Note: There is an updated version of this article which overlaps a lot with this one but with a different focus, called: No matter what has happened to us, is happening to us or will happen to us, God loves us. Trust Him.
Joni Erickson was 17 years old when she dove off a pier in a lake, hit a rock underneath the water, and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. She was a Christian and this shook her faith. As time went on, many Christians prayed for her to be able to walk again. She believed God could do that, but it never happened. She was filled with doubt as many people communicated to her that her lack of healing was caused by a lack of faith, or hidden sin. She just didn’t believe hard enough that God would heal her, they said.
Were they right? Is that what the Bible says about suffering, that if we just believe enough, we can basically “make” God heal us or deliver us from hard times? Did Joni just lack having enough faith?
I would like to help answer that by sharing some examples of people in the Bible and a few of the many verses that touch on this subject. The world has experienced so many disasters, storms, earthquakes, etc., especially in the second half of 2017, so it is a question on many people’s minds, and generates lots of questions.
Does the Bible really teach that our lives here on earth should be one big rose garden? Are all people, especially Christians, to be exempt from suffering? Why is there suffering in the world in the first place? See my November 16 blog, The problem of evil in the world, part 1. God’s attributes, for a basic treatment of this question. But for now, let’s look at a few examples in the Bible.
Did Jesus lack faith?
When we are in the middle of difficult times, we may be able to relate to Jesus’ statement that it is like “a cup of suffering.” What was Jesus’ cup of suffering? He was about to suffer greatly over the next 24 hours, the mocking, beating, abuse and inhumane crucifixion. One of my professors once commented that His greatest suffering was revealed when He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” All the sins of the world were placed on Him, He died in our place, and since He “became sin”, for a short time He became an anathema in the sight of His Father God. So much more I could say about that. But Jesus knew what lie ahead while there in Gethsemane, and Mark 14:35-36 shares with us how He faced the situation: “He went on a little farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if it were possible, the awful hour awaiting him might pass him by. “Abba, Father,” he cried out, “everything is possible for you. Please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Jesus prayed that those awful coming hours would be taken away. But they were not! Did He lack faith? Didn’t He believe God enough so that God would change the course of history and take that cup of suffering away? He prayed that it be taken away and still ended up suffering! If we applied the common misconception about suffering and applied it to Jesus, we would be tempted to say He just doubted too much. His doubt expressed in the phrase, “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” I have heard people say that praying something like what Jesus prayed, “your will to be done, not mine”, expresses a lack of faith. “No!”, they say, “Don’t say that. Believe and claim your deliverance!” In that moment they seem to be telling God what to do. So you have to ask, Who is the Master and who is the servant? I would rather follow Jesus’ way of praying! James 4:15-16 also shows us what our attitude should be: “What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil.”
So what do we do when faced with difficult situations, or when the ones we love face hardships? Yes, we ask God for deliverance, we yearn for it, cry for it, plead for it, we pray over and over about it. But in the end, whether it comes or not, we keep loving God. We keep following Him and trusting Him. Jesus told his disciples to prepare for such things, saying in John 16:33: “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”
It takes more faith to not receive the miracle, the healing, than to receive it!
Did you read that right? More faith to not be healed? More faith to not receive the miracle, the deliverance? Yes! Is our relationship with God strong enough to withstand hardship? Apparent unanswered prayer? This is the time when “the rubber meets the road” in regards to our faith. Are we really insanely in love with God or not? Will we trust Him no matter what?
God has promised us His love, joy, peace, hope, eternal life, His presence (you are not alone!). He does heal, He does do miracles, but how do we respond when it doesn’t happen? This is when we need the most faith. This is when keeping our relationship “alive” with Him before the fact bears much fruit. Praying without ceasing, regular study of His Word and fellowship with like-minded believers, having a lifestyle of sharing Him with others, constantly looking at situations and pondering, “What would Jesus do, think, say?” A mature relationship with God will not be upended when awful things happen to us. For when the hard times come, it will stand true like the house built on the rock, and not fall like the house built on the sand. It will stand firm now and then after the problem is over.
Did Paul lack faith?
Paul is an amazing example of keeping faith in God no matter what, and he shows us that there is nothing wrong with wholeheartedly asking God to remove the suffering, to pray about it over and over. What happened to Paul is another instance of where a great pillar of the faith asked for something, pleaded for something, but did not receive the answer he was hoping for.
“I have received such wonderful revelations from God. So to keep me from becoming proud, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger from Satan to torment me and keep me from becoming proud. Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7b-10)
Jesus compared His coming trials to “a cup of suffering.” Here Paul calls his a “thorn in the flesh.” We have all had what have felt like “thorns in the flesh.” Paul asked three times for his thorn to be removed. It wasn’t. Was it because he doubted God? Did he lack faith? Did he have some hidden sin! No, those so often used pat answers are just not Biblical. How did God respond to Paul? “My grace is sufficient for you. My power works best in weakness.” Not the normal response most are seeking when they are praying for deliverance. Then Paul says a remarkable thing. “I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Amazing. As mentioned above, when you have a personal, intimate, alive relationship with God, after the praying and crying, this is where we need to end up. Having a faith that He is there, that He loves me, that I am not alone. No matter the circumstances.
The New Testament is full of Paul having this attitude as he serves God. Take Philippians 4:11-13: “Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”
Content in whatever circumstance! What a Biblical standard to follow! A by-product of what is said a few verses earlier “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
Notice that these “whatever circumstance” verses are the context of the famous vs. 13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” A verse usually taken out of context. Another way of stating this verse is, “By Jesus power/help, I can put up with/endure anything.” Cold, hot, full, hungry, in jail (as he was when he wrote this letter), free, sick, well, living, dying, rich, poor, married, single. Whatever is going on in my life, God will help me through it.
For Paul, even death is not the worse thing that could happen to him. (The worse thing that can happen to us is knowing the truth about Jesus and turning our back on it.) Look at what he says in this same letter: “For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live. (1:20-24)
So even if your suffering seems to be leading to your death, keep trusting God. A number of times I visited friends who ended up dying within a month. I went to try and be an encouragement to them and they could not stop trying to encourage me, to be a blessing to me. In each case, I left so much more blessed and inspired by them than I was able to bless or encourage them. That shows me that their relationship with God before the trial was strong and so their faith in God was strong no matter what was happening to them.
Did the disciples lack faith?
Eleven of the twelve disciples, tradition says, died as martyrs. The Book of Acts shares with us how much each one suffered, just as Jesus said they would. John, the one who apparently died a natural death on the island of Patmos, tradition says he was thrown into a pot of boiling oil, but somehow escaped.
Acts 12:1-5 gives us pause to consider what happened to two of the disciples. “About that time King Herod Agrippa began to persecute some believers in the church. He had the apostle James (John’s brother) killed with a sword. When Herod saw how much this pleased the Jewish people, he also arrested Peter. (This took place during the Passover celebration. Then he imprisoned him, placing him under the guard of four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring Peter out for public trial after the Passover. But while Peter was in prison, the church prayed very earnestly for him.”
James the brother of John, whom we read about so much in the Gospels, a man Jesus invested so much of His life to teach and disciple, was suddenly killed by Herod. No miraculous deliverance, no instant resurrection. Dead. Then Herod grabs Peter with the idea of killing him in front of the crowd on Sunday. but in Peter’s case, God sends an angel and saves him. So how is it that God “let” them kill James but He intervened to save Peter? Did James lack faith? Did he have some secret sin? Obviously it has a lot to do with Herod being evil and having him killed. It is a natural consequence of sin. In a future blog I plan to talk about the contrast we see in the Bible, especially John, between “the world”, governed and controlled in so many ways by “the god of this world”, and heaven. This is not heaven. My first suffering blog gives some basic insight into what is happening in the world. Rev. 21:4 says of heaven: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” That assumes that tears, death, sorrow, crying and pain are a part of “this world.” God gives us peace, inner joy, hope, His presence, etc., but being His child does not exempt us from the suffering in this world.
Peter did not die in Acts 12. We see prayer as a pivotal part of that, as well as what we now know about what God had planned for his life. So much of living, dying, suffering, etc., is a mystery. We can learn so much by really digging into the Scriptures, letting them teach us and not the doctrines of men. I am sharing some insights here, but much of what goes on is difficult to understand. But even that should draw us closer to God, not farther away.
Faithful in suffering
Of the many other examples of godly people in the Bible suffering and not always finding deliverance in this world, let me finish this section with Hebrews 11:35a-40, the chapter which tells us about the heroes of the faith. This list by itself should dispel any notion that suffering is caused by a lack of faith. Note what it says near the end, “All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith.”
“But others were tortured, refusing to turn from God in order to be set free. They placed their hope in a better life after the resurrection. Some were jeered at, and their backs were cut open with whips. Others were chained in prisons. Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world, wandering over deserts and mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.”
Does God send the calamity, does He “kill” people?
One more very important point I want to make in relation to the theme of suffering and especially calamities and death is the “heresy” of saying that God sent the calamity, storm, earthquake, etc. People blame Him for these disasters or blame Him for the suffering in our lives. I again suggest you read my earlier blog on the why of suffering, but to say God sends all these bad things is not Biblical. The short answer is that the world is under the curse of the devil and he is the culprit behind much of the suffering we see. Other suffering comes as a natural result of sinful actions. We ourselves may suffer the natural consequences of our sin. But it is unbiblical to say that God might hit me with a lightening bolt if I do such and such a bad thing.
It also pains me to hear people say, trying to comfort others, that God needed another angel, or some such thought, and that is why He “took” such and such a person. The author of death is the devil. God does not “kill” people, so that He can take them to heaven. Because of sin and the devil, bad things happen to us and we will all die, some dying what seems way too young. As we saw with James and Peter, there is some mystery about this, but it is wrong to say that God took the life of such and such a person. It is fine to say that after the person who loved Jesus died, they will be (were?) received by God into heaven. But to imply He caused the death is not Biblical.
A quickie illustration of natural calamities is found in Mark 4:37-40: “But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water. Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?” When Jesus woke up, he rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Silence! Be still!” Suddenly the wind stopped, and there was a great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
So did Jesus send the storm so that He could then calm it? No. Storms are a part of this natural world. How we respond to the storm is the more important question. Will we let the storms blow our trust in God away, or will we cling even closer to Him, trusting him with our lives, be it that we live or die. Jesus, who calmed the storm, can calm our fears.
Storms will come into our lives. May we be prepared for them by keeping a close loving relationship with God at all times. Let us not allow others or our own hearts to question Him, doubt His unconditional love for us, or accuse others or ourselves for lack of faith. For to do so would be to question the faith of Jesus, Paul, the disciples, Stephen, who was stoned, the Old Testament heroes of the faith, etc. Let us instead stand with them, trusting God and being in love with Him no matter what our circumstances are.
Joni Erickson eventually turned her suffering and confusion into a life-changing ministry to thousands upon thousands of people, both disabled folks and those who are not. As she says, “I would rather be in this chair knowing Him, than on my feet without Him.” http://www.joniandfriends.org/television/id-rather-be-wheelchair-knowing-him/
I will end with a few Scriptures Pastor Eric Young recently shared that are good to meditate on as you go through storms and tough times:
Isaiah 41:10: Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
Psalms. 46:1-3: God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. So we will not fear when earthquakes come and the mountains crumble into the sea. Let the oceans roar and foam. Let the mountains tremble as the waters surge!
Daniel 10:19: “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “for you are very precious to God. Peace! Be encouraged! Be strong!”