When God Gives You Physical Suffering
I don't know if it's just that we're getting older, or that it hasn't been on my radar before, but it seems to me that God has been putting a lot of people I know through physical hardship. It makes sense that as we age a bit, our bodies start to have issues; my generation is by no means "old" and yet I can confidently say as I'm approaching my thirties that I'm starting to feel a little bit different than when I was 18. At the same time, the last year of almost constant back pain has definitely put "physical hardship" more on my radar. Regardless of what it is, I'm noticing it now, and I'm noticing that it's not just me.
Several moms from my church struggle with recurring, debilitating migraines. They have to keep a household running, work a job, and be supportive wives - all with not one, not two, but several small children in tow. Throughout the last year, for the sake of connecting and encouraging, so many people came up to me and let me know they also experienced severe back problems; for some, they have gone unresolved for years. My beautiful and athletic sister-in-law was hit with cancer right at the onset of dating and is still having to go to the hospital for treatment two years in. And there are other, more private health problems I know of, where people are suffering in silence, hoping, praying for answers and resolution.
I've learned that God uses physical hardship, too, to bring us closer to Him.
I've learned that in the most unbearable moments, when we are utterly divested of our last strengths, cliche as it may sound, we run to Him because that's the only source of strength left. Constant, daily pain/suffering can make you feel like you are actually losing your mind. God alone can help you keep it.
My heart has been burdened for these people I know or see are in the midst of physical hardship. I don't have answers for why God allows it and for how long; nor do I have comfort to give other than the comfort by which I have been comforted, comfort that God gave me, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 1:6. My prayers and heart are with those who suffer, and I offer these small lessons that I learned in the hopes of encouraging anyone who needs to hear this.
God Is In Control
There are physical problems that make sense, and those that don't. There are physical problems that have a definite ending point, and those that drag on endlessly. There are physical problems that are well-defined, treatable, controllable, and those that are mysterious, incurable, or seem completely unmanageable. Both are hard, but particularly hard is the latter.
When you have a physical problem that you either don't know the cause of, don't know when it will resolve, or the doctors don't know how to treat it, you will feel out of control. The false sense of confidence that a firm diagnosis, a treatment plan, and a confident doctor gives you go out the window. You realize that at the end of the day, we're just humans trying to figure out a confusing universe in which illness is a real, persistent, and unmanageable problem. Your body that you felt comfortable in becomes a strange and threatening place. The disease, the issues, seems to be the authority, with a mind of its own. You imagine the worst case scenario. You imagine a decent case scenario, and that would be living with the issue as it stands, and that itself seems horrific. You feel completely out of control and at the mercy of the disease. Your feelings mount into a tornado of anxiety, and you experience a "black moment" where despair and fear for the future master your spirit, your heart, your body.
Stop. Breathe. Because your feelings are leading you by the nose into a storm that shouldn't and need not exist. A change in perspective will bring you peace. The truth, if you can fight past your flailing, ribboning emotions, is that this is a gift and a rare opportunity. You are being set in a hard place; but it is the only place from which you can glimpse the true layout of the land. Where other people are reclining peacefully on trust in their own health ("never had a major health issue so far"), doctors ("my doctor told me exactly what to do and I'll be fixed"), treatments ("my treatment plan is the best one and has worked for countless others"), statistics ("statistically this is resolved 98% of the time), youth and strength ("I'm young and healthy - I'll make it"), others' experiences ("my friend's sister's husband's cousin's boyfriend had this and recovered") - precisely because you don't have any of those confidences, you are forced to see that you must rely totally, completely on God. You are gifted to see that He was the only One to rely on all along - that all those other things can be hopeful, but if God ordains your disease remains or progresses and you die, it will happen absolutely no matter what anyone said, what anyone diagnosed, what anyone recommended, what anyone else experienced.
You catch a rare glimpse of the real way life works; you are allowed to dispel the illusion. You realize that every breath you are still inhaling is God-ordained, every step you are taking, every peace or pain-filled moment is planned, allowed, and purposefully sent by God.
I will speak simply. The truth is that God is completely in control of your physical issue. It can and will stop the moment He decides. If it is still with you today, it is because He chose this path for you. You do not know the end, but He does.
God Is Good
This next part is vital, because if you are replacing being completely at the mercy of a malignant or at best, senseless, disease with being at God's mercy, you want to know that He is good.
Your suffering is real, and the feeling that it is unbearable is at the forefront of your mind. If He knows your pain and is choosing that you remain in pain, how can He be good?
I won't attempt to answer a question that theologians have written whole books about in the space of this short blog. I can say that here, another opportunity emerges. You said that He is good when things were good. Now that the trial has come, can you still say it? Think about it this way. If you say you love Him when you are healthy and life is going well, that's one thing. But if in the midst of intense and unbearable suffering, you still love Him and believe in His Word - the things He says about Himself and His character - you are proving that you mean it.
The middle of a raging tornado is not when you are at your best. It's not when you senses and thoughts are most intact. You make decisions about what to believe in moments of peace; you hang onto these decisions in moments of trial. If you never truly analyzed your beliefs about God, I challenge you to wait for the storm to calm before you draw conclusions. If you did, and you are strongly rooted in your faith that God is good and His character is one of love, I challenge you to hold fast to that until the storm calms.
Show Him you meant what you said. Show Him a little bit of faith when it gets hard. This is your test - not figuring out how to heal yourself. He will lead you to that when the time is right. Be faithful in the endless doctor appointments and seeking answers. But that is not the crux of the matter. That is not the test. Healing is not your responsibility. The test is being administered to your heart. Can you, like Job, praise God when He gives and when He takes away?
In the middle of the night, hold fast to what you believed when you were in the light. You will be strengthened and confirmed in your beliefs when He comes through for you. When His sun dawns on you. As He will cause it to.
Find the Rock Bottom
As you struggle through the muck of a physical trial that feels like a bottomless pit, your fingers may bruise themselves on something hard. Something cold. Something that doesn't give way any further. Rock bottom.
Rock bottom is when you are at your wits end. Rock bottom is when you simply cannot go on. Rock bottom is when you are out of strength and out of faith. Rock bottom is when you want to turn your back on everything you ever believed; metaphorically, curse God and die, as Job's wife challenged him to. Rock bottom seems like the worst place ever and yet I believe it is one of the best places a human being can be.
Rock bottom is where you finally show your true colors. Rock bottom is where you prove your faith. More than this, rock bottom is where you don't physically die, but spiritually. We died with Christ, to our flesh. It's dead-dead. It's a rotting, cold cadaver in the grave and yet we let this decaying zombie rule over so much of our lives because we simply can't bring ourself to believe it's really dead. I want to stop getting so angry, but my flesh is so strong, so alive, we think. And we actually delude ourselves into thinking that that old flesh is a muscular marathon runner that's strong-arming us into sin.
The reason we do this is interesting. It's not only lack of faith that God has crucified my flesh with Christ. It's also a secret, prideful belief that there's still something good about that old man. Something redeemable. Something we can save and reform. And that's absolutely a lie.
Rock bottom is where we understand that everything, every single last thing about us is totally doomed. We have no physical strength to heal ourselves. We have no spiritual strength to go on loving a God that would allow this. We have no emotional strength to buoy ourselves back up in to hope. We are absolutely at the end of our rope and realize that nothing good dwells in us.
That's when we look at the deceiving cadaver that has been running the show and ruining our lives. We put it away, back in the grave. If nothing good dwells in me, then I'm finally ready to be put to death. If there's really nothing I can do to fix my physical, emotional, spiritual issues; if I am sick and evil through and through, I'm ready to die. I'm out of strength. I'm okay with the end coming. I'll lie back here, absolutely powerless, and if God wants to do something with me, through His strength, sure, He can. But there's no more steam coming out of this old, ruined self.
This is done so that when you rise again, not tottering to your feet but a new creature with new life and actual spiritual power, you can give credit where credit is due. It was all God's strength, and so all God's glory, that brought it all about.
This Too Shall Pass
I strongly believe, and I think all the evidence and Scripture point to it, that life is a series of hills and valleys. It's never static. There is a time for everything, Song of Solomon 3:1-8 tells us:
1For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
You may, in your most irrational moments, fear that this is something you will struggle with forever. I'm here to tell you unambiguously that you will not. This too, shall pass. No trial lasts forever; you may have new trials and maybe this physical problem will morph into something else or you may struggle with the same pain but be dealing with it in a different way; the point is that this moment, this point of tension, this unbelievable suffering will not last forever. It will 100% pass at some point. You don't know how soon. You don't know how much longer. You don't know if it's around the corner or in the next few years. You don't know anything but that God will, at some point, move you forward into something else.
You can know that not only because there are seasons but because you know Who sent it and you even know why. He has sent you this physical hardship for your sanctification. He has picked it, planned it, and pre-determined its duration. You know that He has a purpose for it, some end He is trying to accomplish. So the key, is that His end is accomplished. His work in you is done. Once that is done, the trial will be unnecessary and so removed. It's a simple as that.
Don't fall into the trap of thinking, well, I'll just fix whatever spiritual problems I have so this goes away. First of all, I'd like to point out that it's not a bad thing to ask yourself if there are areas of rebellion or sin in your life. But you may correct all of those and the trial remains. Because you probably don't know what He is trying to fix; there are spiritual realities, spiritual bumps and bruises, malformations and handicaps that we don't even know exist. Secondly, it's not your job to fix the issue. It's the Spirits. You do have a responsibility though; your response.
And here comes the pressure point. You're in this now. It's hard. It's hopeless, from an outsider's perspective. You're actually in the middle of the raging tornado. But you know 1) He is doing a work, 2) you can trust Him, and 3) it will pass. You have a choice. You can fight the wrong battle. You'll be spending your energies fighting for physical solutions, fighting your circumstances, fighting for your plans; you will find that you are actually fighting God Himself. If you're not a true child of God, you may lose your so-called faith. If you are a child of God, I think it is possible that you may choose rebellion, and I can't speak for what His next move will be, but assuredly, the path will not be easy.
But the hope is for better thing for us, the redeemed. If you are a child of God, and an obedient one at that, every inch of energy you expend will bring you closer to rock bottom. That very dark, very good place to be. It will bring you to the point where you must say, not my will, but Yours. Not me, You. Not even my health and comfort and future do I hold over my relationship with You, my belief in Your character and Your promises.
Here's the thing. This moment is all you have to show Him you love Him. The moment will pass, the trial will dissipate, and with it, the opportunity to show you love Him when it mattered. You were not a fair-weather friend. Your belief in Who He is ran deeper than anything thrown at you. If the moment passes and you don't, if things return to normal, your praise and worship will be shot through with self-distrust. Do you really mean you love Him when you showed so little faith in the storm?
Seize your chance to show your love. He is worth it, and His love for you runs so deep He is willing to risk your anger and pain for your greater good. He sees the disease of sin; He is the surgeon ready to cut you open to remove the cancer. Trust His all-powerful, all-knowing, totally good Hand.
In surrender, there is peace, even in the midst of pain. In the midst of a tornado of physical suffering, you will find that trusting His heart is the eye of the storm.
It is a simple grace
to learn how not to waste
Losing blood and strength
go to the greatest length
Gold is in the fire
if submerged entire
Hang not onto hope
that He will cease to stoke
And learn and stretch and grow
He will not let you go
Hope is real and good
but only understood
M. P. Whittaker
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