“God said He will not put more on us than we can bear… I just don’t know why He has such faith in me”
The above quote by one of my long time heroes sums up well the journey that I’ve been on the past few months as I’ve continued to experience health challenges. It brings me comfort to know that someone as spiritual as Mother Theresa wrestled with the age old question, ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ and yet came out on the other side perhaps even stronger in her faith and desire to serve the Lord.
As I shared in my last post, this past spring I began experiencing a bad flare up of eczema and psoriasis which subsequently caused me to begin losing my hair as the scalp became weak from the plaques. This was, my specialists thought, a reaction to the biologic I was on so I was switched to a different medication called Entyvio. However, even with the med switch I was continuing to have severe flare ups and although the topical steroid cream was effective at managing the flare up, this was not a long term solution as steroids can be very dangerous when used for long periods, evidenced by the problems it caused me with thinning skin. Also, every time I came off the steroid, the flare would come back worse to point of keeping me up at night. I began to dread taking a shower as I knew it would result in handfuls of hair on the wall and on the brush and an itch so bad it felt like my skin was crawling. We knew that a medication I had been on previously, Imuran, was proven to be effective at controlling eczema and psoriasis flares but my GI doc did not want me to go back on it as it can also be dangerous when used for an extended length of time. After exhausting every non-steroidal cream with no success of gaining control of the flare (not to mention the hundreds of dollars spent before convincing Blue Cross to cover them), I was naturally at the end of my rope.
I found myself becoming increasingly angry at God for letting me to continue to suffer and wrestling some of the toughest theological questions I’d ever encountered. It wasn’t so much that I doubted God’s ability to heal me but rather His willingness to, especially when I had prayed for this so many times, even working up the nerve to ask for prayer from the after service prayer team at my church. Eventually my discouragement led me to stop reading my Bible and stop praying. And yet God still found ways to reach out and bless me. One such blessing came in a conversation I had with a friend about the way that Christians have approached the topic of suffering. We discussed the common statement that Christians say of, “if you just had more faith, God would heal you. You just have to have more faith,” or, “there must be something that God wants you to repent of before He will heal you.” In Job, we see his friends saying very similar statements. But as one of my other friends shared with me, Jesus speaks against this type of thinking in the Gospel of John. He and His disciples encounter a man blind from birth. His disciples are quick to ask Him,
“‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.'”
You see, just like Jesus’ death on the cross, sometimes suffering is required in order for God’s power to be displayed. This doesn’t mean that God enjoys watching us suffer. In fact, quite the opposite. As my friend also shared with me, God despises watching us suffer so much that He promises to walk right alongside us in the suffering. The book of Isaiah says,
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God.”
I shared earlier about the conversation I had with a friend about common Christian responses to suffering and how they don’t always promote right theology as they paint suffering as something to be ashamed of. This summer the sermon series at my church has been on the theology of suffering (coincidence? I think not!). One of the passages that was preached on shortly after this conversation with my friend was 2 Corinthians 12, one of the passages that we had been discussing in regards to this. In this passage Paul shares his experience of suffering and pleading with God to take it away. However, God responds to his pleas by saying,
“‘My grace is sufficient for you, My power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
-2 Corinthians 12:8-9
I was so encouraged to hear a sermon where suffering and weakness wasn’t talked about as something to be ashamed of or something to try and hide. My pastor also began talking about the common misconceptions Christians have about suffering that my friend and I were discussing and how the idea that God allows suffering doesn’t have to be in conflict with the idea that He is good. That these two truths can co-exist. He shared that the reason these two truths don’t need to be in conflict is because God doesn’t just allow suffering, He takes control of it and is able to use it for good, whether it be to strengthen the faith of the person suffering or using the suffering to bring others into a relationship with Him. This is expressed in the books of Romans when Paul said,
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.”
In fact, Romans 8 contains some of the most powerful verses in the Bible on suffering. Here is what Paul has to say leading up to the above passage,
“I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage and decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time… we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons and daughters, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
I love the image of the Spirit interceding for us when we can’t find the words on our own. I can attest that in times of great suffering it can be hard to express everything we are feeling and we wonder if God hears our ‘groans’ or wordless cries for help but the above verses assure us that He does.
The greatest example, however, of God entering in to our suffering is shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”
Because of the sacrifice of His son Jesus, He was able to give all of the us to opportunity to enter into a relationship with Him that had previously been broken by sin. Whenever we suffer, we catch a glimpse of what Jesus went through dying on the cross and in so doing, we become more like Him. This is why James says,
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Realizing that God doesn’t always heal, at least not physically (although thankfully my flare has been settling down thanks to my GI finally letting me back on Imuran, a definite answer to prayer) and not always in this lifetime, has been hard, but I’m coming to realize how much He is using this time of suffering and doubt to strengthen my faith and my testimony. That’s not to say that I still won’t have days filled with doubt and discouragement but with God’s help I’m hoping to handle them better. Being in a position of weakness can make us lash out at the ones who care for us most, something I’ve definitely been guilty of but, being the Disney fanatic that I am, in the words of Cinderella, I’m trying to remember to “have courage and be kind” and by so doing, shine the light of Christ to those who need it most.