I was first introduced to the concept of suffering as a vocation in R.C. Sproul’s 1988 book Surprised by Suffering. See my review of and 15 helpful quotes from the book here. Suffering can come in many ways – physical suffering, loss of a loved one or job, loneliness, etc. l have previously written about “Encouragement in the Midst of Loss” here).
Sproul’s purpose in writing the book was that Christians would not be surprised when primarily physical suffering comes into their life. He wanted us to see that suffering is not uncommon nor random. No, it is sent by our Heavenly Father, who is both sovereign and loving for our ultimate good. He also wants us to understand that suffering is a vocation, a calling from God, a concept that will be new to many.
In a fallen world, suffering is going to come to all of us. You may be suffering now, or you may be caring for someone who is. Sproul tells us that suffering is one of the most significant challenges to a believer’s faith. I often wonder how nonbelievers deal with suffering without the strength found in Christ, who Himself was called by God to greater suffering than anyone who has ever lived.
Sproul tells us that it is when we view our suffering as meaningless and without purpose that we are tempted to despair. But those who understand God’s sovereignty have joy even in the midst of suffering, knowing that it is not without purpose. The book of Job is a book that many turn to regarding suffering. I was helped by Derek Thomas’ excellent teaching series on Job and would commend it to you.
I know many (family members, friends and church members) who are suffering greatly today, and I’m sure you do as well. If you are not personally suffering at this time, chances are good that someone close to you is. Here are 6 things I’ve learned from those who are suffering:
- Learn how to die. I knew Jim and his wife from church. Several years ago, Jim was diagnosed with acute leukemia. He battled the leukemia with great courage, but eventually the time between hospital stays decreased and he knew he was dying. I remember telling him with tears in my eyes over dinner, that he was teaching me how to die as a Christian man.
- Learn how to grieve. Don is a leader at our church. His wife battled an aggressive form of breast cancer, before sadly losing her battle. Through it all, I saw Don being encouraging to his wife, trusting in God and being hopeful. In the time since her death, Don has continued to teach me, now about how to grieve loss as a Christian man.
- It’s hard to be a caregiver and also to be taken care of. I’ve learned this lesson from my Dad and Mother-in-Law. Both provided care for their children and spouses for many years. Now, they often find themselves on the receiving end these days, and that’s hard.
- How to get help. Barb is a dear woman from church whose husband is battling dementia. She recently implemented what I think is an innovative solution. She reached out to a number of men to see if they would be willing to provide assistance with her husband when she needs to leave the home for something. She sends a text message to the list of men to see who might have availability at the time in question. This has worked out well, giving Barb needed assistance
- Encouraging others in the midst of your suffering, part one. Years ago, my wife Tammy and I served as Hospice volunteers. This was back in the days when the local hospital had a dedicated Hospice wing. Our time was spent visiting with family members and assisting the nurses. I can’t tell you how many times we left the hospital feeling like we were the ones who were encouraged, when the purpose of our time was just the opposite – we were supposed to be the encouragers.
- Encouraging others in the midst of your suffering, part two. Similar to the example above, I remember a visit a few years ago with Alice, who was dying of cancer, and her husband. Although we had gone to visit them to provide encouragement, again we left feeling like we had been the ones who left encouraged. I wrote about that visit here.
- Bloom where you are planted. Years ago, Barb, a wonderful saint from our church fell and had to move to a nursing home. She hated being there and was miserable for about six months. Then, she decided that she would make the most of her situation, serving the Lord there in the nursing home, as her ministry. It was then that she thrived in a situation she would not have chosen for herself. She was physically limited and could not do much for herself, but decided to focus on what she could One of those things included giving a smile to everyone that came in her room.
Paul tells us to rejoice in our sufferings because they ultimately produce hope.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5: 3-4
These are just 6 things that I have personally learned from those who have suffered. What would you add to the list from your experiences?
Teach us humbly to receive the sun and rain of your sovereignty
Each strand of sorrow has a place within this tapestry of grace
So through the trials I choose to say: “Your perfect will in Your perfect way”.
~ From the hymn “The Perfect Wisdom of God”