If you struggle to believe God loves you, and God just keeps bringing trials into your life, don’t panic. They’re more related than you realize.
I hobbled on one crutch to grip my cell phone from my back pocket. I was a starter for the New York Knicks and then the Toronto Raptors. And then I got injured, and then injured again, and then injured again. An elbow, a hand, a hip — an unholy trinity that slowly, progressively, and painfully dragged away my ability to play basketball for several seasons. My dream, my deepest desire, my identity were all suddenly in danger. It felt like life had been written in dry-erase marker, and God came and smudged what had been clear before. Once a star basketball player in Madison Square Garden, and now through three years of unplanned, unwanted physical issues, in my house straining just to check my phone.
John Piper’s tweet grabbed my attention: “NFL player Garrett Gilkey blew out his knee last night. He writes about God’s ‘grand and glorious sovereignty.’” Click. Like a rescue worker down in a sunken-in mine, God seized my soul from the death of sin and despair.
What Is God Doing?
I’ve never struggled to believe in God. But I’ve lived a lot of my life as a person who believes in God, but lives as if he doesn’t exist. I already had a “gospel” of my own — the promise that love and wealth are the world’s to give to the popular and gifted. I didn’t need to trust God, because I already trusted another god: the NBA.
Three years ago, Christ slowly started to change all of that. God gave me a gift through multiple season-ending injuries. In the same way that God gifted Garrett joy through his suffering, God gifted me faith through my suffering.
That’s how God works. He never wastes a drop of pain. If you’re in the midst of suffering — especially if it’s long-term, complex, or confusing — here are three gifts of faith that grow out of suffering in ways that will last (1 Corinthians 3:15).
A True Faith
Through suffering, God molds in us “godly sorrow that brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Godly sorrow is the funeral that God puts on for our idols. God lets us feel the pain of loss so that we can experience the joy of him carrying our burdens (Matthew 11:30).
Suffering is the hook that God uses to bring us back to himself, collapsed and tired from slaving for sin, which Jonathan Edwards calls our “cruel task-master, which oppresses and chastises.” It’s the earthquake that exposes idols and dethrones sin in our hearts. When I was playing for the Knicks, I knew God existed and disapproved of the life I was living (overindulging in alcohol and sexual promiscuity), but I preached a gospel of cheap grace to make myself feel better. With the injuries, God exposed that I was relying on something other than grace painted to look like grace — a cheap grace that was as useful for my suffering as a cardboard cutout of Jesus.
When the injuries came, I started reading Scripture. I had the odd, unsettling thought, “I don’t think I’m really saved.” I read in James, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). My casual Christianity needed to be told, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” (James 2:19).
God dims the light of our life with suffering, so that our hearts embrace a grace that really sustains. Suffering is a time to mourn the loss of that which could never save.
A Better Hope
Like a meticulous watchmaker, God folded true faith into me through the creases of suffering, through all of the injuries, the waiting, and the disappointment. Not all at once, but day after day, over the course of years, God brought new clarity. The joy that God gives in suffering is a game-changer. It changes pain. It drastically transforms the first sixty seconds of your day. It course-corrects the next sixty years of your life.
My three years (and counting) of injuries have given me a chance to see just how much basketball was my gospel. By God’s grace, he’s transforming me into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). My suffering made me ask, “Why would I put all my joy, hope, and future in something that won’t last?” The only thing that lasts in this life is Christ. I started putting all my joy, hope, and life in God’s hands.
A Humble Heart
I call my first season of injuries, “The Wilderness.” Three years ago, I was getting injured on the court. And off the court, my girlfriend became pregnant. By God’s grace, now she’s my wife, but we had only been dating for a few months at the time. At the time, I didn’t know what to do.
God has made life harder for me than I ever would have chosen for myself. And he has made life happier for me than I ever could have chosen for myself as a selfish, short-minded sinner.
Through suffering, God gives us humility. When I first started getting injured, I prayed, “God, leave it up to me, and leave me alone.” Now, I pray, “Thank you, Lord, for doing this and driving me back to you.” Suffering magnifies Christ to me, and in me, and through me. I’m thankful for my injured elbow, hand, and hip, because they make me depend on God in a way that I never would have without them.
The Blessing of Brokenness
Suffering is beautiful because it sets us free. Now, my wife is a believer. We’re raising our son to love Jesus. God’s continuing his work on my heart through the latest hip surgery. My faith is in a God who is sovereign, who is sanctifying me, and who gives me the gift of himself through sufferings and joys in this life.
Suffering has made the gospel real to me. And God will use suffering to make the gospel real to you too. If you’re going through something painful or difficult, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care. It means God wants to win you to true faith in him, a better hope in his salvation, and deep humility and joy in his grace.