Prolonged suffering is like sweltering heat.
For my family, the drought began in a dark ultrasound room that foreshadowed the grief to come. At first, the news was vague — there might be some congenital birth defects. But over the next eleven weeks, foreboding fears materialized and our dreams withered and died.
Our twin sons were born by emergency C-section nine weeks premature, their joints contracted, their muscles motionless. The culprit was a single mutation in a solitary gene.
Isaac and Caleb spent the first four months of their fragile lives in the NICU, precariously sustained by a web of ventilator tubes, IVs, feeding tubes, and probes. Eventually we took our babies home to our own mini-ICU, where 24-7 care for severely disabled children became our new normal.
Three years later Isaac died. We never expected the boys to live long, yet his death still blindsided me. Caleb has now outlived his brother by two and a half years, but we wonder every day if this one will be his last.
Whether it comes as chronic illness, disability, death, or any of a million other forms, suffering is like scorching heat to the soul. It threatens to turn once-fruitful faith into a wilted husk. But in my own suffering, God’s word has taught me that the heat of hardship can also drive me deeper into the all-sufficient, refreshing grace of God.
Hope for Our Parched Souls
Jeremiah was no stranger to suffering. He endured reproach and hostility. His own hometown conspired to murder him (Jeremiah 11:18–23). He was acquainted with loneliness. Political turmoil and moral decay were the norm in his day. He lived through the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.
Jeremiah has been called the Weeping Prophet because of his numerous laments. In one lament he asked this haunting question: “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?” (Jeremiah 15:18). God graciously replied to that mournful query in Jeremiah 17:5–8:
Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
In the months after our sons were born, these words became an oasis of hope to my parched soul. They have soothed my fears, alleviated my anxiety, and sustained my faith by teaching me to trust the Lord in the years of drought.
Where Have the Rains Gone?
The first thing God does in this text is reframe my interpretation of heat and drought. When we suffer, it’s tempting to think hard thoughts about God, to conclude that he has abandoned us, or to assume he is punishing us. But these words comfort me in my suffering by assuring me that heat is a normal part of life in a fallen world.
Even when it seems the rain of God’s pleasant blessings has stopped, God has not abandoned us. In fact, he graciously intends to use seasons of suffering to deepen our experience of his sufficiency and to display his glory.
I’ve learned that when the heat comes, I will thirst; and when I thirst, I will trust someone. Whatever I rely on for strength, security, and satisfaction, that is what I trust. It’s inescapable: I will either make flesh my strength, or God will be my trust.
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man,” but “blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7)
This is pivotal. The difference between the blessing and the curse, the fruitfulness and the barrenness, Eden and exile, hinges on the object of our trust, not the difficulty of our circumstances. Whether we languish or thrive when the heat comes depends on where we look for help. Tragedies, trials, and trauma don’t cause fruitlessness; trusting in anything other than God to satisfy us does.
But God is glorified in our suffering when we bear fruit through the heat by relying on him as our all-satisfying source of strength.
Broken Cisterns Are Tempting
I know how easy it is to turn to Netflix to get me through days in the hospital or to imagine that money would solve my problems. I also know how easy it is to use suffering as an excuse for spiritual apathy. I’m praying less because life is really hard right now. Or, I’ll watch TV because I don’t have the energy to read God’s word.
But Jeremiah 17 exposes my heart. It’s not that I’m ever too exhausted to rely on something for help. It’s that I choose broken cisterns instead of the fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13).
God is not “a deceitful brook,” as Jeremiah feared. He is a never-failing stream through the most stifling heat. No drought can diminish the fruitfulness of the one who trusts in the Lord, because God himself is an inexhaustible reservoir of soul-satisfying water.
This is what Jesus promised in John 4:14: “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Speaking of the Holy Spirit, Jesus promised, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38).
Where I Am Sinking My Roots
Through the heat of caring for disabled sons and the drought of Isaac’s death, I’ve found those promises to be true. Now as I anticipate the torrid drought that Caleb’s death will bring, I will continue to sink my roots into that river through ongoing repentance and faith.
First, I forsake all shallow confidence in the flesh and turn away from trusting in myself, in others, or in created things for my security and joy. And when the heat comes, I confess to the Lord every sinful response to suffering: wallowing in self-pity, grumbling to God, or envying those who have the life I wish I had.
Then in faith, I send out my roots by the stream (Jeremiah 17:8), fixing my thoughts and desires on all that God promises to be and do for me in Jesus. Treasuring him through the drought sustains obedience and testifies to the world that Jesus himself is better than every other gift he gives.