Surprised by Trials
Preparing for Unexpected Suffering
A year ago, at age 46, my life as I knew it was interrupted without warning. Like countless days before, I was commuting home from a normal day in the office. Suddenly I found myself at a train station struggling to walk or even breathe. An ambulance took me off to the hospital, where I was told I had pneumonia.
But then a blood test revealed an abnormality, which resulted in a more sinister diagnosis: a slow-growing form of leukemia. Suddenly, my physical and spiritual life changed. My eyes were suddenly opened to the uncertainty and frailty of life.
Shocked at the Hospital
I am a medical doctor and have also received a lot of sound biblical teaching. So you’d think I would have been ready when suffering hit. But I was surprised at what a blow it was. In retrospect, I can see more clearly why.
First, I see that the blessings of my society shaped my expectations. Like most who read this article, I live in a historical anomaly when it comes to suffering. I have access to clean water, sanitary food, amazing medical technologies, rapid emergency-response systems, and social welfare support if I’m unable to work. As a result, I am protected from so many dangers that afflicted my ancestors, and I can feel like everything is under my own control. I can see now how much I assumed I’d be spared from suffering.
Second, I was unprepared because to some extent I had absorbed a faulty functional theology that many of us share in the Western church today. It isn’t the theology I’ve been taught or thought I believed. But somehow I had not sufficiently challenged the assumption that if I worship and serve God faithfully, he would shield me from serious suffering.
This lack of preparedness was exposed by my shock when I received my diagnosis. I thank God now for revealing through leukemia that my faith was shallower than I thought and, over time, helping me to surrender to and trust him in deeper ways.
Prepare for the Unexpected
A few months before the tsunami of CLL hit my family, I had been sent a passage by a friend, which sustained me more than any other through the early difficult months, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:9–10).
My period of sickness has now lasted over a year, and at times doesn’t seem like a little while. However, when compared to the eternal glory that is coming, even if it lasts for the rest of my life, in God’s economy it is. The solid biblical teaching on suffering I received before my diagnosis has comforted me deeply, but I still wish I had been more prepared for this trial.
Given my experience, here are some ways you can prepare for unexpected suffering. The list below is in no way comprehensive, but meant to help prompt you to take prayerful stock of how a sudden change might affect what God has given you to steward.
The better we know God, the better we are able to face the test of suffering. I confess that the enforced laying aside of my busy career has taught me, like nothing else, the importance of slowing down to meet with God. Pursue God earnestly and regularly in the secret place, and to learn to worship him privately. And worship him corporately with your brothers and sisters as an active part of a healthy, biblically faithful local church. Will we be like Job who worshiped God when his life fell apart, or like Job’s wife who urged him to curse God?
I realize now how few resources on suffering I had read before my diagnosis. Here are some I recommend:
Desiring God has more helpful resources on suffering than I have space to list. John Piper’s core teaching on delighting in God has taken on a new sweetness for me in my suffering season.
Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering is packed full of compassionate truth and wisdom.
C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed is a painfully eloquent exploration of the grief a Christian faces in loss.
A good steward gives thought to handing off his stewardship and ensures that others know what they are doing. Can other people immediately take up the reins of your roles at home, church, and work should something happen to you?
Have you made appropriate preparations for your family if you are suddenly unable to work? Have you received knowledgeable counsel from a financial advisor regarding investments and insuring your assets and income? If not, have you been intentional about this risk due to your conscience before God, or have you just been negligent? And are you and your spouse in agreement on the risk and strategy? Christians differ on the matter of investments and insurance and how much is enough. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
In all the areas we have briefly touched on, God can provide if our preparations are less than perfect, but it is presumptuous not to prepare to the best of our ability.
Physical and Spiritual
As a Christian medical doctor, I also want to emphasize that physical health can have a direct effect on spiritual health. A sustained spiritual malaise might not be at root a solely spiritual struggle.
For example, I didn’t realize I was slowly becoming unwell. I just noticed over the course of a couple years an increased apathy and decreased energy for things outside of work. My passions, including spiritual ones, were growing dull. I thought I was backsliding and failing my family, but I simply couldn’t recapture my spiritual energy.
Once I was diagnosed, the fatigue became worse and was compounded by my emotional reaction to the news. For a while, God seemed distant, and my faith lost its comfort. I was spiritually, physically, and emotionally sick. Only when I was put onto long-term sick leave was I able to use the limited energy I now have to take the time needed to reconnect with God, and my faith became more precious and hope-giving again.
One way to prepare for suffering is not to assume our spiritual health will be unaffected by our physical health. Expect to be shaken emotionally. Expect to need the raw prayers of the suffering psalmists. Expect suffering to be “a time to mourn” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Even the most saintly believer will go through a period of turmoil immediately after a serious diagnosis. Only the passage of time and deep spiritual work allows them to become the examples many Christians facing chronic illness and pain are.
Every Hour Hastens the Day
How prepared are you for unexpected suffering? This is the perspective the apostle Peter wants us to have:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12–13)
Unless God miraculously heals me, I will most likely be battling a very serious disease for the rest of my life. I have already had multiple hospital admissions, recurrent infections, and two operations. I can bear witness that an eternal perspective makes all the difference. It doesn’t remove the pain or the initial shock of unexpectedness. But in the light of eternity, our worst afflictions are “light” and “momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And as Spurgeon once so beautifully said,
Perhaps before another week has tried us, we may have entered upon the endless Sabbath! Young as we are, we may have passed beyond the region of clouds and gloom before another year begins. How bright will be the day! Oh, if we could see a day in heaven! It is a day at which the sun might turn pale with envy. A day with Jesus — what felicity! “There shall be no night there” — no night of fear, no night of sorrow, no night of death. There they neither see mattock, nor shroud, nor coffin, nor hearse. Let us rejoice that every hour shortens the night, and hastens on the day. Let us triumph in the prospect of life’s new morning. “The night is far spent, the day is at hand.” (C.H. Spurgeon’s Forgotten Early Sermons, 20–21)