October 19, 2014, is a day I will never forget. It’s the day my life changed forever.
I went to the hospital with what felt like minor symptoms, and in a flash, I was admitted for an excruciatingly painful ten-day stay. I will never be able to adequately describe the pain I felt. This was pain like I never knew existed, and after a particularly horrible and longer-than-usual spasm, I looked at my wife, Luella, and told her I wanted to die.
I was in acute kidney failure, and had I waited another seven to ten days to go to the hospital, I wouldn’t be writing this post. Four years and six surgeries later, my symptoms are as manageable as possible, but I have been left a physically damaged man.
Hearts Under Attack
My traumatic experience, and the life-altering results that have accompanied it, was and is physical. But my suffering experience and your suffering experience will never be limited to simply the physical realm.
Suffering is emotionally exhausting and spiritually burdensome; it’s spiritual warfare. Suffering is never just a matter of the body but is always also a matter of the heart. When you suffer, your heart is under attack. Suffering takes us to the borders of our faith. It leads us to think about things we’ve never thought about before and maybe even question things we thought were settled in our hearts.
“Suffering is never just a matter of the body but is always also a matter of the heart.”
If you haven’t noticed, you are not a machine. If something dysfunctions in a machine, the machine feels no sadness, is not tempted to worry, does not question long-held beliefs, doesn’t wish for the life of another machine, and has no concern for what the future holds.
By God’s glorious design, we live out of our hearts (Proverbs 4:23; Mark 7:14–23; Luke 6:43–45). But too many of us, while battling the isolated cause of our suffering, forget to battle for our hearts. In so doing, we leave ourselves open to more complicated, longer-lasting, and increasingly painful spiritual and emotional suffering.
Exposed by Pain
This is humbling to admit, but my physical experience did two things for me. First, it exposed an idol of self I did not know was there. Three years before I got sick, I lost forty pounds, changed my whole relationship with food, and began to exercise more aggressively.
It worked. I kept the weight off and felt younger and more energetic than I had for years. I traveled every weekend to conferences around the world and wrote book after book in between. I look back and now see that I lived with assessments of invincibility. I was not a young man, but I felt like I was at the top of my game.
When I realized I was very ill and that weakness and fatigue would be with me for the rest of my life, the blow was not just physical, but emotional and spiritual as well. I didn’t suffer just physical pain, but also the even more profound pain of the death of my delusion of invincibility and the pride of productivity. These are subtle but deeply ingrained identity issues. I would’ve told you that my identity was firmly rooted in Christ, and there are significant ways in which it was. But underneath were artifacts of self-reliance.
The second wonderful (and painful) thing my experience exposed was a lack of trust in placing my complete dependence on God. Weakness simply demonstrates what has been true all along: we are completely dependent on God for life and breath and everything else.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that he’ll boast in his weakness. He has come to know that God’s power is made perfect in his weakness. You see, you and I should not fear weakness. We should fear our delusion of strength. Strong people tend not to reach out for help, because they think they don’t need it. When you have been proven weak, you tap into the endless resources of divine power that are yours in Christ. In my weakness I have known strength that I never knew before.
No Valley Too Deep
Are you suffering right now? If not, you will someday. And in the meantime, look around, because someone near you is. In the midst of your pain or someone else’s pain, don’t neglect the heart and the spiritual and emotional battles that rage for control.
“Scripture never looks down on the sufferer, it never mocks our pain, it never turns a deaf ear to our cries.”
Remind yourself that the painful things we deal with are not some bad accident, horrible luck, or indication of a massive failure of God’s plan. Note how the Bible talks about our experience in the here and now:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Corinthians 4:7–10)
God leaves us in this broken world because what it produces in us is way better than the comfortable life we all want. I haven’t always felt this way, but it’s true that in our suffering God isn’t saddling us with less but graciously giving us more.
And take hope. Scripture never looks down on the sufferer, it never mocks our pain, it never turns a deaf ear to our cries, and it never condemns us for our struggle. The Bible presents to the sufferer a God who understands, who cares, who invites us to come to him for help, and who promises one day to end all suffering of any kind once and forever.
Your Lord is in you, he is with you, and he is for you right here, right now. So with gospel courage, keep walking forward in faith, knowing that there is no valley of suffering so deep that God’s grace in Jesus isn’t deeper.