The Test of Suffering

We’ve all heard it–this idea that when we’re suffering, it’s God testing us. That he sent our pain, our cancer, our circumstances, the death of a loved one, in some kind of sovereign refining plan. There are even hymns we sing that encourage this notion.

Which, I believe, could not be further from the truth. In fact, I find this idea so wrong and twisted that there are hymns I simply won’t sing at church. One of the greatest offenders, to me, is the hymn I Asked the Lord. One verse says this:

Lord, why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death? 
“Tis in this way” The Lord replied 
“I answer prayer for grace and faith”

Even typing this, I’m shaking my head. No. When I pray for grace and faith, God doesn’t rub his hands together and say, “great, now you’re going to hurt.” He does not pursue his ‘worm to death’ when I ask him for grace and faith. Instead, he draws near to his daughters and sons and walks with us through our suffering.

Does it sometimes feel like things in the world are pursuing me to death? Absolutely. But is God the cause? No. He is the remedy. He is the only one who can make that misery into something beautiful and productive. God doesn’t force me to drink a cup of suffering–Jesus already did that for me. No. God redeems my suffering.

I’m not going to make a huge argument here as to why I don’t believe that a healing God is also the hurter, and why I won’t sing about God bringing about pain to burn away our rough edges. Instead, what I want to meditate on today is this:

Suffering is a test–but not of us–of God.

Suffering is the hot iron that jolts us out of the day-to-day and forces us to ask all the big questions. Is God there? Does he care? What does this mean? How can he be good when he’s letting this happen? What promises has he actually made? What can I hold on to when everything is falling apart?

I think that God comes to our table of suffering eager to answer these questions. Eager to sit with us as we cry, and curse, and rage. Eager to simply be with us. Eager to listen, and comfort, and teach. Eager to make himself known.

In suffering, God invites us to put him to the test. The darkest place is the truest test of light–its existence, its brightness, its warmth. The saddest place is a test of God’s joy and peace. (Is is possible? It is enduring? Is it made of strong stuff?) The worst news is a test of God’s good news. (Is it better than the bad news? Is it so much bigger as to dwarf the bad news?)

Suffering is a test.

And God has already told us the outcome: He will pass the test. But he will subject himself to it time and again, because through it he proves himself to us. Makes himself known. Over . . . and over . . . and over.

Through suffering, things that we believed can become things we know. Because they are tested. Through suffering, things we hoped before can be proved true. Because they are tested.

God, in his mercy, takes our strands of suffering and uses them. He takes destructive things like cancer and uses them to build things–relationships, love, faith. He takes the otherwise meaningless and imbues it with meaning. He didn’t cause the suffering, but he has committed himself to make it worth it.

Can you imagine that? An economy of grace where God has promised to use evil for good? A God who’s not just getting rid of evil, or even erasing it, but using it? Who twists it to his purpose? Who uses it in my life as a test of Himself, by which I can know him more?

Whatever the outcome of Heidi’s cancer, I know I’ll be able to say,

When Heidi had cancer, I met God.

That is a victory worth singing about.

Hallelujah for the victory

One of my touchstone songs during these months of grappling with Heidi having cancer has been Danny Gokey’s Haven’t See It Yet.

I know–it’s total Christian pop. YES. And I love it, unapologetically. This song in particular feels like it was written for me.

Have you been praying and you still have no answers?
Have you been pouring out your heart for so many years?
Have you been hoping that things would have changed by now?
Have you cried all the faith you have through so many tears?

This so perfectly describes the state of the past few months. We’ve been praying, hoping, crying–and nothing.

It’s like the brightest sunrise
Waiting on the other side of the darkest night
Don’t ever lose hope, hold on and believe
Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet
You’re closer than you think you are
Only moments from the break of dawn
All His promises are just up ahead
Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet

This chorus always inspires such hope in my heart. Because it’s the story that I want to be true, most of all. All his promises are up ahead? I’m closer than I think? Only moments away from a break-through? I have felt like I’m in the darkest night. And the idea that there could be a sunrise on the other side? Just moments away? I want it more than anything.

He is moving with a love so deep
Hallelujah for the victory
Good things are coming even when we can’t see
We can’t see it yet, but we believe

Every time the song gets to this part, I have to start praising God. Maybe I haven’t seen it yet–the thing I’ve prayed for and longed for–Heidi’s complete healing. But I will. So hallelujah.

I can’t always praise God in the midst of this. In fact, after the week-long prayer posts that you all joined me in, my mom contacted me and said, “you should do a thanksgiving prayer.”

Thank God? I remember thinking. No. I can’t do that right now. I can’t. I just poured out my heart to him in public and now I’m exhausted. Now it’s his turn.

I knew I should. But even when he worked healing in Heidi’s eye, freeing her to drive and read, which was the first prayer you all joined me in, I couldn’t let of the fact that he didn’t do the other stuff. The eye is great, God, but we really need the kidneys.

But today, nearly a month after we all prayed through those six posts, I’m setting aside all my complicated feelings, to say this:

God, thank you. Thank you because you’re moving (even though I can’t see how). Thank you because you’re moving with love (even though it doesn’t feel like it). Help this heart of mine praise you in the storm. I can’t do it without your help. Help me, in the battle, even if Heidi dies, cry out your praise. Hallelujah for the victory.

God, you know it hurts me to type those words. My chest is tight and I feel angry. I’m only doing this because I think I should. I’m not feeling thankful. In fact, since that intense week of prayer, I’ve been holding you at arm’s distance because I put everything out there and you didn’t fix Heidi right away and I had to retreat into my hidey-hole.

This morning, I’m coming back out of the hole. I want to obey you . . . even when I don’t. I want to praise you . . . even when I don’t. Help my unbelief. Help my anger. Let me praise you in the darkest night. Before the brightest sunrise. While it’s still dark and confusing and painful.

And I’m latching onto this song that I’ve heard on the radio so many times to help me do it.

Thank you because all your promises are up ahead.

Thank you because the darkness won’t last forever.

Thank you for setting a table that welcomes me, your often-rebellious and often-doubting daughter.

Thank you because there is healing in store for Heidi.

Thank you for all the people you’ve brought into Heidi’s life to walk with her through this time, to serve her family, to pray for her and with her.

Thank you for healing her eye.

Thank you for giving me your presence in some of the deepest suffering, blazing like a fire during moments of despair.

Thank you for the beauty of your promised hope–eternal life, healed bodies, no more tears.

Thank you for your good news, which is all these things and more–which will sweep us up, satisfy our every longing and desire, and shine upon us like a sunrise, banishing the dark.

Amen.