glory and joy are found through the midst of suffering.
    A recent three day series began with: 3 Psalms Proclaiming Hope, Joy and Grace to the World -( http://www.myglorytoglory.com/christianblog/3-psalms-proclaiming-hope-joy-and-grace-to-the-world.html ) which began with the question as to whether David when in agony wrote Psalm 22 did he realize that he was presenting Christ to the world? Are the trials in our lives a means that God uses to present Christ to the world? That was followed by Is The Salvation Of One Valuable Enough To Me To Suffer? – See more at: http://www.myglorytoglory.com/christianblog/is-the-salvation-of-one-valuable-enough-to-me-to-suffer.html Is the Salvation of One Soul valuable enough to me to embrace suffering in my own life? The suffering of this world, if it endures a lifetime is but a split second compared to eternity. Day three ended with this poem:
    I Was There by God’s Grace

    By Effie Darlene Barba

    Across the room I saw her there

    Seated in that chemo chair

    I knew too well that empty stare

    For I was there, yes, I was there

    portrait used with permission 123rf.com

    I crossed the room with gentle smile

    To hold her hand, a little while

    God’s love was all I had to share

    For I was there, yes, I was there

    She found Christ that day through me

    While angels sung in Jubilee

    And then I sat my chemo chair

    As I was there, yes, I was there

    Chorus

    Would I lift up this cross?

    And face all this loss

    Would I willingly face all this pain?

    Would I love you the same?

    Though I don’t know your name

    If I knew that my loss was your gain

    Let God’s joy fill my heart

    While His love I impart

    Til I see your salvation is won

    Let me show you His face

    His love and His Grace

    Let me point you to Christ, God’s dear son

    I hope you enjoy these as I so enjoy your posts.ReplyCancel

    • August 8, 2015 - 6:18 pm

      Vaneetha - Thank you, Darlene, for your wonderful perspective on how God’s greatest glory and joy are found through suffering.ReplyCancel

  • August 8, 2015 - 10:29 pm

    John - Thank you for creating this post. My eyes continued to be opened!ReplyCancel

  • August 13, 2015 - 1:58 pm

    Mirecourt - I’m not sure I’m able to wrap my mind around this concept of God ordaining/prescribing our suffering. Certainly I understand that God allows it and redeems it, as Scripture support this. But to read that you believe God willed your infant son’s death is utterly horrifying to me. If this is true, then it would also be true that God willed one of my dear friend’s repeated childhood rape by his two adult youth leaders – a married couple – when he was 10 years old. He lives with overwhelming PTSD and other massive psychological and emotional trauma even 30 years later. How could a good God somehow get glory in “willing” such a thing? Or, think about the world-famous photograph of the starving African child who is alone in a field and on the brink of death as a vulture lurks in the distance. God “willed” that situation? I’m sure it deeply impacted the life of the photographer – maybe it even spurred him on to address hunger and poverty – but what about the toddler, who lived a short, painful, horrible life? Isn’t that sort of like making him a dispensable pawn?ReplyCancel

    • August 14, 2015 - 3:16 pm

      Vaneetha - I do understand how difficult that sounds. Especially in light of the pain in our lives, our friend’s lives, and the world around us. The atrocities committed in this world are indeed horrifying and I am thankful that in heaven there will be no more tears or crying or pain. But as I said in the post, God is not the author of evil, and yet we also know that not a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the Father’s will (Matt10:29). It is a mystery that we cannot fully grasp but it is comforting to me that everything in my life will be used for my good and God’s glory. The most horrifying thing to me would be if my suffering, or anyone else’s, was meaningless.ReplyCancel

      • August 14, 2015 - 4:45 pm

        Mirecourt - I’m thinking we’re coming from different translations in reading the Matthew passage, and that might be part of the confusion on my part. In Matt 10:29, the direct Greek translation is “Nay assariou two sparrows sold in the peseta thereof upon the earth devoid of the Father YOU ….” In Luke 12:6 the Greek translates, “Not one of them is forgotten before God.” This is the translation of the NIV, for example. I know some other translations insert “will,” meaning God’s will, but many do not. Reading it without that inference is a very different experience than reading it with that inference: God’s awareness of a sparrow’s death vs. God’s willing a sparrow’s death. (As you can probably surmise, I am not a Calvinist). 🙂

        It was also with great interest that I read what you wrote here: “But at age 16, I opened the Bible to John 9, where the disciples were wondering whose sin caused the blind man’s condition. Jesus explained that his blindness was unrelated to sin. His affliction was given so that ‘the works of God might be displayed in his life.'” I agree, yet I agree in a different way, because I don’t see where God “gave” this man the affliction but instead, that, in his healing by Jesus, God would be glorified. His body was simply an opportunity for Jesus to show the “outward sign” of God’s presence and power in the world—what John calls his “glory,” through Jesus’ transformation/healing of his life. Because Jesus is the light of the world, His touch brings the man’s body into the light, so that he is no longer just the object of other people’s gaze, but also one who is now has the ability to see, perceive, and assess his own life and that of others. This specific man’s body becomes the place where God’s action in the world is revealed (9:1–7). When Jesus was on earth, He went about healing and alleviating suffering (Kingdom business); I’m not sure I understand how He, being God, would “give” an affliction just so then He, in the form of Jesus, could “heal” it. We read that differently.

        Such is the diversity of the Body – many voices, One Love.

        Your writing is poignant. Thank you for sharing your heart.ReplyCancel

        • August 15, 2015 - 4:24 pm

          Vaneetha - Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I know there is a lot of debate, with Scriptural positions on both sides of Calvinism and Arminianism. We read those passages differently, as I am sure is true of many others as well. One day, in heaven, we will all know the truth, but for now we can accept each others differences, love one another in the body and continue to pray He will reveal truth to us. I think we can all agree that this life and the next is about glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.ReplyCancel

  • August 16, 2015 - 8:59 am

    Sandra Lovelace - I’m beginning to collapse from a fiery trial that has been going on for a long time. Adonai sent your post to effect the Romans 12:2 work my brain and heart require. I thank Him for you and for the work He’s done and is doing in your life. May His Name be exalted on high forever. AmenReplyCancel

    • August 16, 2015 - 9:03 pm

      Vaneetha - Oh Sandra, I am praying for strength and peace for you today – that the Lord would comfort and uphold you as you endure faithfully through this fiery trial. So thankful for your inspiring faith in the midst of it all.ReplyCancel

      • August 16, 2015 - 9:49 pm

        Sandra Lovelace - Your kind reply is another blessing. Thank you again.

        God is answering with encouragement from several directions. 😀ReplyCancel

        • May 16, 2017 - 11:12 pm

          Jenna wade - Mirecourt beautifuly said, hold on on to the way you believe, there is so much friction between calvanism and arminiasm which is sad 😭, and i despise both words they Are not biblical. They divide 😭 We are Gods children ❤️❤️ReplyCancel

  • August 17, 2015 - 12:23 pm

    Jeff - What a joy to read your post on finding sense in suffering. Reminded me of my late wife’s favorite Scripture passage, Jeremiah 29:11 and remarkably helped me comprehend perhaps why she loved it so much — our Father can always be trusted to do what’s best for us.ReplyCancel

    • August 17, 2015 - 1:25 pm

      Vaneetha - I love this- “Our Father can always be trusted to do what’s best for us.” And what a wonderful passage of Scripture Jeremiah 29 is to hold onto in the midst of suffering. Thank you for writing, Jeff.ReplyCancel

  • September 6, 2015 - 11:24 pm

    Priscilla - I have been trying to explain this very concept to people. I was once sitting in a Christian support group for those who suffer from mental health issues. We were sitting in a circle and I chose to speak. I said that I believed that the Lord afflicted me with a mental illness in college to draw me closer to Him. The trial I endured was horrendous, but it is the one event in my life that really shaped and ultimately strengthened me as a believer. The leader of the group told me that I was wrong and that God never afflicts us with horrible things such as bipolar, cancer, polio, depression, epilepsy…the list goes on. He said that God “allows” such things to happen, but never afflicts,
    What then do people say about Psalm 119: 67, 71, & 75.
    I find great comfort in the same point of view that you have. It is difficult to explain to others.ReplyCancel

    • September 7, 2015 - 12:26 pm

      Vaneetha - I agree, Priscilla, its is very difficult to explain to others. It is of immeasurable comfort to know that our suffering is never wasted. As John Newton said, “Everything is needful that He sends; nothing is needful that He withholds.” Thanks for writing!ReplyCancel

  • October 12, 2015 - 11:12 am

    Jinsol - Hi Vanessa,
    Thank you so much for your thoughtful insights in your blog, as you share your own struggles and what God has been revealing to you through them. I’ve been so encouraged and blessed in reading your words as I’ve been grappling through my own pain and struggles, and just wanted to let you know that I am praying for you too – both for delivering and sustaining grace! Hope that you are encouraged in knowing that God is truly using you to bless so many others, and that He does love you so infinitely much!ReplyCancel

  • October 23, 2015 - 10:21 pm

    Colleen Woodcock - This is so well written so full of truth. I get so upset when preachers tell people that your illness is a curse from Satan, it takes God off of his throne. God is always on his throne, he rules all things not a thing happens without him willing it!!! This is something that should be said to those in trials, the sick and hurting need to know God will not allow anything to happen to you without his will. So glad to find that I am not the only one who thinks this way! Have a great weekend!!ReplyCancel

    • October 24, 2015 - 5:06 pm

      Vaneetha - I so agree, Colleen. It is sad that many modern day preachers worship comfort and prosperity- as if that were the chief end of man- rather than to glorify God. God is indeed in all our suffering- and uses it all for our good and His glory!ReplyCancel

  • March 3, 2017 - 2:09 pm

    Beatrice - Dear Vaneetha,
    This, too, is such a good article! Thank you for your ministry. Every adversity you have experienced is now helping others.
    I especially liked these extracts from your article:
    “It is comforting to know that everything God sends is the best possible thing for me. Nothing can derail His plan. No sin, no accident, no affliction. Satan does not have the last word on my suffering. God does. He has decreed it all and will use it all.”
    “God weighs every minute detail of my suffering. Not a hair falls from my head apart from his will. That assurance sustained me as I weathered the onset of post-polio syndrome and my husband’s abandonment. While I was brokenhearted at both, I knew that God would ultimately use them for my good and his glory.
    God is never the author of evil and how He uses our sinful choices to accomplish His good purposes is a mystery. Yet Scripture is abundantly clear that He does.”
    At this point in life, I am afraid that my sin and the enemy have derailed God’s plan. Your website helps me to survive.ReplyCancel

    • March 3, 2017 - 5:06 pm

      Vaneetha - I’m glad you enjoyed that article, Beatrice. Please remember that nothing can derail God’s plans. Praying that you will sense his comfort in a fresh way today.ReplyCancel

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