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?
The following are some examples from the Bible that deal with this subject. The world experiences many problems (like the trails of COVID-19 and many others), and most of us have undoubtedly experienced times of suffering, distress or abuse which we felt we could not bear, so it is an important issue, and generates questions and doubts about God and His love.
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 with the mocking, beating, abuse and inhumane crucifixion. 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, for a short time He was made to be sin. He became an anathema. While in Gethsemane, Jesus knew what lay ahead, and Mark 14:36 shares how He faced the situation, praying: “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. Luke says He was sweating blood, a sign of extreme stress. He returned three times to pray the same thing, and still endured unspeakable suffering.
How should we respond when faced with difficult situations, or when loved ones face hardships? Jesus’ example was to ask God for deliverance. We may yearn for it, cry for it, plead for it, pray over and over about it, rebuke the devil. We can also search our own heart for unforgiveness or other sins. Jesus was sinless and yet still suffered. But in the end, no matter what, let us, like Jesus, keep loving God, keep seeking His will and never doubt that He loves us. Jesus told his disciples to prepare for hard times, warning them 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.”
Paul declares in Romans 8:35: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He then goes on to list fifteen things that cannot separate us from His love, ending with: “nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This passage makes it clear that no matter what is happening to us (trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword, etc.), no matter what the devil or the world throws at us, God still loves us unconditionally, and He does so because of what Jesus did for us, by enduring that cup of suffering and giving His life to die in our place, restoring our relationship with God
It takes more faith to be faithful and to rest in His love when we are not healed, when we do not receive the miracle, the deliverance. 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”? Will we keep loving and trusting Him no matter what? We may go through a season of doubt, our emotions may scream at us that we do not “feel” peace, nor joy nor hope. Even depression may set in. But in the end, when the hard times come, may we cling to the truth of the Bible. We may not “feel” happy, it will definitely not be “fun”, but we can have a joy that passes all understanding.
In his book “A Miraculous Life”, Bruce Van Natta tells of speaking on the phone to a lady who had cancer and he was sharing how much God loves her. He then felt God urging him to tell her that God is her Daddy. Bruce does not really like using that term for God, but obeyed. He then felt led to say it several times in a row: “God is your Daddy.” She broke down sobbing. While she was raised to believe in God, she never had a father. As a little girl, she had prayed every day for a daddy, but never got one, so it was really hard for her to believe God really loved her. She now finally realized that God is her Daddy. Oh what manner of love the Father has for us!
We too may have a hard time believing that God is truly loving because of traumatic experiences in the past. Countless prayers may have gone unanswered. We may have had negative experiences with religious people, grown up in a dysfunctional family situation, been physically or sexually abused, had a chronic illness for years, experienced the death of a loved one, or have felt alone and unloved, an outcast for so many years. We see the mess the world is in. These or other difficult experiences may have “soured” us to the idea of God’s love. It may be hard to believe, but He was with us then and He is still here! He never leaves nor forsakes us. Let us consider how Paul dealt with such disappointments in his life.
Paul is an amazing example of loving 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. 12:7-10)
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, like Jesus asked three times for the cup to be taken away. In both cases it didn’t happen. Did Paul lack faith? Did God stop loving him? 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, like Paul, 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.
The New Testament constantly speaks of Paul having this attitude as he serves God. Philippians 4:11-13 proclaims: “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! Notice that these “whatever circumstance” verses are the context of the well known vs. 13. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Another way of stating this verse is, “By Jesus power/help, I can put up with/endure through anything.” Cold, hot, full, hungry, in prison (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, I will keep loving God and know without a doubt that He loves me and will help me through it.
“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” (2 Cor. 11:24-28)
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. 1:23-24)
Even if your suffering seems to be leading to your death, keep loving and 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 much more blessed and inspired by them than I was able to bless or encourage them. Their loving relationship with God before the trial was strong and so their faith in God was strong no matter what was happening to them.
In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul declares: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” No matter what we have done, there is forgiveness. Paul had a lot to repent of, his past actions directly leading to the persecution and death of many of Jesus’ followers. He goes on in wonder: “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” If we have repented, we no longer need to live in guilt. God has wiped the record clean, and He loves us, no matter what we have done.
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. John is the only one who apparently died a natural death. Tradition says he was thrown into a pot of boiling oil, but escaped to the island of Patmos, where he wrote the book of Revelation.
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 (one of the big three of Peter, James and John), 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 sent an angel and saved him. We see prayer as a pivotal part of that, as well as what we now know about God’s plan for his life. So why is it that God “let” Herod kill James but He intervened to save Peter? Did James lack faith? Did God love him less? Did he have some secret sin? We know Herod was evil, so in essence what happened to James was a consequence of Herod’s sin.
The Old Testament heroes of faith
Of the many Biblical examples of godly people suffering in this world, consider Hebrews 11:35b-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 alone should dispel any notion that suffering is necessarily caused by a lack of faith or the idea that God does not love us when trials are pounding us down.
There is a continual contrast in the Bible between heaven and the world. This world 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. Jesus, Paul and the disciples, the prophets were not 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 infers that tears, death, sorrow, crying and pain are a part of this world. God gives us peace, inner joy, hope, His presence, His love, etc., but being His child does not mean that we will not suffer in this world.
So much of living, dying, suffering, etc., is a mystery. But even that should draw us closer to God, to move us to love Him more, clinging to the fact that He loves us no matter what. Besides, where else can we go? As Peter said to Jesus when He asked if they wanted to leave Him like others: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
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.”
Consider also 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 and His love away, or will we cling more closely to Him, whether we live or die. Jesus, who calmed the storm, can calm our fears.
Let us prepare for the storms by keeping a close loving relationship with God at all times, refusing to allow others or our own hearts to question His love for us, and not accusing ourselves or others of lacking faith. 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. As we suffer, we can remind ourselves that we are in good company! Let us stand firm as they did, trusting God and being in love with Him no matter what happens.