When Suffering Only Gets Worse

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Guest Contributor

It was 38 years ago, the summer of 1982, when everything changed. I will always remember the day when our expectations about life began to crumble as we were plunged, quite unwillingly and unexpectedly, into the world of brokenness and disability.

Our 3-month old daughter, Jessica, was diagnosed with profound disabilities. It was as though the earth gave way and we were in a free fall. After all, we were serving God in “full-time ministry” with Young Life. Why would this happen to us? During those days, and many times since, we had to ask ourselves, Is Romans 8:28 true? Does God really work all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose?

Often Quoted, Rarely Believed?

With time and perspective, through the years, I have often told people that Romans 8:28 is one of the most frequently quoted, yet possibly the least believed, verses in all the Bible. It shouldn’t be quoted less, but more whole-heartedly believed.

When people enter the shadows of the valley, be like Job’s friends and simply sit with them (as they did the first week). Sit with them, weep, be silent. We remember people’s presence, not necessarily what they said — unless they began quoting trite answers to our deep wounds.

If you are like we were, we desperately needed friends to hold us, weep with us, allow us to verbalize our pain and questions with no expectation of a good answer. The Bible calls this lament, and there is a place for that. In the midst of the valleys, we often need the Psalms. Romans 8:28 is a clear reminder of the goodness and sovereignty of God. It is a necessary strong tower, farther downstream from the loss and brokenness. And we all experience loss and brokenness.

All Things Are Not Good

Let’s be honest: All things are not good. Heartbreak, loss, disabling conditions, crime, tornados, death — these are all ultimately products of the Fall and sin. The whole creation groans (Romans 8:22). But our God is a Sovereign who takes our sin and our brokenness and turns it, in his providential wisdom and timing, into his blessings for his people. But let’s also be clear: Sometimes bad things happen, and it just gets worse. For those who are outside of God’s redemptive promises, bad things can happen and despair leads to hopelessness.

But biblical hope is another reality altogether. The letter to the Hebrews calls hope an anchor for the soul. And when the storms of life threaten to break up the ship, you need an anchor that holds. The promise of redemption — body and soul. When all things are not good in this life, we know that in Christ all things will be perfect in the next.

Indispensable Members

We have a son in the Navy who made this observation recently: The anchor is connected to the ship by heavy links in the chain. That is key to the anchor’s mission. The heavier the links, the better the anchor. The people of God and the promises of God are the links in the chain keeping the suffering saint connected to the anchor of hope. All things work together for good, for those who love God and are called according to his purposes — and this includes being connected to God’s people, the church. We are parts of a body and we desperately need the connections when we are weak, vulnerable, and broken.

God hardly ever does things the way we expect. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul unfolds the metaphor of the body saying the weak and unpresentable parts are indispensable. That means those who live with brokenness and disability are a gift to the church and are a necessary part of Christ’s body. If you are part of a family living with disability, the local church needs you desperately. Show up! Bring your ministry of presence, and God will work through you.

Joy with Chronic Sorrow

Does this mean everything will be okay, that things will get better?

In God’s mercy and grace, maybe — but then again, maybe not. All those years ago, we learned what “chronic sorrow” means. Nearly four decades later, moments surprise us when we feel the pain of unrealized dreams for our disabled child. But this is not to say there can be no joy.

Tolkien wrote that joy and sorrow are very close to each other. “The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible in the greatest Fairy Story — and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love” (Letters, 100).

In another essay, Tolkien said sorrow “is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of joy, joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief” (Tree and Leaf). And Paul said the same thing two-thousand years earlier: saints can live “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) — both realities experienced at the same time.

The Great Tapestry

Are you just starting a dark part of your journey? Perhaps you have been in the valley for years and you are realizing the future may not get easier. Truth is still true. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever; and God still works all things for good for those who love him and are called according to his purposes. It is okay to feel and express sorrow at what has been lost or broken. But at the same time, deep and abiding joy can be present because we know the end of the story.

Joni Eareckson Tada famously and wisely says, “Sometimes God uses what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” Linger over that. Let it settle in for a moment. This is a different facet, a new angle, on Romans 8:28. While all things are not good, God is so gracious that he promises to use even our broken lives for much greater purposes such as to make us like Christ and to exalt his glory.

God is creating a great tapestry of which we are a part, even our dark threads. Our problem with this divine tapestry is that the Artist knows, sees, and continues to create the design on the upper side; but we see the lower side with dangling threads and only a faint image of the beauty to come. So we hope in Christ. We cling to the promises of God that nothing is wasted. Even our brokenness and sorrow will be used for good. So we take heart.

is dean of students at the Geneva School in Winter Park, Florida, and author of the book Disability and the Gospel. He has served on the International Board of Directors at Joni and Friends since 2000 and has been involved in Christian ministry for thirty years. He and his wife, Mary, have seven children.