If you had never experienced longterm illness before you can’t relate to the concept of getting sick but not getting better or being injured but never healing. As the weeks, months, and years roll by and you are still in pain, that new reality becomes entrenched.
But early on, before you have even learned to cope with it all, some well-meaning person, who knows nothing of what you are going through has probably quipped, “This is all in God’s plan.” Or maybe they tried to point out that God has a purpose for you in your suffering.
It would be better if people kept those kinds of glib remarks to themselves. The first thing that people need to know about God when they are in pain is not that God has a plan or that it is his will for them to suffer. First, they just need to know that God cares, that God is with them in their suffering. The best way a hurting person can experience the comfort of God is for a friend who loves them to walk alongside them and resist the urge to fix their new lifelong problem with spiritual platitudes.
Of course, our friends being less like Job’s friends (we will talk about them another day) does not answer an important question. Is their purpose in my suffering? And for the believer, “Does God have a purpose in my suffering?” At some point, you probably become ready to ask that question. A good friend who has been on this journey with you could even help you consider that question when you are ready.
My problems started in 2011. I was having surgery and receiving life-altering diagnoses in 2012. By 2013, the situation was looking pretty serious and I found myself at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. Over that two and half year stretch, I would not have been able to give you an answer for God’s purpose in my pain, even if I had been ready to ask it. I’m sure I did ask it because it is my nature to ask such questions, but any answers would have been grasping at straws in an emotionally confusing time.
By 2014, things had stabilized and I began to see God use my suffering to better empathize with others in my ministry. Maybe more importantly, I became more transparent with my congregation and allowed them to come alongside me on this journey. Many people who loved me had been hurting with me all along the way, but my own self-pity had prevented me from seeing it.
We experience pain and suffering of all kinds in this life, whether we see a purpose in it or not. We can choose to see our pain as pointless or we can choose to see our pain as accomplishing something for us. A passage that became very meaningful to me is Romans 5:1-5. Paul, who knew a lot about suffering, wrote that we glory in our sufferings, but not just for the sake of suffering. We glory in our sufferings because of what our sufferings produce. Sufferings produce perseverance; perseverance produces character and character produces hope!
I can say that without a doubt that Paul’s admonition has been proven true in my life. Suffering is not primarily about accomplishing some greater plan that you wouldn’t have accomplished without it. We can’t even really give a satisfactory answer for the reason for our sufferings, but we can point to what it produces in us.
Experiencing pain for the last seven years has made me a better person. It has caused me to develop more patience, humility, and as Paul says, perseverance. Pain has made me a deeper and more empathetic person. And yes, it has motivated me to start this ministry, but this ministry is the byproduct of the character that is being formed in me.
You don’t have to come up with some greater plan to justify the reason behind your pain. But there is an opportunity to appreciate the better person you are becoming because of your pain. That process is not automatic. It happens in partnership with the Holy Spirit and a loving community around you. Today, you may not be ready to hear this, but maybe one day you will. Eventually, I was ready.