How Will You Respond When – Not If – Suffering Comes?

A few weeks ago, I finished reading a book that will end up knocking something off of my Top 10 List of most influential books in my life, as this one surely deserves a place at the top.

The title is Be Still, My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering. Edited by Nancy Guthrie, the book is a compilation of the writings of dozens of authors, all writing on the problem of pain and suffering that is a reality of life this side of heaven.

Sounds like a heavy read, does it not? Maybe not something you’d be at all interested in reading unless you were, indeed, going through some pretty intense suffering. But the truth is that all of us, sooner or later, will experience loss, tragedy, hardships, painful circumstances and distressing seasons. Choose your adjective, suffering will come. The question is not whether you will end up having to go through a rough season in life, but how you will respond when it comes.

One thing I’ve found to be true is that it’s in the midst of suffering that your faith will be most intensely tested.

Certainly that’s what one of the authors, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, believed. One of the excerpts was written by Lloyd-Jones and titled “The Test of a Crisis.” In that chapter, he writes:

When we go through a crisis, it shows exactly and precisely what kind of person we really are. In times when life is pursuing the ordinary tenor of its way, we all succeed in making a fair show. It is so easy to live out an artificial and a superficial life and to persuade ourselves that we really are what we would like to be. But in a time of trial and of crisis, the natural, the real, and true come into view.

A time of crisis and of difficulty also tests and demonstrates very clearly what we really believe, and the nature of our religious faith.

As I read this excerpt several weeks ago, I couldn’t help but shrink back a little as I remembered how poorly I have responded to painful situations and difficult trials when they began to come my way as a relatively new believer.

If you are not a Christian, it is at least consistent that you might respond poorly, rage against the fates (so to speak) and focus on self-preservation during dark days. But as a believer, our responses should be significantly different from those around us, especially those who put their hope in their possessions, their money or themselves. After all, we believe in a Sovereign God who has rescued us from all that and offered us an eternity with Him…right? That’s what we say during times of plenty, anyway.

And yet, we do often respond so poorly. I know I have. I’ve been whiny, I’ve kicked at the goads and I’ve raged, angry simply at the way things were turning out.

My favorite form of unbelief was probably the “What if?” game I would play with myself. I would spend far too much time being anxious as to potential outcomes spun out nowhere other than in my imagination – outcomes that hadn’t even happened yet! On the pretense, I suppose, of combating those fears, I would try to play out the various scenarios likely to occur in the trial that had beset my life. While my logic was not nearly this clear-headed, I think I must have believed that if I could just identify all the various “What if’s?”, I could also then have the most appropriate – i.e., minimally destructive to my life – response to said scenario. My mental striving and groaning, I wrongly reasoned, would somehow give me the upper hand at some point in the future.

All of this is simply a confession that when trials have come my way, there are plenty of examples to show that I wasn’t trusting in the God I said I trusted. I’ve confessed several times before on ESI that I wrestle with wanting to control things in my life – circumstances, relationships, whatever – and this is one more example of how a lack of control spotlighted for me my lack of trust in God.

Well, at least I’m not alone in finding out that my faith was weak and untenable. Lloyd-Jones continues:

The classic example of this is John Wesley prior to his conversion. He, in a sense, knew all about religion, but while crossing the Atlantic, and in a terrible storm, which seemed to be leading to certain death, he felt that he had nothing. He was afraid to die and afraid of everything. And what struck him was the contrast presented by the Moravian Brethren who were on the same ship. They were, in comparison with Wesley, ignorant men, but their religion meant something real and vital to them. It held them in the storm, and gave them peace and calmness, and indeed joy, even face to face with death. Wesley’s religion appeared to be excellent. He gave all his goods to the poor, he preached in prisons, and he had crossed that Atlantic to preach to pagans in Georgia. He was a man of immense knowledge of things religious. And yet the trial revealed to him and to others the nature of his religion, and showed it to be worthless.

Attaching the word “worthless” to the faith of someone such as John Wesley really ought to garner our attention, don’t you think? Lloyd-Jones’ excellent excerpt, and many others like it in this book, has served to bolster my desire to be a woman of genuine faith, whose responses to trial and adversity only prove that genuineness. While I have failed miserably in the past, and will almost certainly fail again somewhere further on up the road, I don’t want to continue to consistently respond to suffering in God-dishonoring ways.

How about you? Do you lean wholly on God through suffering? Do you cling to your faith as if it’s a lifeboat when the waves of tragedy are threatening to destroy your life? Or, like me, have you found that a season of suffering only highlighted how weak your faith really is? Or, do you even know yet how you will fare when suffering comes your way?

At the end of this month my husband Warren and I – along with fellow Crossing member Dale Wilcox – will facilitate yet another 12-week session of DivorceCare, and once again the room will be filled with people who are suffering, whose lives right now are hard. For them, their season of suffering is upon them. It’s “their turn at the wheel,” so to speak.

One thing is certain, for these folks, for myself, and for you – the true test of whether God’s Word really is the ultimate source of hope in our lives is how you respond to it when life really is hard.

I’ve come to understand a hard truth: Suffering is God’s mercy in the lives of believers. I would never expect anyone to embrace that truth in the midst of suffering, but as you look back on it, it’s God’s mercy if you can see that through it all, He was with you. Through it all, He was strengthening and encouraging you.

It’s through the trials I have endured that I first recognized the flimsiness of my faith, and sought Him to strengthen me. And it’s through continued injustice and pain that my dependence upon Him has been solidified. I can barely control my own tongue (James 3:3-8), let alone the myriad of circumstances that impact my life. But increasingly so, I trust God, the Creator of all things, to control those circumstances, to His glory. I trust Him imperfectly, to be sure, but increasingly so, by His grace. It is because of His mercy that I am slowly seeing what I need most of all – Himself.

Lloyd-Jones, in “The Test of a Crisis,” speaks directly to Christian sufferers just like me, my husband, and – some day sooner than we would wish – all of us:

You may not understand what is happening to you; it may seem, to you, all wrong. Trust yourself to him. Believe when you cannot prove. Hold on to his constancy, his justice, his eternal purposes for you in Christ. Regard those as absolutes, which can never be shaken, built our case logically upon them, remain steadfast and unshaken, confident that ultimately all will be made plain and all will be well.

Romans 8:32 (ESV)
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?

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