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A theocentric view of suffering makes personal pain the worst of times and the best of times, though we typically do not see the benefit in our suffering until it has long passed. Isn’t that true for you? As you reflect upon the most painful times of your life, haven’t you seen how the Lord was there sustaining and caring for you?
During suffering, you experience a grace that you cannot appropriate at any other time. When the Lord drives you into the crucible of suffering and magnifies Himself by sustaining you, it creates an indelible, soul-stirring memory. There is a deep intimacy found in the heart of God that you access through a cross that leads to your “death.”
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death. – Philippians 3:10
I have talked to many Christians who have echoed this truth. Though they never want to go back into their crucible, they do acknowledge how they would not exchange their experience with God that came during their fiery trial (Daniel 3:20; 1 Peter 4:12).
I agree with them because it’s my story too. After my family had left, I went into a deep sorrow from which I did not fully return for ten years. The despair was unending. The confusion was spiritually disorienting. There are no words to describe the pain of those years.
I resigned my life to the lower shelf of the Christian ecosystem. As I looked into my future, I could see nothing hope-filled. It was dark, bleak, and unending. Hope was gone as I began to accept how the future would always look like my present.
It was in this place where God’s goodness entered into the suffering that He gave to me. Before this, I knew the Lord, but it was in the crucible of hopelessness where I experienced Him in a unique, unforgettable, and life-transforming way (Job 42:5-6).
Two Christian undergrad degrees did not introduce me to the Lord in the way I needed to know Him. Education gave me an awareness of theology, but unremitting anguish gave me Christ. Knowing the Lord intellectually and experiencing Him in life-altering pain are radically different things.
Intense suffering brings a convergence into your life that wants to tear apart your soul. It is fear and faith going toe-to-toe in a loser leaves town match. And you are never really sure who will win.
This kind of internal consternation is the most vulnerable and fertile ground for the Lord to affect you. It is in this sort of trial where He can put something in you that (1) will never leave you, (2) for which you will be eternally grateful, and (3) many reap the benefits for the rest of your life.
This perspective is why a person will look back on his most painful experience and say, “God was amazingly good to me at that time.” If you have been there, I need not say more. I have just described your pain and your praise.
You see the juxtaposition of this fear/faith, pain/praise tension in John Donne’s Holy Sonnet, Batter My Heart, where he pleaded with the Father to do whatever was necessary to transform him into a new creation.
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
Donne’s sonnet is one of the most radical prayers a person can pray. Notice the progression of his thought. Initially, he asked the Lord to knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend. Upon more reflection, he ratcheted up his desire to be transformed by God when he asked the Lord to break, blow, burn, and make new.
Les Miserables is one of our favorite Broadway shows. One of the characters in this play is Fantine, a lady who lived a most miserable life that ended too soon. Her song in the play is, I Dreamed a Dream. Here is a stanza.
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living,
So different now from what it seemed.
Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.
For many of us, life kills our dreams. After we marry, we launch our covenantal boats toward a glistening horizon. Though we realize the potentiality of dark skies, we dismiss the notion because we had rather not think about it or we believe we’re different.
Even when we see the dark clouds forming in our lives, we do not perceive them for what they are, or we do not understand how the Lord may be about to teach us richer meanings of biblical faith.
“Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. – 1 Kings 18:44-45
I saw the dark clouds taking shape in our marriage but never realized the extent to which the winds were going to blow or how they would wreak havoc. I was in my second year of college, working on a Bible degree when God blindsided me while doing good.
I cannot adequately explain to you the depth of the pain. Upon arriving home on April 8, 1988, I realized my family was gone. Within fifteen hours I lost ten pounds. It was the most prolonged and most torturous night of my life. I was in the throes of unmitigated fear, desperation, and physical suffering.
My desire for a family fully collided with the Lord’s willingness to reveal Himself to me in a way that necessitated death. It was my death He had in mind. I was confused and depressed about the story He was writing.
During my time in Job, I read, meditated, prayed, and cried through his struggle. I will never forget the day when I arrived at chapter twenty-three and read these words:
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind. Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him. – Job 23:13-15
My world stopped spinning long enough for me to hang on to every syllable out of Job’s mouth. I was stunned when Job affirmed what I already perceived about God–He was changeless, and what He desires, He does. My thoughts went wild.
Let’s Fake God Out
As I meditated on these terrible truths, my mind prematurely jumped to the end of the story–the happily ever after part. I learned how the Lord released Job from the crucible of suffering and how He blessed him with twice as much as he had before (Job 42:10).
Then I thought, “Maybe He will release me too.” Though I knew the book of Job was not a prescription for how suffering happens, I desperately wanted his ending to be mine too.
This desire for a happy ending brought immediate hope because it offered a way out of the pain. All I needed to do was inform the Lord what needed to happen next.
It was time to update God. I needed to make Him aware of what I had learned and how I had changed. His mission to mature me was complete. My thinking was, “Maybe He does not know I have learned all these lessons. I must inform Him how he can remove the hounds from hell that were harassing me (2 Corinthians 12:7).”
But he is unchangeable, and who can turn him back? What he desires, that he does. – Job 23:13
I was okay with His unchangeableness and the fact that I could not budge Him. He just needed to know His desire to change me had worked. “Lord, I am okay down here; everything is cool.” Once He gets the update, He will pour out a better blessing, in a different way. I prayed:
Thank you, Father, for the privilege of suffering. You have taught me many amazing things, and I am grateful for the life lessons. You are merciful and kind to me.
Your work in me has accomplished several good things, and I am now ready to move on to what you have planned for our next adventure. I await release from this suffering while looking forward to the fruitful ministry that it has caused.
Your grateful and humble servant,
There was a slight problem with my prayer. I knew in my heart that I was trying to manipulate God. The combination of desperation and hurt motivated me to prod God along, hoping He would expedite His plans for me.
I cannot say I was wittingly trying to fake out God–like anyone could accomplish that, but that was what I attempted to do in my ignorance. Sometimes the pain can be too much, even to the point of trying to circumvent the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Still yet, at some level of my heart, I knew this kind of praying would not work. The Lord was not through with me, and what He had planned for me would not be thwarted, regardless of how many times I prayed otherwise (2 Corinthians 12:8).
He will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are in his mind. – Job 23:14
Game playing with the Lord will not work because He sees in the dark places of our hearts and He always gives us exactly what we need even if we do not want it. It did not matter if I agreed with Him, He was going to finish His desires for my life (Philippians 1:6).
My Father knew best, and no amount of manipulative praying was going to sway Him. The real issue for me was whether I would trust Him enough to cooperate with the necessary surgery on my soul, regardless of how long it would take (Hebrews 4:12-13).
Apart from salvation, this surgical season on my soul was the most transformative time in my life. Nothing has come close to the redemptive work the Lord did in me during those days.
I reflect on how impossibly hard it was to get on board with His soul surgery. He saw things in me that I could not see (or did not want to see), and He loved me enough to persevere no matter how distracting or dishonest I was with Him.
The truth was that I knew how messed up I was on the inside, but I did not want to go through the necessary changes for transformation to happen. Perhaps you are like this too. To some degree, we all have enough self-awareness to know we need the Lord’s intervention.
Still, we are afraid of Him. The thought of having the Lord turned loose on our souls is terrifying. Knowing this is why you must be careful. If you are not wise here, you will be intellectually dishonest with yourself, with God, and with others.
My appeal is for you to be honest. Admit to the Lord what He already knows about you. Do not try to manipulate Him or others by acting ignorant about what He needs to do inside of you. Let Him have His way.
The truth is that you have no choice. The Lord will do what He wants to do to you, and He will complete what He has appointed for you (Philippians 1:6). As Job said, “There are many more things in His mind.” (Job 23:14)
Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).