Knowing God through Suffering: Introduction, Part 1

“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.

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It’s Still a Good Time to Bolster Our Theology of Suffering (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Our pastor recently asked for a show of hands: “How many of you are aware of someone you knew personally who died in the last three months?” A lot of hands went up. Our pastor is keen on helping believers process these experiences through a biblical grid.

I am, too, starting with myself—hence, this review/meditation.

The Bible gives us plenty of space to be unsure about a lot of things, but it also communicates the truths we need most with a clarity that leaves us with no excuse for floundering. If we focus on what we don’t know rather than what we do know, that’s on us.

What we do know is that (1) suffering in the life of a Christian is never meaningless or without purpose. God intends to use it to make us better or to be an objective expression of the brokenness of the world (Rom 8:20). In both cases, the point is to reveal the perfection of God’s character through the unfolding of the story of God and man on earth: creation, fall, redemption, glory.

We also know that in the lives of believers, pain and loss are (2) never solitary, (3) never payback, and (3) never unfair or cruel. Christian sufferers are part of the great company of believers who have endured across the ages. They are sufferers whose sin-debt has been fully paid and who belong to a wise, good, and loving Father who desires their joy.

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It’s Still a Good Time to Bolster Our Theology of Suffering

In April of 2020, as COVID-19 was disrupting all our lives in ways most of us had never experienced before, I wrote about my personal need to revisit my theology of suffering. It’s interesting to look back on the set of uncertainties that was on my mind at the time.

Now, more than a year and a half later, much has changed, but much hasn’t. Oddly, now that the pandemic is something we’ve mostly gotten used to, it seems like people I know, or loved ones of people I know, are dying of the disease all around me. So what I expected more of in 2020 is reality now, near the end of 2021.

One constant through this is an old, old one. It’s been a constant since Adam and Eve transgressed and were evicted from Eden—the certainty of uncertainty. When things are going smoothly, we experience the illusion of certainty in “life as we know it.” But it’s never truly certain at all.

Some people like that about life. I usually don’t, but—like it nor not—it’s a good thing. In the longest of long runs, all that is unsure and fleeting now is context for a deeper appreciation of what’s sure, unchanging, and eternal (see Rom 8:18). In that spirit, I want to revisit seven certain things in the life of every Christian (today, the first four).

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Limitation or Redirection?

Reposted from Rooted Thinking.

In a recent article, I told my story of struggling with idolizing missions. After that surrender and spiritual blessing, God used my physical problems to redirect my ministry.

The Lord allowed me to recover enough to continue to serve in Cambodia. However, it was clear that I no longer have the physical ability to maintain an aggressive evangelistic ministry like I once did. Now I found that I had to tackle ministry one day at a time, because I could not schedule with much certainty.

God graciously worked in Pursat and allowed us to train a man for the ministry who took over the church in Pursat. We moved on to the northeastern remote province of Oddar Meanchey at the Thai border to see if the Lord would allow me to recover more and be able to pursue church planting there. Health limitations were too great for church planting, but the Lord allowed us to teach professed believers in the wider area that were in desperate need of foundational Bible teaching. No doubt some came to genuine saving faith through that ministry. It was a real disappointment not to be able to pursue church planting there, because the need was profound.  

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Idolizing Gospel Ministry

Reposted from Rooted Thinking.

An Untimely Trial

I was hit with a virus, likely mosquito-borne that our Singaporean doctor in Phnom Penh could not identify. It gave me sustained high fevers for more than a week. The doctor sent lab results to Singapore to try to determine what this was. After ruling out major viruses, she admitted there are still many unidentified that cause the pain and fevers I had. I left the clinic for home, since I had already been a week in Phnom Penh, a six-hour drive away from my family in Pursat.

As time rolled by, the fevers were gone, but symptoms like nerve and joint pain, bad headaches, and extreme fatigue came in waves. I was very affected by noise and touch, the sensations ramping up my pain. We were in the middle of tremendous blessing in ministry, people coming to Christ and changing, a spiritual breakthrough. We had three potential church plants in motion. We were living our dream, as it were, church planting in Cambodia’s Folk Buddhist heartland.

A Seeming Setback

Our lives had been fully committed to and engrossed in learning language and culture while doing evangelism and discipleship. Our team was aggressively proclaiming the Gospel in several areas. God was starting to work in hearts. We were full of joy in the midst of a life and ministry that presented serious challenges. My wife Jennifer had her own deep valley of health concerns after repeated parasitic infections, and my own strange set of symptoms was limiting my abilities.

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