Friday, March 02, 2007

Trust in the Face of Continuing Suffering

On February 25, I introduced you to Vanessa Fry, one of my former students at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. As you may recall, Vanessa was seriously hurt in a work-related injury earlier in the month and shared with us one of her journal entries in which she shared her struggles and insights into suffering. I was especially touched by how she was able to take what she has learned from the persecuted church in the world and what is taught in scripture and apply it meaningfully to her own present situation. If you haven't read her journal article entitled "A Conversations With God," I urge you to.

Vanessa wrote me again a few days ago and I thought that you might like to be updated by what this dear sister is going through and how God is working in her life. She writes:

"Right now I am suffering from acute head pain. It is so hard to praise God when your body is writhing in pain. Pray for me my brother as I seek to praise Him in the pain. I have read so many stories about saints who praise the name of Jesus even while being tortured and martyred. My suffering seems so small, but yet it is real and the temptation to give in to it is real too. You and others that have read my journal entry spoke of how it blessed you, but it is something that I keep having to go back and preach to myself over and over. I feel like this is a Job letter, but I believe that you can understand where I am coming from. Sometimes I think it is easier to suffer when it comes through persecution, rather than from an injury at work or a natural illness because it is so clearly for Jesus sake. But I have to keep reminding myself that my suffering will be for Jesus if I give glory to Him through it and that by others seeing my conduct in this trial they see Christ in me."

Vanessa's insights are keen; especially her comment about perhaps sometimes it is easier to suffer for righteousness than because of injury or natural illness. There is something to be said there; suffering for no apparent reason or cause can seem meaningless and despairing. This is especially true when there seems to be no relief in sight. The questions of "Why?" are inevitable and not to be despised.

Vanessa referred to her email as a "Job letter." She is right. Allow me to share a few thoughts from my book, In the Shadow of the Cross concerning the suffering of Job, that would explain why:

There is often mystery with suffering. The question is whether there can also be faith (Luke 18:8).Will we exhibit a trust in God who may not answer our "Why's"? As many of us would in similar (and even lesser) situations, Job earnestly wanted to know the reason why he was afflicted so severely. But when God responds, He responds in chapters 38-41 not with answers to the reasons why Job suffers but with a revelation of Himself. By revealing who He is, in effect, God reminds Job that the primary quest for the believer in the face of unjust suffering is not an explanation for the question "Why?" but an answer to the question "Who?" Job is reminded of God's power, His wisdom, and His control over creation. In effect, God's answer to Job is, "This is the kind of God I am. I know what is going on and you do not. Your life is still under my control and care. Will you trust me?" And this answer is supposed to be good enough for Job (page 45).

In my reply to Vanessa, I also reminded her, thinking of Job's situation, that God is using her to bless others and Himself in the midst of her affliction as she demonstrates to the watching world and the heavenly realm that she will trust God even in the midst of suffering and unanswered questions. These are not pat answers. They are real answers, even if not easy ones. It would be simpler to provide the prepackaged, religious answers provided by Job's friends; there is sin in your life, God is trying to teach you a lesson, etc., etc. But I believe that the call for Vanessa (and any who are going through similar situations, is to trust, even in the face of silence, unanswered questions and unchanging situations.

The problem that we face, in our finiteness and sinfulness, is that we cannot presently see how the pieces of the puzzle of our life, the separate incidents and circumstances of our life, fit together into a whole. We do not have the omniscience to see the big picture, and our life is not finished yet. At any moment of our life, the best we can do is look at one piece of the puzzle at a time, and there is no way to accurately describe how the rest of the picture will look by viewing only one piece.

If we insist on finding meaning in every isolated detail or circumstance of our life, we will inevitably come to wrong conclusions. Life cannot make sense one piece at a time. We must wait until the picture is complete.

The thought that should comfort us is that while we cannot see the "big picture," we \ know that God does. Like Job, we can be reminded that nothing comes into our life of which God is not intimately aware. He knows why every piece of the puzzle of our life is there and how, without it, our life would be incomplete. Our calling, like Job's, is to trust Him, even if we do not understand at the time, knowing that nothing comes into our life that does not first pass through God's sovereign hands.


Ingrid said...

Dear brother Glenn,
thank you for sharing Vanessa's story as well as yours in the face of suffering. Your honesty and genuine desire to please Him especially in the midst of severe pain is deeply moving.
We have printed your blogs for a while now and are blessed every time we read them.
My bible study group and I have been praying for you since you were hospitalized and are rejoicing with you as your health improves. We will now add our dear sister Vanessa to that list, so please keep us updated through your weblog.
Today's article reminded me of a poem by Charles Spurgeon which you probably have heard already, but will write it out for those who have not.

My life is but a weaving
Between the Lord and me
I do not chose the colours
He weaveth steadily
Often times He weaveth sorrow
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.

Not until the loom is silent
And the shuttle ceases to fly
Will God unfurl the canvas
And reveal the reasons why
The dark threads were as needful
In the Masters skillfull hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He had planned
Charles Spurgeon

God willing, we will see you soon.

Glenn Penner said...

Thank you so very much, Ingrid!!

Jack Niewold said...


There is an interesting contrast between Victor Frankl and Richard Wurmbrand in their suffering, Frankl in a concentration camp, Wurmbrand in the Romanian prison and solitary cell. Frankl held that it was necessary for the Jews (and others) in the camps to find a "Why" in order to survive. Without a Why, he wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, the prisoner would perish.

Wurmbrand, on the other hand, in a piece called "My Unfinished Requiem" wrote this: "Why was I born a sinner? Why did I suffer? Why did I produce suffering? Why do I die? Why have I the gift of composing a kind of requiem? What is the good of composing it while alone in a prison cell? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Whys are futile. There is never any answer."

I don't take this as an admission of despair. Just the opposite, it seems that it is the cry of a heart that no longer has to have a reason, confident that the Lord is somehow there on the other side of the suffering.

You and Vanessa have demonstrated this kind of confidence. I am not sure I am so strong, finding as I do that daily adversities still cause me many "Why's?"