In the school of suffering
I have on my fridge door the photograph of a beautiful baby girl. She was the long-awaited daughter of friends of ours. She lived for 7½ months — in intensive care — her parents constantly at her side.
This is what they wrote when God chose to take her home to be with himself: ‘Our daughter’s lasting legacy to us, her parents, is the deeper appreciation and understanding of 1 Corinthians 13:7-8: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails”.’
God has used varying degrees of suffering in my life to draw me closer to him, reveal more of himself to me and get my eyes off the things of earth and on to the things of heaven.
Treasures of darkness
I have on a number of occasions bemoaned my earth-bound bias and yet Philippians 3:10 has been my life verse for many years now — ‘that I may know [Christ Jesus, my Lord] and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death’.
I like the idea of knowing him and the power of his resurrection; the fellowship of his suffering and being made like him in his death — less so! But it seems that this verse is experienced in reverse. As we enter into the fellowship of his suffering, we come to know him so much better and experience his resurrection power.
We experience what Isaiah 45:3 says: ‘I will give you the treasures of darkness and hidden riches of secret places. That you may know that I, the Lord, who call you by your name, am the God of Israel’.
Oswald Chambers remarks that ‘the treasures of darkness’ is ‘a remarkable phrase’. ‘We can see the stars in our natural world because of the surrounding darkness. And it is because of the mysterious darkness of God’s providences that the deep secrets are ever known to us’.
You have heard of scissor-happy? Well, I nicknamed my husband secateurs-happy! My heart would tremble when I saw him heading out the back door into our garden, secateurs in hand. He was heading for the roses.
The first time I encountered his pruning skills, I was left devastated. I had carefully nurtured my roses month after month, rejoicing over every new leafy growth and thrilled with each bud and flower as it appeared.
Beautiful colours and delightful perfume met me as I walked around our garden. But where now was ‘Winchester Cathedral’ — a pale pink rose with a delicate perfume (and a present from my husband)?
As I got closer to the spot where it had been, with a few fading roses still left on it, I noticed a stump sticking up out of the ground. It had been so severely cut back that it was barely visible above the soil.
I was new to gardening and not aware that next Spring I would have a healthy, flourishing rose bush with many more flowers than ever before. As I bewailed the loss of my rose tree, God spoke to me from John 15. In this chapter Jesus speaks of his Father as the vinedresser who prunes the fruit-bearing branches of his vine, so that they may bear more fruit.
I was not only bewailing the loss of a rose tree that day, but our family had experienced loss after loss in the previous months — in employment, finances, ministry and fellowship, and our son’s health.
I saw that we had been cut back for us to be more fruitful. My flagging spirit revived and I was so heartened, as I realised God was sovereignly at work; we hadn’t spectacularly messed up, nor were we being punished.
When the Boxer uprising took place in China, the China Inland Mission had many workers scattered throughout that vast land. Its founder, Hudson Taylor, had worked tirelessly to recruit workers, as he had an overwhelming burden for the unreached millions of China.
Hudson Taylor was in England recovering from a slight stroke when word reached him of the massacre of 75 of his workers, 22 of them children. He was devastated. Feeling responsible for their deaths, he was taken by his family to Switzerland for the sake of his health.
Pacing up and down the floor of his room with tears pouring down his face, he turned to his daughter-in-law one day and said, ‘I cannot read, I cannot think, I cannot even pray, but I can trust’.
Another story from then tells of a lady whose husband and two children were brutally killed by the Boxers, but on hearing of their deaths she said, ‘I could not pray … but my heart knew Him and no matter how this tragedy seemed to contradict so many things, I rejoiced in Him’.
Oswald Chambers says, ‘As children of God, we should, when God is putting us through strange and mysterious circumstances, convey a merciful impression to the minds of others regarding their attitude towards God. It is a real danger, and perilous to their souls, to allow people to sympathise so much with us in our suffering that they have resentful thoughts of God’.
As my husband is now in the final stage of a rare terminal brain disease, I have struggled to make sense of his life at this point. He spends his days in bed, unable to walk or talk. He cannot see to read or write, and swallowing food and drink is a slow process often followed by much coughing.
Recently, I was sent the notes of a message from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18: ‘Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day’.
Yes, Arthur’s outward man is perishing, but, unseen by me, his inner man is being renewed every day; he continues to live. So I am not losing heart; nor, I believe, is he. We are assured that our suffering is not pointless: ‘For this momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison’.
How awesome is that! We will enjoy through all eternity the glory that our moment of suffering here is accruing for us. The suffering is light, and the glory is weighty.
For more than 20 years, a Chinese Christian had been in prison for his faith in Jesus Christ. Why did he not lose heart? He was given heavy manual work to do and during his lunch break every day he would stand alone and sing aloud two hymns.
One was a psalm of thanksgiving and praise to God, the other was an old hymn about the cross. Every day his focus was on the suffering and shame of his Saviour. He was clinging to the ‘old, rugged cross’ knowing he would ‘exchange it one day for a crown’.
‘We look not at the things which are seen but the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (v.18). Therefore, we do not lose heart.
It has been a great comfort to experience God’s intimate care and understanding of us in our time of suffering and see how he multiplies his grace and also prepares us.
God knew that being grounded for these four years would not be easy for me. So in the year before my husband received his diagnosis, I travelled to the USA, Dubai, Afghanistan and Egypt — more than enough to satisfy even these itchy feet! Only on looking back have I seen his loving preparation for what lay ahead.
God will always give what is right to his people who cry to him night and day, and he will not be slow to answer them (Luke 18:7). Why does God wait until the money is gone? Why does he wait until the sickness has lingered? Why does he choose to wait until the other side of the grave to answer the prayers for healing?
I don’t know. But I only know that his timing is always right. I can only say he will do what is best. Though you hear nothing, he is speaking. Though you see nothing, he is acting.
With God there are not accidents; every incident is intended to bring us closer to him.
The author’s husband, Arthur,
very recently went to be with the Lord.
We extend to Sue and her family
our deep sympathy.