God has not abandoned us— to whom else could we go?
Probably you or someone you know well has had to endure suffering. Human travail--serious disease, injury, war, loss of a loved one, abuse, deep loneliness, and much more--will eventually touch us all.
Some react to suffering in such a way that it destroys them. Anger, bitterness, and self-pity are allowed to take up permanent residence. Some lose faith in God and walk away from him. Is God not powerful enough to prevent the suffering? Why would a loving God allow this?
Others find ways to overcome the spiritual challenges that often come with suffering. While they may harbor doubts or question God’s reasons for allowing suffering, they don’t forsake God. To whom would they then go? Instead, they seek him and receive his care and grace in the midst of the suffering. He is good and loving. His ways are not our ways, but he knows the end from the beginning. He is sovereign and trustworthy. By his grace, hope, and even joy, God helps us through the deepest struggles of life.
The following are all real people in our churches who have experienced their own stories of suffering. Each is unique, yet they have a common thread: even though suffering is a reality of life, God’s real presence and love give hope and power to have victory over it.
Perseverance and Joy
After a distinguished career as an evangelist, pastor, professor, dean, and president of Vennard College in University Park, Iowa, Dr. Merne Harris retired. He and his wife Sue moved to Ankeny, Iowa, and he embraced the role of international pastor for World Gospel Mission. Then he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Parkinson’s is a progressive neurological disorder with symptoms that vary widely. The Harris’ knew little about Parkinson’s except that it had left an acquaintance unable to eat with his hands. Harris never experienced the familiar hand tremors associated with the disease. Instead, his muscles grew rigid and his movements slowed. The disease progressed until he was compelled to use a cane, then a walker, and finally a wheelchair. He lost the ability to drive. Tasks such as writing and dressing became laborious. Each stage brought a deeper dependence on others and a loss of privacy. Intensely shy, he found the loss of privacy very difficult.
God's grace and Merne's grit were both tenacious.
Even worse was the loss of his voice, especially painful for a person who lived to preach and teach. Yet he persevered. His daughter, Sharon, said, “Dad received many honors in his lifetime. But I am most proud of him during his final years, because we could see the truth of his faith, commitment, and trust.” When his son, Bob, asked Merne why God had not healed him, Dr. Harris explained, “God has entrusted me with Parkinson’s. I can be a better witness through this.”
Merne described his perseverance as a combination of “God’s grace and Merne’s grit.” His grit was so tenacious that daughter Sandy remembers a doctor once told a roomful of medical students that they would never again see a patient at Harris’ stage of Parkinson’s who could still get in and out of a chair.
Merne Harris died in 2007 at the age of 83. When asked what enabled her husband to maintain his positive perspective on life and ministry, Sue Harris said, “His relationship with Jesus.” He never lost his joy regardless of his circumstances.
Life After the Knock
Renee Mercer loved her calling as a pastor’s wife. She was content in the background, serving next to her husband, Dave, a Wesleyan pastor. They had just celebrated 30 years of “I do’s” and were looking forward to the next thirty. They had a home with three teenage boys and one girl newly married. Their church was bursting with possibilities and new people.
A knock on the door in the wee hours of Sunday morning, December 9, 2012, shattered their lives. When Renee answered, she received the news that her husband had died while on his mission trip to Nicaragua. Time seemed to stop at 5:20 a.m. as she cried out “No, this can’t be!”
Renee soon began to ask questions: Where is God’s will in this? David still had so much to do. I can’t do life without him! When no answers came she did what many of us do in the silent mysteries of suffering: blame ourselves. Did I not pray hard enough? Did I not love him enough, or did I somehow deserve this? God, what did I do wrong? God, what’s going to happen to my kids?
God’s grace often appears clothed as ordinary people.
“I don’t think this hurt will ever go away,” Renee said. “Sometimes the sorrow is so deep all I want to do is throw up. It’s hard to move on when every moment feels like 5:20 a.m. when I was blindsided.”
“At my lowest moments God’s grace often appears clothed as ordinary people who not only grieve for me but with me,” she said. “The first night of being single, he caused someone to slip a verse onto my pillow: ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble’ (Psa. 46:1). Then people helped us sell our house in three weeks and find a new one in Kentucky (where my family lives) in three days.”
“Some days I want to sit down and quit because this is too hard, but God’s grace scoops me up and helps me keep doing the next thing. My children and I struggle in our unique ways with the ongoing grief, and as their mother I wish I could ‘fix it.’”
Many tiptoe around her suffering so as to not make her cry. But Renee knows crying is part of her healing. She recounts the Apostle Paul’s statement that “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Renee said, “We are learning to daily lean on God and limp at our own pace.”
After Despair A Seed of Faith
For Sarah Cochran, infertility brought sadness that took root deep in her heart.
For years, Sarah had said to God, “I will do whatever you want me to.” She fell in love with Tom the summer after high school graduation and three years later, they were married. She felt blessed and happy to join him in his call to ministry.
But one thing afflicted her. She often jumped out of bed screaming with abdominal pain or doubled over while strolling through a store or driving. Doctors diagnosed her with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), and Sarah soon learned that conceiving children would be difficult. Bearing children became a goal to be achieved in order to make the physical pain worthwhile. Sarah began to withdraw from people. Symptoms of depression began to appear as she and Tom pursued fertility treatments month after month without result.
Could she have faith in a God who would not heal her?
One morning, after years of trying to conceive and yet another failed pregnancy test, Sarah locked herself inside their bathroom and screamed. She repeatedly banged her head against the wall. She vomited out of pain–caused by nausea from the fertility drugs–and from her disgust and rage. She cried out to God to let her die. Her prayers felt as though they bounced off the ceiling, mocking her every thought. How could she have faith in a God that would not heal? She was weary of the pain and weary of praying for others, doubting that God even cared. She became cynical and bitter. Her life had been built around a God who cared, but she could see no evidence of that care in her own situation.
One morning, as questions swirled in their minds, Tom played his guitar in the bedroom where Sarah lay, and began to sing: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love…the Lord is good to all and he has compassion on all that he has made. As far as the east is from the west that’s how far he has removed our transgressions from us…”* In that moment, God met them in that room.
A seed of faith and hope began to take root in Sarah’s heart. It expanded and grew over the next decade. God was answering Sarah’s prayer: “God, I will do whatever you want me to.” Sarah realized God was asking for all of her heart. He did care for her, but did she care about God’s creations, his plans, and his people or was she completely focused only on her own desires and comfort? God wanted her to surrender her full attention, her plans for her future and family, and her aspirations for education and a career. Could she simply submit her entire life to God?
Eventually, God called Sarah to return to school and become a pastor. She now says confidently, “God’s grace is sufficient to forgive my sins. He is sufficient for me. God does care, though he does say ‘no’ sometimes. God’s perspective is not our perspective. His is bigger and better!”
*Ord, Graham. (1998) The Lord is Gracious and Compassionate. Vineyard Music.
Jane’s father was a violent alcoholic. One night, in a drunken rage, he raped her mother. When he found she was pregnant, he beat her and threw her down a flight of stairs, attempting to end the pregnancy.
Jane (not her real name) became a living reminder to her mother of her alcoholic father’s abuse. Jane lived in constant fear of her mother’s tongue-lashings, and beatings were common. But the abuse didn’t stop there.
Starting when Jane was just three, she was sexually abused by an uncle, a great-aunt, a cousin, and even a man who made friends with her in the school park. When she was seven, her mother married a pedophile. Over the next five years, Jane was raped hundreds of times in what should have been the safety of her own bed. She learned to dissociate, to disconnect from herself. It was the only way she could cope.
Jane tried to go on and just leave it all behind. But years later, married and with her own children, it overwhelmed her. She couldn't sleep because of flashbacks. Vivid memories crashed in without warning. Any loud noise sent terror coursing through her. She felt hollow inside.
Jane asked some hard questions along the way. Why did God let this happen? Why didn’t he stop it when she begged for protection? Would she ever be able to live a normal life, without the flashbacks and terror? “I was angry and depressed. Then I became suicidal,” she admitted. “I realized if I wanted to live to see my children grow up, I needed help.” That admission started her on a long road to healing.
God can take the worst things and eventually use them for good.
During one session, her Christian counselor asked what she thought it meant to be protected. She told him: being kept from harm, and not having her worth as a person shattered from the earliest moments of her existence. The counselor told her she needed to see protection through God’s eyes. “God doesn’t protect us by shielding us from pain,” he said. “He protects by keeping the pain from destroying us. And because of his sovereignty, he takes the worst things and eventually uses them for good.”
In healing, she had to do two things. First, she had to teach herself to think differently. She kept track of negative thoughts, and worked to replace them with positive ones. She tried to follow Romans 12:2: “. . . let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think (NLT).” The second step was much harder. She needed to forgive those who abused her. She resisted, thinking, “Isn’t forgiving the same as saying the abuse was no big deal? It was a big deal! It hurt me!”
But bitterness was destroying her from the inside, and affected those she loved most. She had to give it up. She didn’t want to forgive, but she started at first by asking God to help her become willing to just think about forgiveness. It took her a long time.
With God’s help, she experienced renewal of her mind and spirit. “Today,” she says, “I can honestly say I have forgiven those who hurt me. I don’t know why these things happened. But I know that God is good. He was with me through the worst of times, and has brought more healing than I dreamed possible. Now he’s using what I endured and what I have learned to help others.”
Antidote to Self-Pity
George Voss had a massive stroke in 2006 while only in his 40’s. He lives in a nursing home in Hayward, Wisconsin. Confined to his bed for life, he is unable to use his arms, hands, legs or feet. He cannot feed himself or even lift his head without assistance. His vision is greatly impaired, and he struggles to communicate.
Many people in George’s condition would be consumed by self-pity and despair. But by God’s grace he has chosen to be a blessing instead.
From his nursing home bedroom, George has become a missionary who has provided goats for needy families in Zambia for the last seven years. He began asking friends and relatives to purchase a goat for $25. The goats are given to Zambian grandmothers raising children whose parents died from AIDS.
George's love for Jesus and others is infectious.
George is passionate about his mission. Any visitor who shows up in George’s room is a prospect. “People come through the door,” he said, “I pray for them, and they give me money for goats.”
Chad McCallum, director of mobilization for The Wesleyan Church's Global Partners, recently met George and bought a goat. Chad said, “I was privileged to be in the presence of one who had a great purpose in life, even in the face of great challenge. George’s love for Jesus and for people was crystal clear.”
Today, pictures of grateful grandmothers, children, and their goats cover the walls of George’s room. His “herd” of goats has grown to over a thousand.