Vaneetha Rendall Risner

No Suffering Is Unseen: Why Our Secret Pain Really Matters

What is the point of suffering in obscurity?

That question haunted me for years. I wondered if there was any purpose to the days, months, and even decades of pain that no one witnessed. My suffering wasn’t neat and tidy, with a definite beginning, a short duration, and a clear purpose. It dragged on till I was tempted to give up hope and to rage against my circumstances. I questioned whether my faithfulness was pointless. I assumed my private response to suffering was ultimately inconsequential.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

“Our suffering is, in fact, never private, because everything we do and say is being watched by the unseen world.”

I’ve since learned that, instead of being insignificant, our private suffering carries massive significance, with far-reaching, eternal consequences. Our suffering is, in fact, never private, because everything we do and say is being watched by the unseen world, a world of angels and demons, of powers and principalities, of a great cloud of witnesses and our triune God himself. While this may sound unnerving to some, knowing we’re surrounded by all these unseen spectators has inspired me to press on through my own pain.

The Watching (Unseen) World

I may feel like no one sees or knows what I’m going through, but in reality, we are all on a giant battleground, where angels and demons are craning their necks to see what they can learn about God through us. They are watching to see how God helps us, how his presence dispels our fears, and how he inspires our worship. Our lives are on full display. This isn’t sci-fi fantasy or some reassuring myth designed to ease our pain and loneliness. No, the stunning truth that we are constantly being watched is firmly grounded in Scripture.

We know we’re surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), which includes “watchers,” heavenly beings, who see what is happening on earth (Daniel 4:13, 17). Satan is also watching us, accusing us before God (Zechariah 3:1; Revelation 12:10), as he did Job (Job 1:6–12), while his fallen angels, “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” carry out his schemes (Ephesians 6:12). Satan wants us to doubt God’s goodness and to believe that God’s value is tied to the material blessings he gives. So, when we bless God in the midst of trial, we are showing Satan and his demons the greatness and worth of the God they rejected.

Many of the heavenly beings are angels who watch us closely, and God sends them in response to our prayers (Daniel 9:21–23), often encircling us in a protection we cannot see (2 Kings 6:17; Psalm 34:7). They rejoice when sinners repent (Luke 15:10) and peer intently into our lives to understand the mysteries of God (1 Peter 1:12).

I first heard about the unseen world’s attention from John Piper when he unpacked the book of Job and highlighted how Job’s faithful response demonstrated the value of God to the heavenly realms. I saw that my response to suffering mattered — not just for me, but because a watching world (a world that I can neither see nor hear) was waiting to see how I would respond to trials. My life is for God’s glory, and when I find contentment in God rather than in his gifts, I am spotlighting God’s worth to an immense, invisible audience. And that spotlight shines even brighter when I’m racked with pain, or too exhausted to move, or feeling enveloped by a deadening numbness and still choose to praise God.

Displaying Wisdom to the Heavens

Ephesians 3:10 beautifully underscores this truth. God’s grace was given to Paul to preach the riches of Christ and the mystery of the gospel “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” This means that through the church, through you and me, God’s wisdom is made known to the heavenly realms. The angels and demons learn about God through watching us respond to affliction.

Charles Spurgeon gives us a stirring picture of how the angels are learning through us:

As every day brings to us our daily bread, so every day brings to heaven its daily theme of wonder, and the angels receive fresh stores of knowledge from the ever-new experience of the people of God. They lean from the battlements of heaven today to gaze on you, ye tried believers; they look into your furnace as did the King of Babylon, and they see the fourth man with you like unto the Son of God. They track you, O ye children of Israel in the wilderness; they see the places of your encampment and the land to which you are hastening; and as they mark the fiery cloudy pillar that conducts you and the angel of God’s house that leads the van and brings up the rear, they discover in every step of the way the wonderful wisdom of God. (“Another and a Nobler Exhibition”)

As the unseen world watches us, they see God’s grace sustain us, his power deliver us, and his comfort encourage us. They see us bless God in sickness and in health, and they witness God’s manifold wisdom as he uses everything in our lives for good. With all these watchers, our faithfulness has a cosmic impact. We shake the universe by choosing to bless God in the midst of trial, showing that God really is our treasure, even now, and that he’s worthy of worship.

We Never Suffer Alone

Joni Eareckson Tada demonstrates this reality better than anyone I know. She once said to me in an interview, “I think about Ephesians 3:10 when I’m in pain at night, and I remember a great many somebodies are watching. They are observing me. I want my life to be the blackboard upon which God chalks these incredible lessons about himself. I don’t want to do anything to defame God or make him look untrustworthy.”

At the True Woman 2010 conference, she reiterated that idea, saying, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been able to press on because I know my life is on display. We don’t suffer for nothing, and we never suffer alone. . . . My response to hardship is never isolated. It is not true that no one cares or notices. The stakes are high, and God’s reputation is on the line. It’s all for God’s glory.”

As Joni reminds us, every day we can choose to show the surpassing value of Christ to the unseen watching world. We can glorify God when we are unfairly accused and choose to respond with grace. When we are worried about a loved one and choose not to fear. When we are racked with physical or emotional pain and choose to praise God through our tears. These choices all matter, because a heavenly host is watching.

Your Suffering Really Matters

While we have the honor of proclaiming the greatness of our God to the universe, sometimes we feel too broken or weak to care. Suffering has worn us down, and we need the comfort of Christ’s love, knowing he has engraved our name on the palms of his nail-scarred hands (Isaiah 49:16). He is tenderly watching over us.

“The angels and demons learn about God through watching us respond to affliction.”

Jesus knows when we sit and when we rise, knows our every thought and every word even before we speak it (Psalm 139:1–4). He sees our silent suffering, is drawing near to us in it, and is ever interceding for us (Romans 8:34). He is praying for us to persevere through the pain, making sure our faith will not fail. He is with us always (Matthew 28:20), and as we are faithful unto death, we may see Jesus standing in heaven to welcome us (Acts 7:55).

In heaven, we will receive a reward for our faithfulness. A reward tied to what we’ve endured, since we are assured our suffering on earth is producing something, preparing for us an unimaginable weight of glory that we will one day experience (2 Corinthians 4:17).

So, don’t believe the lie that your suffering doesn’t matter, that no one is watching, and that there’s no point to your faithfulness. While it may seem like you’re suffering alone in a dark room, you’re actually on an enormous stage with innumerable eyewitnesses. And the stakes are higher than you think. So press on. Fight with joy. Remain faithful. Our lives are on display.

Earthly Loss Is Heavenly Gain: The Rewards of Faithful Suffering

I feel helpless as I watch and wait with my friends.

Friends with debilitating chronic pain who have no contact with the outside world. Others with all-consuming family situations that leave them exhausted and desperate, with no end in sight. Still more whose lives have been marked by disappointment, by shattered dreams and unfulfilled longings that keep escalating.

As I watch and wait, pray and grieve, I also wonder whether heaven will bring added reward for those who persevere in suffering. Will there be any compensation for those who respond to the loss and the emptiness by leaning into God for fulfillment? Will there be any prize for the sufferer who looks to God for the grace to endure the physical or emotional pain that screams through the night?

Rewards in Heaven?

When I first heard the idea of “rewards in heaven,” I wondered whether it was inconsistent with the doctrine of grace. But then I saw that Scripture is full of references to different rewards in heaven — all of them in response to the working of God’s grace within us.

Among the various rewards Scripture mentions, some will come from the foundation we build on and the work we’ve done (1 Corinthians 3:11–15), and others will be related to our perseverance in afflictions, which are producing unrivaled glory for our future selves. As 2 Corinthians 4:16–17 reminds us, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

Paul didn’t grow weary in his suffering or lose heart, as God was renewing him daily and assuring him of the coming glory. And Paul understood pain: he was brutally beaten, scourged, and stoned; at points he was near starvation; he was continually burdened for the churches (2 Corinthians 11:23–29). Yet he knew that his pain had a purpose.

The Greek word for “preparing” in 2 Corinthians 4:17 (katergazomai) means “producing, accomplishing, or achieving.” Paul knew affliction would bring about or produce something magnificent later on. Suffering not only develops perseverance and character, teaches us to rely on Christ, enables us to comfort others, and refines our faith on earth; it also results in greater coming glory.

Everyday Surrenders

This hope applies not just to extraordinary suffering like Paul’s, but to all suffering that we surrender to God. When we turn to God and not to the world in our pain, when we bless God rather than curse him, when we trust his goodness rather than doubt his love, we store up heavenly reward. It will draw us closer to Christ today and will result in greater glory later. As John Piper says,

All our troubles — all of them — are on a continuum from easy to horrible . . . whether it is a pimple on prom night to the loss of a child. . . . Any trouble, from the smallest hiccup to the greatest horror . . . [has] the potential for working for us an eternal weight of glory, because the issue is this: Does it throw us on God as our help and our treasure and our joy?

The first time I realized the importance of acknowledging and offering every loss to the Lord was in a conversation with Joni Eareckson Tada. We were having dinner, and I noticed how she couldn’t have each bite of food quite as she wanted, couldn’t get her coffee at exactly the right temperature. When I mentioned it, Joni responded, “With quadriplegia, nothing is exactly the way I want it. But it’s all these little decisions, these everyday things I surrender, the choices I make daily, that will one day shine in glory. These will all count.”

While Joni has been through monumental suffering, our conversation reminded me that she faces the everyday choice, just as we do, to turn to God and depend on him in loss and disappointment. From the unexpected layoff before the holidays, to the relentless sickness that confines us to bed for days, to living for years with a cold and disengaged spouse — in all these trials, as we lay them before the Lord and ask for grace to endure, not only will we grow in our faith, but we’ll also store up a reward.

Broken Ankles to Final Cries

God sees all our suffering. He tenderly cares for us in it. He knows every sleepless night, every unspoken hurt, every agony we endure. We are seen, known, and loved by the God who brings purpose to all our pain.

Even seemingly unseen suffering at the end of our lives has a purpose. While this pain may not change our character or be an earthly example to anyone, God is witness. And as he watches what we endure, our faith will glorify him and receive a reward. As John Piper, addressing those suffering in their final hours, would say,

As God gives you the grace to endure to the end without cursing him, resting in him as much as you can, these next twenty hours are going to make a massive, precious difference in the weight of the glory you experience on the other side. These hours are not pointless. . . . They won’t make your character here shine because you are going to be gone. There will be no character left to shine. But as soon as you cross that line from now to eternity, in some way God is going to show you why those twenty hours were what they were and what they did for you. That’s good news.

This is great news for all of us. All our suffering matters. All our losses and longings, as we turn to Christ in them, will produce a reward for us. From a sprained ankle to a life-changing diagnosis, from the daily sacrifices of quadriplegia to the painful last hours of life, none of it will be wasted.

Sorrow Turned to Joy

One of the greatest joys we can experience is the joy of restoration after loss. Both Psalm 126 and John 16 — the two chapters in the Bible that use the word joy most frequently (in the ESV’s translation) — are about restoration. Psalm 126 says, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. . . . Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!” (Psalm 126:1, 5). And John 16 says, “You will weep and lament . . . but your sorrow will turn into joy. . . . Your joy [will] be full” (John 16:20, 24).

Jesus tells us that the joy of finding the lost coin is greater than the joy of never losing it. The joy of finding the lost sheep is greater than the joy of simply staying with the sheep in the pen. And the joy of a repentant sinner leads to more joy in heaven among the angels (Luke 15:7). While no one seeks loss, restoration brings us more joy. For everything we’ve suffered, every loss we’ve endured, every unfulfilled desire for which we’ve longed, our joy will be that much deeper when it is restored and fulfilled in heaven.

And as Jonathan Edwards says,

It will be no damp to the happiness of those who have lower degrees of happiness and glory, that there are others advanced in glory above them. For all shall be perfectly happy, everyone shall be perfectly satisfied. Every vessel that is cast into this ocean of happiness is full, though there are some vessels far larger than others. And there shall be no such thing as envy in heaven, but perfect love shall reign through the whole society. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 50:53)

In heaven, no one will begrudge the faithful sufferer’s rewards, because everyone will be overflowing with joy. We all will be fully satisfied, fully happy, completely fulfilled. But some may be larger vessels of happiness, containing more of heaven’s joys, than others. And perhaps the added reward for persevering through affliction will bring this capacity for more joy.

If you are suffering today, whether through a minor setback or a massive tragedy, don’t lose heart. Turn to the Lord Jesus in it, as you ask for grace to endure it. Trust that your struggle is producing an eternal weight of glory that will far surpass your pain. Let God be your treasure even in your affliction. And as you trust him to the end, your reward will be great.

Comforting Lies about Suffering

Peter had to learn these lessons about suffering, and so do we. For the believer, suffering is not a curse, not an indication of weak faith or a lack of blessing, but rather an integral part of the Christian life. God may discipline us to awaken and refine us, but his discipline is a loving mercy. He uses suffering to shape us into the image of Christ, which the prosperity gospel, in its obsession with physical health and earthly wealth, overlooks.

I’ve been told that suffering cannot be God’s will for me. I’ve been advised not even to speak about suffering. I’ve been promised unconditional healing and wholeness if I have enough faith.
These statements came from proponents of the prosperity gospel, people who were convinced I could avoid suffering. I remember telling a fellow believer about my post-polio diagnosis twenty years ago, explaining how eventually I could become a quadriplegic. As I related the various implications, the man interrupted me, saying, “You need to stop talking about this right now. Just speaking of this diagnosis is agreeing with Satan, which might bring it into being. Suffering is never part of God’s will. I know God just wants healing and wholeness for you.”
His words took me aback. While I’d heard the claims before, this conversation triggered a flood of painful memories: being told by a faith healer in a crowded auditorium that I didn’t have enough faith to be healed. Being prayed over by strangers, in places ranging from grocery stores to sporting events, who were convinced they could heal me. Telling a friend about my unborn son’s serious heart condition and being told simply to claim our baby’s healing.
All these people asserted that if we “agreed in prayer” and “bound Satan,” I would be healed, my baby would be healed, the pain would end. They said I needed to believe in faith, warning me never to speak of suffering, fear, or loss.
Even Apostles Misunderstand Suffering
The apostle Peter didn’t want Jesus to speak of his coming crucifixion either. When Jesus told the disciples about his future suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day, Peter rebuked him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). To Peter, it was inconceivable that Jesus would suffer and be killed. That couldn’t be part of God’s plan.
Perhaps Peter instinctively rebuked Jesus because Jesus’s words about his suffering and death went against Peter’s understanding of the kingdom of God. Just before, Jesus had told Peter that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). Maybe Peter thought he could override the predictions by speaking against them.
Whatever the reason for Peter’s outburst, Jesus responded with a stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).
Jesus’s reaction applies to the false teaching of the prosperity gospel, a doctrine that asserts suffering has no place in the life of a Christian. Proponents of the prosperity gospel often claim that we need to bind suffering on earth and not even speak of it, because affliction can never be God’s will for those who know Christ. They choose isolated verses to undergird their position, stressing a right to perfect health, ignoring the Scriptures that highlight God’s goodness and sovereignty in and through our suffering.
Based on Jesus’s exchange with Peter, I see three ways the prosperity gospel gets suffering wrong.
1. ‘Suffering Hinders Faith.’
While Peter’s words may seem like a loving reaction, born out of care for Jesus, Jesus saw them as the work of Satan, distracting Jesus from his purpose. Jesus came to suffer and die, and Peter tried to dissuade him from what was God’s will. At the time, Peter didn’t know that Christ’s suffering would save not only Peter, but all who trust in Jesus.
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Comforting Lies About Suffering: How the Prosperity Gospel Hurts People

I’ve been told that suffering cannot be God’s will for me. I’ve been advised not even to speak about suffering. I’ve been promised unconditional healing and wholeness if I have enough faith.

These statements came from proponents of the prosperity gospel, people who were convinced I could avoid suffering. I remember telling a fellow believer about my post-polio diagnosis twenty years ago, explaining how eventually I could become a quadriplegic. As I related the various implications, the man interrupted me, saying, “You need to stop talking about this right now. Just speaking of this diagnosis is agreeing with Satan, which might bring it into being. Suffering is never part of God’s will. I know God just wants healing and wholeness for you.”

His words took me aback. While I’d heard the claims before, this conversation triggered a flood of painful memories: being told by a faith healer in a crowded auditorium that I didn’t have enough faith to be healed. Being prayed over by strangers, in places ranging from grocery stores to sporting events, who were convinced they could heal me. Telling a friend about my unborn son’s serious heart condition and being told simply to claim our baby’s healing.

All these people asserted that if we “agreed in prayer” and “bound Satan,” I would be healed, my baby would be healed, the pain would end. They said I needed to believe in faith, warning me never to speak of suffering, fear, or loss.

Even Apostles Misunderstand Suffering

The apostle Peter didn’t want Jesus to speak of his coming crucifixion either. When Jesus told the disciples about his future suffering, death, and resurrection on the third day, Peter rebuked him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). To Peter, it was inconceivable that Jesus would suffer and be killed. That couldn’t be part of God’s plan.

Perhaps Peter instinctively rebuked Jesus because Jesus’s words about his suffering and death went against Peter’s understanding of the kingdom of God. Just before, Jesus had told Peter that whatever Peter bound on earth would be bound in heaven, and whatever he loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19). Maybe Peter thought he could override the predictions by speaking against them.

Whatever the reason for Peter’s outburst, Jesus responded with a stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).

Jesus’s reaction applies to the false teaching of the prosperity gospel, a doctrine that asserts suffering has no place in the life of a Christian. Proponents of the prosperity gospel often claim that we need to bind suffering on earth and not even speak of it, because affliction can never be God’s will for those who know Christ. They choose isolated verses to undergird their position, stressing a right to perfect health, ignoring the Scriptures that highlight God’s goodness and sovereignty in and through our suffering.

Based on Jesus’s exchange with Peter, I see three ways the prosperity gospel gets suffering wrong.

1. ‘Suffering hinders faith.’

While Peter’s words may seem like a loving reaction, born out of care for Jesus, Jesus saw them as the work of Satan, distracting Jesus from his purpose. Jesus came to suffer and die, and Peter tried to dissuade him from what was God’s will. At the time, Peter didn’t know that Christ’s suffering would save not only Peter, but all who trust in Jesus.

Jesus’s suffering was filled with divine purpose, as is all our suffering. Later, Peter himself would recognize that God calls some people to suffer just as he called Christ (1 Peter 2:21), and that suffering can refine our faith and glorify God (1 Peter 1:6–7).

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray for healing and relief when trouble comes. God tells us to bring him our requests (Philippians 4:6), to pray big prayers and expect big answers (James 5:16), to ask for whatever we want (John 15:7). We know God can bring healing simply by saying the word — he created the universe, calmed the sea, and raised the dead with just his voice. But his answer isn’t always “yes.” If God says “no” or “wait,” as he did to Job, Jesus, and Paul, we shouldn’t conclude that our faith is weak or that we’ve done something wrong.

We can take comfort in the fact that if God denies our earnest requests, he has his reasons — maybe ten thousand reasons — and one day we will rejoice in them. Some of God’s purposes in suffering are to produce endurance, character, and hope in us (Romans 5:3–5). Trials make us steadfast (James 1:3), deepen our reliance on God (2 Corinthians 1:8–9), and help us genuinely comfort others as God has comforted us (2 Corinthians 1:3–4). While we cannot know all that God is doing in our suffering, we can be sure that he works always for our good (Romans 8:28).

2. ‘God always wants comfort for us.’

Jesus’s prediction of his death didn’t make sense to Peter. Jesus had just praised him for recognizing that he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16–17). Did Peter think that the Messiah would establish an earthly kingdom, a kingdom that Peter would be a vital part of?

“If God denies our requests, he has his reasons — maybe ten thousand reasons — and one day we will rejoice in them.”

Often our view of God’s kingdom is centered on what we want. We are consumed with our plans and our glory, which are grounded in this life. But the things of God center on God’s will and God’s glory, which are grounded in eternity. Like Peter, prosperity-gospel advocates often begin with a fervent faith and revelation from God, but their minds are so focused on worldly blessings that they end up working against God’s purposes. People who cannot accept that suffering and even death can be part of God’s plan have their minds set on the things of man.

How do we set our minds on the things of God? We start by recognizing that his ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and only the Spirit knows the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:11). We cannot guarantee people’s healing or offer assurances that we know God wills to end their suffering, if only they believe, but we can pray to the Lord on their behalf and trust him with the outcome.

3. ‘This life is all there is.’

Peter’s rebuke of Jesus disregarded the final part of his statement in Matthew 16:21: Jesus would not only die but rise again on the third day. It’s a stunning conclusion, one that outweighs the horror of Jesus’s initial words. Suffering would not have the last word, and death would not hold him. Jesus’s resurrection means a glorious ending to all our earthly pain.

Prosperity-gospel proponents often overlook the weight of glory that is coming in heaven, preferring to concentrate on this life alone. Suffering prepares us for that future glory, perhaps even magnifying our experience of it, and makes us long for heaven (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Eternity is so central to our faith that if heaven does not await us, if this life is all there is, if our hope in Christ is for this life alone, Paul says that “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). But if the prosperity-gospel claims are true — that following Jesus always means earthly prosperity — then even if Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, Christians shouldn’t be pitied at all. Heaven would be a bonus, but the material blessings of this life would be reward enough.

Lesson for Us All

Peter had to learn these lessons about suffering, and so do we. For the believer, suffering is not a curse, not an indication of weak faith or a lack of blessing, but rather an integral part of the Christian life. God may discipline us to awaken and refine us, but his discipline is a loving mercy. He uses suffering to shape us into the image of Christ, which the prosperity gospel, in its obsession with physical health and earthly wealth, overlooks.

Jesus suffered on our behalf, and if we follow in his footsteps, we shouldn’t be surprised by our own suffering. In fact, Jesus promised we would suffer, saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

So, if you are suffering, call out to God. Pray and read the Bible, even when it feels like he’s not listening. If you know others who are suffering, be there for them. Encourage them, pray with them, point them to God’s eternal purposes.

The true gospel doesn’t promise a life free from suffering, but a God who is with us in our suffering, a God who redeems and transforms our griefs and prepares us for eternity. So, set your mind on the things of God, remembering that your ultimate reward is not here on earth, but stored up in heaven, where there will be no more suffering, no more tears, and no more pain.

Living Well Among Thorns: Finding Strength in Physical Weakness

It’s easy to romanticize physical suffering — especially when you’re not the one experiencing it.

Saints like Amy Carmichael, who spent over twenty years bedridden, and Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic who lives in constant pain, can evoke peaceful images of unbroken communion with God. We may imagine that it’s easier for them to endure pain and weakness than it is for the rest of us.

Yet the reality of physical suffering is that it’s insistent and intrusive. No one gets used to it. Pain demands our attention. Time slows to a crawl, particularly in the middle of the night, when we’re begging God for the relief of sleep. We feel alone and isolated. No one else can enter the prison that our bodies have become.

Pain Compiles

If that weren’t enough, physical pain rarely exists in isolation — it’s usually accompanied by loss, weakness, and dependence. Often, we require help with basic daily needs, and we worry about the burden we’re putting on others. We second-guess every request, not wanting to bother someone one more time. Will people get tired and think we’re “too much”? Do they resent their lack of freedom?

We longingly remember the carefree days before our physical struggles altered our lives, when we could do what we wanted. Now we measure our energy in teaspoons rather than buckets. We weigh every decision, every action. Saying yes to one activity means saying no to many others. It is hard not to envy those with fit bodies, who seem to have no cares.

Pain, loneliness, and longing can give way to depression and despair. We cry out to the Lord for relief, but relief doesn’t come. The cancer spreads. Sleep eludes us. The pain intensifies. The medicine stops working. The side effects multiply. Our caregivers grow weary. Our friends stop checking in. Our resources run dry.

Doubt Advances

The vibrant faith we once had begins to fade — which is exactly what Satan wants to happen as we suffer. He wants us to doubt and fall away from God, convinced that he is indifferent to our cries. Satan knows that we’re susceptible to discouragement when we’re physically depleted, so that’s when he attacks. As physical needs scream for attention, Satan whispers to us, “Does God even hear you, let alone really care for you? If he does, why isn’t he delivering you?”

“If God’s greatest blessing is himself, then perhaps sustenance is a more precious gift than deliverance.”

Insidious doubts slip in, making us question beliefs we once held rock-solid: Are we deeply loved by an all-powerful Father? As soon as we recognize the mental shift, we need to stop and cry out to God, asking him to meet us in our sorrow, to deliver us from our pain, and to show us evidence of his goodness and love. Are we fixating on all that we’ve lost, on how God hasn’t delivered us, on how hopeless we feel? Or do we recognize that God is with us, working for our good, and caring for us each moment?

What we think about in the moments of our deepest pain is critical. Our mindset will determine how we approach the questions that bombard us. Here are three common questions I’ve asked: (1) How can God be “for me” if I’m still suffering? (2) How can God use my weakness for good? and (3) What good can come in moments of overwhelming pain?

1. How can God be ‘for me’ if I’m still suffering?

Sometimes God miraculously delivers us when we plead for relief, like at the parting of the Red Sea. Other times he sustains us, as he did with manna in the wilderness. The Red Sea deliverance freed the Israelites, but their need for manna kept them dependent on God. In gathering manna, they had a harder time forgetting their reliance on God. And if God’s greatest blessing is himself, then perhaps sustenance is a more precious gift than deliverance, since it can keep us in constant communion with him.

Take the apostle Paul. He begged God for deliverance from his thorn in the flesh, but instead he received grace — grace to bear the thorn, grace to be content with weakness, grace that would carry him through other trials as well (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).

When we realize that we can depend on God in our weakness, we learn to trust him in everything. Anyone can thank God for quick deliverance from physical suffering, but we often forget him until the next crisis. Yet when he sustains us in our pain, we’re confident that he is with us always.

2. How can God use my physical weakness for good?

We may think our physical weakness is keeping us from maximum fruitfulness, but that’s impossible. Our weaknesses are a part of God’s plan for our lives; they are intertwined with our calling. Paul thought his thorn was hampering his ministry, but God knew that it was the key to his strength: it forced Paul to be wholly dependent on God. When we are depleted and exhausted, lacking any resources of our own — it is then that we fully rely on God.

And in that reliance, we discover the power of God flowing through us — the same power that raised Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19–20). This power keeps us enduring when we want to give up; it showcases God’s glory and brings lasting change. Because Paul relied on God’s provision, he accomplished more for the kingdom with his thorn than he could have without it. His greatest strength lay in his submission to Christ.

Even Jesus’s greatest strength appeared in his greatest physical weakness. Throughout his ministry, Jesus impacted others by his actions. He calmed the storm with a word. He fed five thousand with a few loaves and fish. He cast out demons, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He turned the world upside down.

But at the end of his ministry, from the Last Supper on, Jesus allowed others to act upon him: he was led away, he was whipped and mocked, he was beaten and crucified. When he submitted to his captors, the crowds saw weakness rather than what was really there: Jesus’s strength and power.

Just before these horrific events, Jesus begged God to take the cup of suffering from him. But it was through Christ’s submission to the will of the Father — to torture and humiliation, to physical abuse and carrying his own cross — that God brought about the most astonishing display of his power and grace.

3. What good can come in moments of overwhelming pain?

Even when we’ve experienced God’s grace through our suffering, we may wonder how anything good could be happening as pain steamrolls us. Yet in some inexplicable way, this too can be part of our sacred calling. We can submit our pain to God even as we cry out to him, and we can plead for relief, as Jesus and Paul did, while offering up our pain as a sacrifice to the Lord.

“Perhaps the sacrifice of praise in our pain is the most exquisite gift we could ever offer him.”

Few people on earth will see the impact of our worship, and some will say that our physical suffering is a waste. Perhaps it is a waste — just as the woman with the alabaster flask was “wasteful” (Mark 14:4). She poured out her precious ointment as an extravagant act of worship, and its fragrance spread everywhere. There was no utilitarian purpose; nothing tangible was accomplished — but the impact of her seemingly wasteful sacrifice will echo through eternity, as saints recount her story forever.

Perhaps our offering to God, amid our agony and weakness, will have the same impact. Perhaps it is just as precious, maybe more so, in the sight of the Lord than all the work we or others do for him. Perhaps the sacrifice of praise in our pain is the most exquisite gift we could ever offer him.

Of this I am sure: no act of worship to Jesus will be wasted.

The Voices We Hear in Suffering

Have you ever heard God’s voice?

Has he spoken words that have strengthened your soul? Or transformed your perspective? Or brought you abiding peace? God’s words are unlike human words. They change us. They bear fruit. They do not — and cannot — return void (Isaiah 55:11). God spoke our whole world into existence. For God, speaking is the same as having it done.

In suffering, perhaps more than at any other time, we need to be attuned to God’s voice. Otherwise, we’ll be persuaded by the voices around us that tempt us to despair in our pain, to believe that God doesn’t care, to conclude that the world’s way to handle suffering is better than God’s way. These competing voices, of Satan and the world (or of our friends or insecurities), can lead us away from the Lord, making us doubt what God has clearly said.

Who Has Your Ear?

Satan came to Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, tempting him to doubt his identity and to test God’s reliability, implying that God was not true to the word he had just spoken (Matthew 3:17). Satan loves to prey on our vulnerability, pouncing when we feel alone and weak.

People we trust can also inadvertently lead us from the truth. We can begin to doubt what God has shown us when others question what he’s said, or when they offer some fresh “revelation” or insight that supersedes what God has clearly said. In 1 Kings 13, the Lord told a man of God to go straight home without stopping, but he was persuaded by an old prophet (who claimed to hear from an angel) to do the opposite of what God had told him. We don’t know why the old prophet lied, but the consequences were disastrous. When God’s word to us is clear, we need to obey him rather than relying on the opinions of others — even of those we respect.

The voices of our fears and insecurities are constantly whispering to us as well. God told the Israelites that if they were disobedient, he would send faintness into their hearts. The sound of a driven leaf would put them to flight, and they would flee as someone fleeing from the sword. They would fall even though no one was pursuing them (Leviticus 26:36). This is what happens when we don’t trust the Lord, when we listen to our fears instead of listening to him. We hear terrifying sounds. We imagine the worst. Our hearts melt, and panic consumes us, even when we have nothing to fear.

All these voices can fill our minds, drowning out the voice of God, redirecting our thoughts, and intensifying our insecurities. This can happen even when the words we hear aren’t inherently evil. Since the voices we listen to will inevitably shape us, we need to be aware of their influence. What books or articles are we reading? What podcasts are we listening to? What friends do we spend the most time with? Whom are we following on social media, and what are we watching on screens? These voices all shape us, in both subtle and overt ways. Some leave us unsettled and fearful, others entitled and angry, but listening to God’s voice will fill us with strength and peace.

I Know His Voice

When I was a little girl, I lived in a large ward in the hospital with other children, and was permitted to see my parents only on weekends. I went through major surgeries alone, constantly afraid of what might happen since my parents couldn’t be with me before surgery. But on Saturday mornings, as soon as visitors were allowed, my parents would come to the hospital. I vividly remember hearing my mother’s voice in the hall. Even before I could discern what she was saying, her voice made me feel safe. I could relax, confident that she and my father would take care of me.

“Hearing God’s voice in my suffering has brought a comfort that has enveloped me.”

Similarly, hearing God’s voice in my suffering has brought a comfort that has enveloped me. I know that I’m not alone. God is near. He will take care of me. Like all Jesus’s sheep, I know his voice (John 10:27). It’s unmistakable. Even though sheep may not understand all the words, they recognize the reassuring voice of their shepherd, and know they are safe.

So, how do we recognize God’s voice?

Often it begins with inviting him to speak to us, perhaps when we wake up, and particularly at the beginning of our time in Scripture. We might say with Samuel, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:9). While Scripture describes God speaking in a variety of ways, the Bible is the primary and most reliable way we hear from him. The words of Scripture are God’s very words, and form the framework for all we know about God.

What Does God Sound Like?

When we read the Bible, we are listening for God’s voice, often reading and rereading until the Spirit gives us ears to hear. Until God opens our ears, the words can seem dry and lifeless. They can seem like academic knowledge, not like life-giving comfort and wisdom.

As we dig for treasure, though, persistently knocking until we hear God’s voice, the same words suddenly come to life. They inspire us, leave us in breathtaking awe of God, and buoy our confidence in him. His voice dispels our darkest fears, revives our weary souls, gives us supernatural wisdom, and reassures us that something much better is coming.

In reading Scripture, we are not only listening to God’s words for us, but we are also becoming familiar with the sound of his voice. We start understanding his ways. God isn’t limited to speaking through Scripture — but Scripture attunes our ears to what his voice sounds like. As we memorize Scripture, his words begin running through our minds. We can discern truth from falsehood, knowing God will never contradict what he’s told us in the Bible.

At the same time, other voices can encourage our faith as well. We know, for instance, that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” and all of nature sings his praise (Psalm 19:1). Faithful preachers proclaim God’s word, which then takes root in our hearts. Friends share nuggets of what God has shown them, and our spirits and faith are strengthened.

“I must choose to open the Bible and read, even when everything in me is fighting against it.”

Sometimes God speaks directly to our inner being without an intermediary. While God speaks predominantly through Scripture, I’ve sensed him speaking to me twice in words that were not directly from the Bible. They were both during times of suffering and uncertainty, and immediately afterward I felt a tangible change. As I considered the words I believed were from God, I tested them against Scripture, and asked him for confirmation. After the encounter, I was left with an inexplicable peace and a deeper wonder and trust in God.

Let His Voice Be First

When I’m anxious, my mind naturally runs in a hundred different directions, looking for answers and solutions I can produce in my own strength. It’s hard to be still before God. Yet that’s when I need stillness most. I need to be quiet enough to hear God’s voice, and know that he is near. I must choose to open the Bible and read, even when everything in me is fighting against it. In turmoil, I want noise and distraction to drown out my pain, so stillness has to be an intentional choice, a deliberate shift to listen to God. It rarely happens when I’m scrolling through my phone, landing on whatever captures my attention.

When you want to hear the voice of God unmistakably, I urge you to read your Bible, and ask him to speak to you through it. Quiet your heart, and submit to his word. Listen for his voice singing over you as his beloved (Zephaniah 3:17). Let the first voice you hear be his, as you declare with David, “Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love, for in you I trust” (Psalm 143:8).

The Sight That Changes Suffering

Suffering changes our vision.

Just as our natural eyes can’t see as well in the dark, in suffering we struggle to see beyond our pressing needs. Everything looks hazy — except our problems, which seem disproportionately clear and intense. It takes the eyes of faith to see past our present circumstances to the presence and provision of God.

Seeing with the eyes of faith requires us to be intentional about where we focus. I recently took a picture in portrait mode on my phone, and I noticed that what I focused on was remarkably vivid and sharp, while the surroundings were fuzzy and blurred. I could barely identify what was in the background. The same is true in suffering. Whatever we focus on will capture our attention, and everything else can fade into the background.

Looking Through Another Lens

When God first brought the Israelites to the edge of the promised land, Moses told them to spy out the country God had given them. The spies returned after forty days, acknowledging that the land was flowing with milk and honey, but focusing their attention on the giants who lived there (Numbers 13:31–33). God’s promises and provision faded into the background, and the people succumbed to fear.

“It takes the eyes of faith to see past our present circumstances to the presence and provision of God.”

Forty years later, Joshua led the Israelites to the border of the promised land with even more obstacles. The same giants inhabited the territory, but now they needed to cross the overflowing Jordan River and conquer a walled city. But this time, the people didn’t hesitate or mention turning back. They focused on God, taking courage that he was with them, and the hurdles disappeared into the background. Rather than looking through the lens of fear, they looked through the lens of faith, focusing on God’s presence, protection, and provision.

Faith allows us to see far beyond our natural vision, assuring us of what we hope for but cannot yet see with our physical eyes (Hebrews 11:1). This spiritual sight is a gift from God, and with it we see our lives through a different lens. But why do we need it? When God opens our eyes, what can we see?

Show Us Wonders

Scripture becomes alive with meaning when God illuminates it for us. The Bible is inspired by God, and we need his Spirit to understand it (1 Corinthians 2:14). We can research and analyze Scripture and even read the original in Hebrew and Greek, but if God doesn’t reveal the truth to us, we cannot see it.

“Even when we feel as though we’re lying in the dust, God’s word can revive us.”

One way to get that sight is to pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Just as the resurrected Jesus opened the disciples’ minds on the road to Emmaus to understand Scripture (Luke 24:45), God can do the same for us. The Bible moves from mere typewritten words on a page to Spirit-breathed words that change us — words that give life to our souls, give us wisdom and joy, and help us see the deep things of God. Even when we feel as though we’re lying in the dust, God’s word can revive us.

GOD’S PROTECTION

When God revives us, our spiritual eyes can see his protection as we look into the heavenly realms. Even though we may feel alone, outnumbered by our troubles and enemies, we can be certain that, in Christ, heaven’s armies are with us. When Elisha and his servant were surrounded by the Syrian army, Elisha prayed that the eyes of his servant would be opened. And when they were, the servant saw that the hills were filled with horses and chariots of fire. The heavenly realms surrounded them, and they both knew that there were more with them than against them (2 Kings 6:15–17).

Likewise, believing that the help of heaven is surrounding us can change how we face battles, whether we’re struggling against hostile people or alone in our rooms. Wherever we are, we are never truly alone.

GOD’S PROVISION

In addition to his protection, God opens our eyes to his provision right in front of us. When Hagar was sent away with her son Ishmael, she wept when their water supply ran out and feared Ishmael would die. Then God opened her eyes to see a well of water that would provide for them (Genesis 21:19), most likely reminding her of years earlier when she declared, “You are a God of seeing. . . . Truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (Genesis 16:13). Hagar understood that God provides for and looks after us, even when we have no resources. The ability to recognize God’s provision is a gift, so those who don’t trust in God may not see good even when it comes.

GOD’S PRESENCE

Perhaps the greatest gift of spiritual sight is to recognize God’s presence. Jacob wrestled with God, at first not knowing who he was, but eventually realizing he had seen God face to face (Genesis 32:30). This encounter changed Jacob forever — leaving him with a limp, but more importantly with a faith that never turned back. After seeing God, like Jacob, we will never be the same.

Even though we may intellectually know God is always with us, we need to pay attention to see him and be aware of his presence. Signs of his love are all around, but we need to connect them to him. It may be as simple as noticing the wisdom we have when we ask for it. Or the inexplicable comfort we receive when we cry out. Or the unexpected phone call after we pray. Connecting those gifts with God’s presence in our life can transform our suffering. Both Mary Magdalene at the tomb and the disciples on the road to Emmaus were dejected and discouraged until they recognized Jesus, and then they were filled with joy and peace. So it is with us. Knowing that God is with us, not just intellectually but experientially, can radically alter how we feel in our suffering.

Sight That Changes Suffering

When we turn to God, he opens our eyes and shows us hidden treasures of darkness that we might know him (Isaiah 45:3). But since our vision is limited in the dark, we need to be purposeful about where we focus. If we view life through the lens of pain and discouragement, we will focus on all that is wrong and difficult. We will see our problems more than God’s provision. We will see our loneliness more than God’s presence. We will fixate more on our fears than on God’s promises.

What lens are you viewing your life through? Are you asking God for supernatural sight as you focus on him? Are you looking at the obstacles in front of you, or are you beholding the God who can move mountains? Are you trusting in your ability to fix the situation, or are you entrusting yourself to the God who commands the dawn? Are you focusing on what you don’t have, or are you centered on the fact that our God owns the cattle on a thousand hills?

What we look at and focus on will change us. As we behold the Lord Jesus, he will transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18), but if we concentrate on our fears, they will consume us. If we put God’s steadfast love before our eyes (Psalm 26:3), then we will see his presence, protection, and provision more than we see our problems. He will delight us with Scripture even in our deepest affliction. We will rest in his protection, knowing he goes before us and will fight for us. We will see his marvelous provision, sending manna from heaven and water from a rock. We will know that he is with us, as our spiritual eyes will see our Teacher (Isaiah 30:20).

And as we walk by faith and not by sight, relying on what we know to be true rather than what we see, we will not be disappointed. “For we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).

Why Might God Wait?

The pain of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, people whom Jesus dearly loved, was real and intense. They had to wait in the dark, wondering why Jesus hadn’t shown up. He cared about their pain, weeping with them as he saw their grief, all the while certain that their grief would turn to joy. Our grief will also turn to joy — on earth, as we see and are satisfied in God, and ultimately in heaven, when we see him face to face. The most loving thing that God can do is to increase our faith in him, to show us his glory, to help us find our satisfaction in him.

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21, 32)
To me, this passage from John 11 is one of the most poignant in all the Gospels. It reflects the heartbreak of sisters who had been sure Jesus would save their brother — women who loved Jesus and sacrificed for him, a family that needed his help and called to him in their distress. Yet Jesus did not respond to his friends’ urgent request. He sent no answer, but simply showed up after their brother was dead.
On the surface, this story is shocking. It doesn’t fit with our definition of love. To us, love rescues and runs. Love doesn’t wait. Love does everything possible to keep the beloved from pain. Yet in understanding how Jesus loved this family, I have seen the depth of his love for me in my own suffering.
Lazarus’s Last Breath
Days before the words above were spoken, Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was ill (John 11:3). They likely expected that Jesus would leave immediately to see his dear friend, or perhaps even heal him right there with a word. They knew he was the coming Christ, the Son of God, and that God would give him whatever he asked (John 11:22, 27). They had witnessed Jesus heal countless strangers, responding without delay to their requests for help. Surely he would show up for his friends.
Yet Jesus didn’t respond to their urgent need, choosing to stay where he was for two whole days (John 11:6). He told the disciples that Lazarus’s illness was for the glory of God, that he himself would be glorified through it, and that others would believe because of it (John 11:4, 14–15). At the same time, Jesus knew his intentional delay would bewilder his friends.
I imagine the sisters waiting by the window where Lazarus lay dying, straining to see if Jesus was coming. I picture them reassuring each other that Jesus would surely arrive in time to heal Lazarus. I wonder what each was thinking as Lazarus took his last breath. Were they disappointed and disillusioned with Jesus, even questioning their relationship with him? Did they wonder if Jesus even cared? Did they doubt whether Jesus was the Savior they hoped him to be?
Whatever inner turmoil they were feeling, the sisters had to go on. They needed to bury Lazarus and prepare their home, which would be flooded with people who would come to console them. Some may have asked why Jesus didn’t save Lazarus, perhaps mirroring the question asked later by bystanders: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37).
Jesus with the Sisters
In the middle of their grieving, Jesus arrived. The sisters independently met him and uttered the same plaintive words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). Though they had lost hope of ever seeing their brother again, neither ran from Jesus in their despair, or stayed aloof to protect themselves, or pretended his inaction hadn’t hurt them. Instead, they went to Jesus, directly telling him how they felt.
Jesus responded differently to each sister, knowing what each needed. Martha needed truth; she needed to understand and reaffirm her belief in Jesus as God’s Son. Jesus told her that he was the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believed in him would never die (John 11:25–26).
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Why Might God Wait? What Grief Taught Me About Love

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:21, 32)

To me, this passage from John 11 is one of the most poignant in all the Gospels. It reflects the heartbreak of sisters who had been sure Jesus would save their brother — women who loved Jesus and sacrificed for him, a family that needed his help and called to him in their distress. Yet Jesus did not respond to his friends’ urgent request. He sent no answer, but simply showed up after their brother was dead.

On the surface, this story is shocking. It doesn’t fit with our definition of love. To us, love rescues and runs. Love doesn’t wait. Love does everything possible to keep the beloved from pain. Yet in understanding how Jesus loved this family, I have seen the depth of his love for me in my own suffering.

Lazarus’s Last Breath

Days before the words above were spoken, Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus that their brother, Lazarus, was ill (John 11:3). They likely expected that Jesus would leave immediately to see his dear friend, or perhaps even heal him right there with a word. They knew he was the coming Christ, the Son of God, and that God would give him whatever he asked (John 11:22, 27). They had witnessed Jesus heal countless strangers, responding without delay to their requests for help. Surely he would show up for his friends.

Yet Jesus didn’t respond to their urgent need, choosing to stay where he was for two whole days (John 11:6). He told the disciples that Lazarus’s illness was for the glory of God, that he himself would be glorified through it, and that others would believe because of it (John 11:4, 14–15). At the same time, Jesus knew his intentional delay would bewilder his friends.

I imagine the sisters waiting by the window where Lazarus lay dying, straining to see if Jesus was coming. I picture them reassuring each other that Jesus would surely arrive in time to heal Lazarus. I wonder what each was thinking as Lazarus took his last breath. Were they disappointed and disillusioned with Jesus, even questioning their relationship with him? Did they wonder if Jesus even cared? Did they doubt whether Jesus was the Savior they hoped him to be?

Whatever inner turmoil they were feeling, the sisters had to go on. They needed to bury Lazarus and prepare their home, which would be flooded with people who would come to console them. Some may have asked why Jesus didn’t save Lazarus, perhaps mirroring the question asked later by bystanders: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37).

Jesus with the Sisters

In the middle of their grieving, Jesus arrived. The sisters independently met him and uttered the same plaintive words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). Though they had lost hope of ever seeing their brother again, neither ran from Jesus in their despair, or stayed aloof to protect themselves, or pretended his inaction hadn’t hurt them. Instead, they went to Jesus, directly telling him how they felt.

Jesus responded differently to each sister, knowing what each needed. Martha needed truth; she needed to understand and reaffirm her belief in Jesus as God’s Son. Jesus told her that he was the resurrection and the life, and that whoever believed in him would never die (John 11:25–26). And later, he assured her that if she believed, she would see the glory of God (John 11:40). Mary, on the other hand, needed tears and comfort, and she wept at Jesus’s feet as soon as she saw him (John 11:32). Jesus wept with her (John 11:35).

Then, of course, Jesus told them to remove the stone, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. And Lazarus walked out of the grave (John 11:38–44)!

This miracle has layers of purpose and meaning. Jesus’s raising of Lazarus caused people to believe in him (John 11:45) and established his power over death. And from it we see the nature of love as we understand how Jesus’s delay was the most loving thing he could do (John 11:5–6).

Following Mary and Martha

I remember reading the Bible one night when my world was splintering. I had been crying in the dark, wondering how I could go on. The unthinkable had happened, and I couldn’t understand why God hadn’t stopped it. I had been faithful. I loved Jesus and knew he loved me. So why hadn’t he rescued me from my nightmares?

I got up, pulled on my robe, and opened my Bible to John 11. As I reread this familiar story, I identified with Mary and Martha’s words to Jesus. If Jesus had shown up for me, this never would have happened. Since he didn’t respond to my pleading, my begging him to fix it, it seemed like he had abandoned me when I needed him most.

Yet I saw that even in their despair, the sisters went directly to Jesus, their words intimating their unspoken question: Why didn’t you come? I realized that I needed to go to him too. I told him my frustrations and fears, my utter disappointment that he hadn’t shown up for me. I asked him to help me, to meet me as he met these sisters, that I might see the glory of God as well.

Glory in My Grief

I approached Jesus feeling desperate, full of raw emotion, terrified of the free fall I was experiencing. Nothing felt stable or familiar. And yet, in that moment, God came near. I felt the unmistakable sense of his presence and love, coupled with the absolute assurance that everything was under control. There was purpose to my pain, even when I couldn’t understand it, even when all I could see was loss.

“There was purpose to my pain, even when I couldn’t understand it, even when all I could see was loss.”

I realized that God was giving me a sight of his glory. I sat in the stillness of the night, bent over my Bible, tears streaming down my face. This glimpse of God’s glory was far better than a pain-free life. Far better than healing. Far better than any pleasure I’d known. This was a foretaste of heaven, where ecstasy in God overshadows everything else.

Then I understood. Just as the psalmist questioned God’s fairness until he entered the temple (Psalm 73:16–17), I now saw my situation differently. And like the psalmist, I could proclaim despite my disappointment,

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;     you hold my right hand.You guide me with your counsel,     and afterward you will receive me to glory.Whom have I in heaven but you?     And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.My flesh and my heart may fail,     but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:23–26)

Being with God, having his guidance, knowing he will one day receive me into glory was all I needed. I finally saw why letting Lazarus die was the most loving thing Jesus could do for this family. He knew that helping them see the glory of God firsthand was the greatest gift imaginable. It would cement their belief in him, their certainty that he was indeed the Son of God, and their assurance that Jesus had power over death.

God’s Greatest Act of Love

The most loving thing God can do is to show us his glory. All physical healing is temporary since we will eventually die (unless he returns first). But anything that helps us see and experience God’s glory will last throughout eternity. It will change us. It will help us treasure Christ and will give us lasting joy. Believing in Christ, seeing the glory of God, is a gift. Not everyone sees it. Those who have experienced it will view their life and their suffering with new eyes, in light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6).

“The most loving thing God can do is to show us his glory.”

From this story, we see that God’s love does not shield us from suffering. The pain of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, people whom Jesus dearly loved, was real and intense. They had to wait in the dark, wondering why Jesus hadn’t shown up. He cared about their pain, weeping with them as he saw their grief, all the while certain that their grief would turn to joy. Our grief will also turn to joy — on earth, as we see and are satisfied in God, and ultimately in heaven, when we see him face to face.

The most loving thing that God can do is to increase our faith in him, to show us his glory, to help us find our satisfaction in him. Truly, if we believe, we will see the glory of God.

S.L.O.W.

If you have a friend who is struggling and don’t know how to help, perhaps start by getting together. Be prepared to come close — not standing on the edge, waiting to be asked, but willingly entering the messiness of pain. It probably means listening and praying more than speaking, along with offering specific help as you are able. It also means being willing to share the hope and comfort that God has given you, confident that your witness will not be in vain.

We all want to help when our friends are hurting, but we may not be sure where to begin. Do we give them space and tell them to call if they need anything, or do we dive in and try to fix everything? Do we ask questions, or do we wait for them to initiate and speak? While the answers are unique to each person and situation, I’ve learned a great deal from my ministry to suffering people (as well as from my own experiences of loss).
The first thing God calls us to do for our hurting friends is to pray. It may be helpful to divide our prayer into three areas — their spiritual, physical, and emotional needs. So, we can pray that they would turn to the Lord Jesus and find peace in him even in their trial. We might pray for daily strength, physical healing, and financial provision. And we could pray that they not feel anxious or afraid, and that they’d be surrounded by caring friends.
We can also pray for ourselves. I ask the Lord to prompt me to pray for hurting friends regularly and to show me what to pray. I also ask him to help me fulfill my good intentions and to make my efforts toward them fruitful (2 Thessalonians 1:11).
In addition to prayer, though, there are other tangible ways to minister to hurting friends. Four ways that I’ve found particularly helpful are represented by the acronym SLOW. That acronym reinforces that God is working even though change seems slow, and it reminds me that I need to be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19).
Show Up
Having people show up is critical in the early days of loss and even long afterward. God created us to live in community. It is not good for us to be alone. We need each other, and wanting company is not a sign of weakness. Even Jesus wanted friends with him in his anguish, asking them to wait, watch, and pray (Mark 14:32–35).
In Job, we see the importance of this presence. When Job’s friends first heard of his enormous suffering, “they made an appointment together to come and show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11). They didn’t remain at a distance. “They raised their voices and wept” with him (Job 2:12).
Sometimes we don’t show up because we don’t know what we’ll say. But we don’t need to have eloquent words, or any words — just our presence and love. Personally, I always welcome dark chocolate or salty snacks, but we don’t need to bring anything. Just being there can give people strength to move forward, knowing that they are not alone.
Listen
Few people are anxious to hear mini-sermons in the midst of their pain. Most would prefer to have friends listen or just sit with them in silence. On this score, Job’s friends were a good example (at least for seven days) when they sat with Job without saying a word (Job 2:13).
For the rest of the book, however, they berated him till he begged, “Listen closely to what I’m saying. That’s one consolation you can give me. Bear with me with me, and let me speak . . .” (Job 21:1–2 NLT).
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