“As for man his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it and it is gone and its place knows it no more.” Psalm 103:15-16
Scripture tells us that life on earth is like a beautiful flower that is here today and gone tomorrow. In other words, we bloom and die. Life is fleeting and suffering can hit at anytime.
Suffering and God's redemptive purposes
My family's life turned upside down just three short weeks ago when we were told my husband had stage four terminal cancer. This devastating news came the day before Christmas.
Up until that moment, I thought I had known suffering, but hearing the Mayo ER doctor say, “It is cancer and it seems to be throughout your body” knocked the breath out of me. It was like I was punched in the gut. This trial was going to be a difficult road to walk. We realized we were in uncharted territory.
Cancer is very emotional. It brings pain physically and it always tests our faith. But God uses what comes with a cancer diagnosis; fear, uncertainty, pain and loss to draw us to Him. Would we hold to the promises we know so well or would we cave with fear trusting only in any medical intervention that might help or a miracle that would reverse the “no cure” diagnosis?
Seeing God’s transforming love
My normal human reaction to pain and suffering is to seek immediate relief so that the suffering would be over as quickly as possible. When I heard my sweet husband had cancer my reaction was no different “tell me it is all a mistake and let's just go home and celebrate Christmas.”
When the shock wore off I wanted to know what we had to do to treat the cancer and when we would start. In my mind, I could handle liver transplants, job losses, the loss of home, and health setbacks, but terminal cancer...nope, I couldn’t quite register that one in my mind.
Suffering is not part of God’s design. It was not part of God’s pre-fallen world.
As I processed through the pain and fear, what I knew to be true about God had to be brought back to my mind; I knew God has a loving purpose in all things and He uses all suffering to conform a believer into the image of His Son. Yes, He uses all suffering; including cancer and death, to make me, all of us, more like Christ.
We need wisdom to know how to function in trials. It is available from a giving God, but truth has to be replayed over and over when we are suffering or else our focus will move from the Savior to the present pain we are experiencing. If we don’t keep our eyes on Christ and His redemptive purposes, His attributes and His character, we will lose heart.
Even in the midst of this nightmare, I know God loves me. Romans 8 assures me that God loves me amid the most difficult trials. I know He will never leave me nor forsake me. He tells me to seek Him, to find refuge in Him, to bring all my fears and pain to Him. I know these things but in suffering we can’t just “know” these truths, we have to live them. I have to intentionally appropriate the grace He has for us...the grace that is always there in abundance. My trials, all our trials, must be framed in the light of eternity (1 Peter 1:13).
How do Christians endure painful suffering? How does God use cancer and death to accomplish His loving purposes?
God meets us.
He meets us in the midst of our suffering.
He works in the pain.
When we suffer we need to look for God’s love at work in our lives. Seeing His active love in the midst of our pain will not only strengthen our faith but it will increase it because God is deepening our relationship with Himself.
Just let me isolate
Human nature, in times of difficulty and pain, is to isolate. Yep, that can be me. I can run and hide with the best of them. Pain is painful and it easily causes me to withdraw and curl up into a ball and try to to handle my suffering alone. God knows this and lovingly uses my pain to engage me in the body of Christ.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” Romans 12:15
Letting others rejoice with me is easy. I want others to rejoice with me when there are times of joy, but sharing intense emotional pain is more difficult and I can pull away or retreat from even those I love and who can help me the most. Call it pride, self-protection, fear of being vulnerable or something else, but God knows we naturally divert to this path so He puts us in community and tells us in Scripture not to isolate; it is to our demise (Proverbs 18:1).
So what does God’s Word say to do?
We are to recognize our tendency to retreat and disengage and fight against that natural bent. Don’t go with feelings. Yes, we do need healthy alone time but God put us in a body—the body of Christ—because He knows we need each other. We need to seek out fellow sisters and brothers in the body. Why? Because God is using our pain to deepen relationships in the body.
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26
My professor, Robert Jones, writes in his book, When Trouble Shows Up, about how each believer is an indispensable body member:
“When a church member bears a heavy burden alone, that believer or that church (or both) have failed to live out this biblical vision.”
What exactly is God doing in my husband’s terminal cancer? I don’t know. I do know that He makes the difference in how I handle and cope. I do know His redemptive hand is showing me and my children His love in so many ways. I do know we are turning to God for help in our suffering, instead of turning away. I do know we are drawing closer to our brothers and sisters in the body and depending on their prayers, encouragement and support.
Most importantly, I know not one iota of this suffering will be wasted. It will be used for His redemptive purposes, for His honor and for His glory.
About the author
Karen McMahon is passionate about helping others apply biblical truth to every situation in life. She is the Director of Discipleship Counseling at First Evangelical Free Church in Maplewood, Minnesota and a certified biblical counselor with the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). She has a MA in Theology from the University of Northwestern – St. Paul and is completing her MA in Biblical Counseling from Faith Bible Seminary-Lafayette, Indiana. Karen loves Jesus Christ, her three children and their 12 year old yellow lab...and sushi too.