“So, this is it. This is how I’m going to die,” I thought as I kneeled over the toilet in my underwear, waves of pain slamming my stomach. For the sixth time in two weeks I was experiencing unbearable pain, caused by the lemon-size tumor in my small bowel. What I didn’t know was that it had almost completely blocked my intestine and that I would be in the hospital within the hour. It would be my first of four stays in the hospital, culminating two months later in emergency surgery to fix a perforated bowel.
All of this was happening in the middle of chemotherapy to treat the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had been diagnosed a few months before. And that followed the discovery of a brain tumor weeks prior to the cancer diagnosis. I felt for the first time like I understood completely what the Psalmist experienced when he cried out that God’s waves overwhelmed him (Ps. 88:7). It had been one blow after another and little did I know that it would continue this way for some time to come.
Like many believers who seek to grow mature in their faith, I knew that suffering is part of the Christian life. I knew through the study of the Scriptures that we should not be surprised when we encounter fiery trials, as though something foreign and improper were happening to us (1 Pet. 4:7). I knew through my studies in theology that the way of Christ and all his chosen servants in Scripture was “humiliation before exaltation.” I echoed Martin Luther’s rejection of a “theology of glory” that seeks trouble-free bliss and glory in this life. If the Bible taught a “theology of the cross,” with Jesus as our example, then I should not expect any different in this life as one of his disciples. I had heard Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous quote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” My hope for trouble-free bliss and glory should have been firmly rooted in my hope of eternal life with Christ, not in this short sojourn.
Yet, which of us hasn’t struggled with the same doubts about the worth of suffering loss now? Peter voiced the same wavering skepticism as I often feel: “Lord, what’s in it for us? Will it really be worth it?” (Mark 10:28-31). How often I have grappled with the thought that it will not be worth it, that nothing in eternity will be worth my pain and anguish now. And this internal agony devastates me. I know what I ought to believe, but the pain if it is not true, is too much to bear.
If God is not sovereign over my suffering, if he will not ensure that this light and momentary affliction is preparing for me an eternal weight of glory beyond compare (2 Cor. 4:17), then my only recourse is despair. There is either an all-powerful, perfectly loving God who directs my suffering for my eternal good and his glory, or there is only chance in an unguided, meaningless world. In that case suffering is pointless and will bear no fruit that will make it worthwhile.
Suffering, then, puts a believer between a rock and a hard place. If you reject the idea of a godless universe, or one in which the gods are too weak to help, you must accept that your suffering is orchestrated by God, and that until God is finished with his project of transforming you, you can do nothing to escape his hand. This realization is felt keenly in several psalms where the psalmist attributes his troubles to God.
Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. (Psalm 42:7)
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. (Psalm 71:20)
For I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink, because of your indignation and anger; for you have taken me up and thrown me down. (Psalm 102:9-10)
I know, O LORD, that your rules are righteous, and that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Psalm 119:75)
Nowhere is God’s control of an individual’s suffering more keenly felt than in Psalm 88, often called the psalm of the Dark Night of the Soul.
You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah. You have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; (Psalm 88:6–8)
I am shut in so that I cannot escape. Hmmm. Ever feel that way? In the darkest moments of my trials with cancer and surgery, laying in the hospital bed during those long nights, unable to sleep because of pain, or alternately drifting in a nightmarish fog because of opioids, I felt profoundly trapped. Trapped by God. No way to run, like David in Psalm 139:
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Psalm 139:7–12).
If God has ordained my suffering, what can I do about it? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Well, nothing about my circumstances, but I can do something about my heart. We will look at that next time.
Mark Farnham is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. Previously he taught systematic theology and apologetics at the seminary level for eleven years. Prior to that he served as senior pastor in New London, CT for seven years. Mark earned a PhD in Apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He also holds a Master of Theology degree in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity degree from Calvary Baptist Seminary.