What Only Suffering Can Say

How Trials Feed the Flame of Witness

Nothing gets our attention like suffering. It’s hard to ignore pain — not just for those enduring fiery trials, but also for those who are watching. Our eyes and hearts are inevitably rivetted by tragedy.

As Christians, suffering gives us an extraordinary opportunity to share our faith. People want to know why we’re different. Why we’re not bitter. Why the flames haven’t destroyed us. Especially when the heat seems unbearable.

Believers like Elisabeth Elliot, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Gerald Sittser have astonished the world, declaring the sufficiency of Christ even in the hottest fires. Elliot buried two husbands: one was murdered on the mission field and the other died of cancer after four years of marriage. Tada, a quadriplegic who was injured in a diving accident, has survived two bouts with cancer and lives with relentless, excruciating pain. Sittser lost his mother, his wife, and his daughter all in one tragic car accident.

These saints, who have proclaimed the goodness, grace, and love of God despite staggering loss, have inspired millions, like me, to trust Christ in their own pain.

What the World Can’t Ignore

John Newton (1725–1807) loved to compare faithful Christian sufferers to the burning bush that Moses saw in Exodus. Summarizing Newton’s view of trials, Tony Reinke writes,

Some Christians are called to endure a disproportionate amount of suffering. Such Christians are a spectacle of grace to the church, like flaming bushes unconsumed, and cause us to ask, like Moses: “Why is this bush not burned up?” The strength and stability of these believers can be explained only by the miracle of God’s sustaining grace. The God who sustains Christians in unceasing pain is the same God — with the same grace — who sustains me in my smaller sufferings. We marvel at God’s persevering grace and grow in our confidence in him as he governs our lives. (Newton on the Christian Life, 191)

Watching believers suffer and die well changes a world that lives to avoid suffering. There’s nothing unusual about Christians who are happy in prosperity. That’s natural. Even expected. But joy in suffering is supernatural. The world takes notice. Like Moses and the burning bush, they step aside to see why we are not destroyed (Exodus 3:2–3).

It is in our darkest moments, hottest fires, and deepest pain that we have the greatest opportunity to share the gospel; people want to know the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15). I have a debilitating physical condition, and it is often when I’m facing the sharpest pain and most frustrating weakness that people ask about my faith. I feel grossly inadequate in those moments, so I can testify that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to me (2 Corinthians 4:7).

We Cannot but Speak

When I’m talking to someone who is in pain, I want to be sensitive to how they are feeling in the moment. It may not be the time to speak. As we see in Job, suffering is largely a mystery. The most helpful response is often just to sit and listen. Knowing all things work together for good for those who love God is a bedrock truth for me (Romans 8:28), but I quote it sparingly to others in those moments. At my son’s funeral, the reminder felt trite and dismissive, as if my mourning was unspiritual.

At the same time, when we have tasted God’s goodness and comfort in our sorrow, “we cannot but speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). The disciples could not stop sharing the gospel, even when they knew it meant imprisonment or even death. They rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (Acts 5:40–41).

If we don’t speak, how will people know that our strength and help come from the Lord? They may otherwise attribute our joyful attitude to our own fortitude, the power of positive thinking, or even an unwillingness to face reality. We need to tell them that it is Christ who has changed us, so they will know that this resilient joy can be theirs as well.

Our Greater Prayer in Suffering

Everything in our lives is an opportunity to proclaim the gospel. That’s how Paul saw it. Advancing the gospel was the lens through which he viewed everything.

I confess that proclaiming the gospel is not my first thought when I’m in pain. My first thought is, “Please, don’t let this happen.” My second thought is, “Help me, save me, deliver me.” Those can be biblical responses (Psalm 22:19–21), but even amidst those cries, we can witness to others. Paradoxically, the greater Paul’s suffering, the more freely the gospel spread (2 Timothy 2:8–10). In prison he didn’t ask that his suffering be relieved or that he’d be released, but that he’d have an opportunity to share the gospel clearly (Colossians 4:3–4).

Years ago, my sister told me of an Iranian pastor who was imprisoned and later murdered for his faith. When his brother came to America to visit, he was astonished to hear how people were praying. He pleaded, “Don’t pray that these Christians be released from jail — they would gladly give their lives for the gospel. Pray that their jailers would be converted.”

Pray that their jailers would be converted. I want that attitude toward my own suffering — I want to view everything that happens to me in light of the gospel.

Precious and Painful Opportunities

A few of us may end up giving our lives for the gospel. Some of us may proclaim Christ through indescribable and extraordinary suffering. But all of us can show the surpassing worth of Christ to others through our mundane, often daily, trials. People want to see how we respond to our challenging children. Our chronic pain. Our difficult boss. Our financial struggles. Our ailing parents. Our unwanted singleness. The situations that we wish were most different are likely the places that others are watching us most closely. They are each, therefore, a precious opportunity to share how Christ meets us in our suffering.

Don’t waste your suffering. It is far too valuable. God is using it in a thousand ways you will never see or know, but one way is to advance the gospel (Philippians 1:12). Tell people about the hope in you, how God has met you, why your faith has made a difference in your trials. It is the most powerful witness you have.