Joni Erickson was seventeen 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. 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 enough that God would heal her, they said.
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 from the Bible that deal with this subject. The world experiences many disasters, storms, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc., and most of us have probably experienced times of suffering which we felt we could not bear, so it is an important question, and generates lots of questions.
Mexico City, September, 1985, 8.1 earthquake. I took this not far from the city center.
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.” He was about to suffer greatly over the next twenty-four 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. Jesus knew what lie ahead while there in Gethsemane, and Mark 14:36 shares with us how He faced the situation by prayer: “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? Did He not believe God enough so that God would change the course of history and take that cup of suffering away? He prayed and still ended up suffering! If we applied a common misconception about suffering and applied it to Jesus, we may be tempted to say that He doubted too much. His doubt expressed in the phrase, “Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Some people say that praying “your will to be done, not mine“, expresses a lack of faith. “No! 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? (We can and should rebuke the devil, as Jesus did, yet we mustn’t presume to tell God what to do.)
What do we do when faced with difficult situations, or when loved ones 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. We search our own heart for unforgiveness or others sins. We rebuke the devil. But in the end, no matter what, let’s keep loving God and never doubt that He loves us. 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!
It takes more faith to be faithful when we are not healed, when we do 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 unfailing 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 or “takes too long”? 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, pondering, “What would Jesus do, think, say?” A mature loving relationship with God will not be upended when awful things happen to us. We may go through a season of doubt, but in the end, when the hard times come, may we stand true like the house built on the rock, and not fall like the house built on the sand.
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. How did God respond to Paul? “My grace is sufficient for you. My power works best in weakness.” Not the normal response we are usually seeking when we 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.” When we have a personal, intimate, alive, loving relationship with God, after the praying, crying and pleading, this is where we need to end up. Having a faith that He is there, that He loves me, His grace is sufficient for me. 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 often taken out of context. Another way of stating this verse is, “By Jesus power/help, I can put up with/endure through anything.” Cold, hot, full, hungry, in jail (as he was when he wrote this letter), free, sick, well, living, dying, rich, poor, homeless, 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. “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.” (Phil. 1:24) 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 details how much a number of them suffered, just as Jesus said they would. Tradition says John, the one who apparently died a natural death on the island of Patmos, was thrown into a pot of boiling oil, but 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 arrested Peter, planning to kill him the next day. But in Peter’s case, God sends an angel and saves him. So how is it that God “let” Herod kill James but He intervened to save Peter? Did James lack faith? Did he have some secret sin? Herod was evil. What happened to James is a natural consequence of sin. Peter was miraculously released in Acts 12. We see prayer as a pivotal part of that, as well as what we now know about God’s plan for his life.
There is a continual contrast in the Bible between heaven and the world, which is governed and controlled in so many ways by the devil, who is called the god of this world. Through Jesus we can have victory over the devil. Yet this world is not heaven. Suffering is a part of life in this world. Neither Jesus, Paul, nor the disciples were exempt from it, and neither are we. 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 life here. God gives us peace, inner joy, hope, His presence, His love, etc., but being His child does not exempt us from the suffering happening here.
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. 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, consider Hebrews 11:35a-40, the chapter which tells us about the heroes of the 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.” This list by itself should dispel any notion that suffering is necessarily caused by a lack of faith.
Consider Mark 4:37-40. 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, to accuse others or ourselves of lacking 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 happens.
Joni Erickson eventually turned her suffering and confusion into a life-changing ministry to thousands upon thousands of people, both to those who have a disability and those who do not. As she says, “I would rather be in this chair knowing Him, than on my feet without Him.”
Verses shared by Pastor Eric Young as we go thru storms:
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!”