Suffering Taught Me the Sovereignty of God
Jesus saved me thirty-seven years ago. A janitor at my college used his breaks to preach the gospel. I eventually repented and believed, and Jesus rescued me from the tragedy of not knowing God.
God gave me a ravishing hunger to know him. So I read and reread my Bible, I prayed, and I prayed more, and I plunged headfirst into the church. As I grew, I was exposed to Reformed teaching about the sovereignty of God and learned that he works his purposes in my life and in all things for his glory and for the good of those who love him. Pursuing God became the passion of my life.
I spent most of my time in college in campus ministry, and then pursued training in seminary. When I finished, God blessed me with a wonderful wife. Then he called me to pastor a church one city block north of the epicenter of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. God was moving. And while he was rescuing sinners and maturing them as his followers, he also was growing my family with children, one every two years until we had six.
I could see God sovereignly working in me and through me. My life could not have been happier. But God wanted to deepen my relationship with him, so he brought suffering.
Our Girl Has Cancer
One day my 8-year-old daughter came home from a friend’s sleepover with a stiff neck. The problem progressively grew worse over three weeks, and each week we took her to the doctor, but nothing took her pain away. Then one evening my wife came home without her.
Our daughter had said she wasn’t feeling well during a visit to Grandma’s house, so my wife let her stay there overnight. My concern grew. I had prayed earlier that day, “God, please show us what’s wrong with our daughter.” God answered my prayer. Our phone rang at two o’clock in the morning. It was Grandma. She said our daughter had tried to go to the bathroom but couldn’t stand up. So we rushed her to the emergency room, and I carried her in my arms into the hospital.
My wife and I waited for hours in a cold, dim room. Then our doctor came and told us that our daughter had cancer. After they ran more tests the next day, her oncologist told us that she had a potentially terminal form of cancer. He said our lives might not ever be the same. Because of our daughter’s age, my wife and I alternated days and nights living in the pediatric ICU and isolation rooms while my daughter underwent treatment.
ICU and Unanswered Prayer
Every day I saw children suffering excruciating pain, and at night I heard their unanswered cries for help. My wife and I bonded with and ministered to four other families who were hoping against hope that their loved ones would be healed. We prayed for each of them, and four times God said no. The harsh reality that death doesn’t spare beautiful bald-headed little girls crashed down upon us. I felt like I was living in a nightmare, and I was terrified of how it might end.
I cried every day, but not in front of anyone — not in front of my wife, not in front of my daughter. I didn’t want to discourage anyone from clinging to hope.
When our doctors told us they had done all that they could, but our daughter’s condition continued to get worse, I called my mom. My parents lived in Virginia. I told her that she and my dad should come soon because it didn’t appear that our little girl had much more time left. As I spoke with my mom, standing in a hospital overpass, I broke down and wept uncontrollably.
Then I had a conversation with my daughter that I pray you will never have to have with yours. I told her, “Honey, you might die soon and go to see Jesus, so make sure you are trusting in him.”
Not My Will
The excruciating pain I felt drove me closer and closer to God. I prayed more fervently than I have ever prayed. One day I was convicted that I didn’t pray like my Lord, who in his passion prayed three times in the garden of Gethsemane. And each time he surrendered to the Father, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:32–42).
“God pried my hand open so that I would release my daughter into his infinitely stronger and loving hands.”
As God convicted me, a massive struggle began in my heart. I found myself refusing to pray for anything but my will, which was for God to heal my daughter. So with his fatherly hand, God pried my hand open so that I would release my daughter into his infinitely stronger and loving hands. In seminary, I was taught that when you see two IV stands during hospital visits, it normally indicates that the person is very sick. My daughter had three and an additional direct line into her arm.
To remove the excessive fluids in her body, they had to perform a procedure that required me to hold my daughter down. As I did, she looked at me and screamed, “Daddy, help me! Daddy, help me!” I held on until the doctors were done. Then I staggered into the hallway and surrendered my daughter to God. I wrestled with God and he won.
With tears streaming down my face, I prayed, “Not my will, but your will, be done. She was always yours and never mine. You always loved her more and are her best protector.”
God Does All He Pleases
In the end, God taught me by experience what he had taught me theologically a long time before. God always does what he pleases, and what he pleases is best.
“God always does what he pleases, and what he pleases is best.”
Space won’t permit me to share how God miraculously healed my daughter. What God did was so amazing that if Hollywood made our story into a movie, viewers would call it cheesy and unrealistic. People prayed for us from all over the world and rejoiced with us when my daughter walked out of the hospital cancer free (2 Corinthians 1:10–11). My God-fearing wife says if she could, she would choose to go through this all over again because of what she learned about God. I learned the peace and joy that comes from knowing that God is good even when we suffer — that it is good that he always does as he pleases.
In April of this year, God gave me the pleasure of walking my now-grown miracle down the aisle to give her away a second time, this time in marriage.
God Shouts in Our Pain
C.S. Lewis once wrote of suffering in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (91). God directed his megaphone at me seventeen years ago, and nothing I’ve experienced has so profoundly affected my life and ministry.
Through suffering, God teaches us to be persistent in prayer. He reveals to us that he is way too big for our finite minds to comprehend, and yet his mercies are far too great for him not to hear our cries for help. He invites us to wrestle with him because he wants us to know that the outcome he brings is best. We can rest then, knowing that he has heard, that he cares, and that he will use his answer for our ultimate good and his glory, even if he doesn’t remove the trial but answers instead, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
This article would be misleading if I didn’t confess that as a husband, a father, and a pastor, I still waver in the face of suffering. But I am so thankful that God reteaches me from his word, his past work in my life, and the testimonies of the saints, that what he ordains is best.
In fact, I can hear Mother Simmons now, a dear saint in our church who has suffered as much like Job as anyone I know. I can hear her say, “Pastor, where God puts a period, we can’t change it to a comma,” and then quote, “God is good all the time, and all the time, God is good.” Yes, all the time — even during our darkest trials.