When you are young and healthy, it is easy to think that you are in control of your life and that you are the master of your own fate. But circumstances can quickly arise that clearly demonstrate that all human beings are finite creatures with genuine limitations, boundaries, and physical-mental-emotional vulnerabilities. Ultimately, suffering in its various forms overtakes all human beings and shows us to be temporal, mortal creatures.
In this article, I would like to discuss the problem of suffering and how it can wreak havoc on a person’s faith in Christ. I would like to propose that Christians need to know that suffering awaits all of us, and believers in Christ need to prepare for difficult times in their lives. In fact, the church should be helping Christ’s followers to build a vibrant faith and character that can withstand the assault of trials and difficulties that inevitably come. Allow me to share with you some important things I learned from a period of suffering I went through some years ago.
Lessons Learned from My Own Suffering
When I went through a life-threatening illness some 14 years ago, I felt like I had been swept away in a powerful ocean current. Since my illness affected my brain (multiple abscessed brain lesions caused by a rare bacterial infection), my mental state and thinking were scattered and my basic equilibrium was off. Physically, emotionally, and intellectually, I felt pulled and yanked in various directions. The experience turned my life and the life of my family upside down. I was left feeling at first numb and then overwhelmed in my total being.
Because my brain was under assault by the lesions, thinking was very difficult. I couldn’t rely fully on the strong mind that the Lord had given me—one that I had regularly utilized when things were previously tough in my life. I simply had to intuitively hold on to my deepest spiritual beliefs while the current of illness tossed me to and fro. There were times of greater mental clarity, but the illness had taken hold of me, and I attempted to hold on for dear life. As a deeply independent person, I didn’t like the deep neediness and insecurity I felt, but I clung to support wherever I could find it.
Slowly, my spiritual grounding began to kick in, and I fought the illness to a draw, even though I prepared myself for the possible eventuality of death. I told my family and friends that if I lived, I would remain with the dear family I loved—but if I died, I would journey to the city of God and encounter the Lord face to face (Revelation 22:1–5). By God’s sovereign grace, the prayers of many people, and the providence of good medicine, I fully recovered. I had a strong faith when I encountered this catastrophic health crisis, but the sickness taxed all of my spiritual resources to their limits. However, through this difficult trial, my faith somehow became more resilient.
Preparing for the Tough Times
The big crises of life can serve to overwhelm one’s spiritual resources. Of course, the Lord promises that his love and grace are sufficient for all of life’s challenges (Romans 5:3–4, 8:38–39; Philippians 4:6–7), including death (John 11:25–26). But many people fail to truly recognize that major suffering is not a matter of if, but when. Thus, preparing oneself through prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, virtue, and spiritual warfare is prudent and necessary to undergo significant suffering.
Why would a good and all-powerful God allow suffering to exist in the world? This tough question has troubled people throughout every era of history, but I believe the historic Christian worldview provides good answers. The central apologetics answer is that God brings about greater moral and spiritual goods (Romans 8:28) through allowing incidents of evil, pain, and suffering.
When I’m struggling with life’s challenges, I remind myself that my Lord Jesus Christ also suffered. And because he suffered, he can serve as my empathetic high priest (Hebrews 4:14–16). Jesus Christ invites all of us:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
–Matthew 11:28 (ESV)
- For more about my illness and the life lessons that I learned through it in the context of the historic Christian worldview, see my book A World of Difference.
- For my recommendations concerning spiritual growth and preparation for suffering, see my blog post “Feed on the Faith: Grace-Oriented Spiritual Renewal.”