Is My Suffering Meaningless?
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 Calvinist 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.
The Last Word
That one word changes everything. It comforts me when pain envelops me and darkness is my closest friend. God 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.
As Joni Eareckson Tada 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.
God’s Good Hand
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.
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.
More on God’s sovereignty in suffering:
Sign up to receive a daily digest of the Desiring God Blog.