Suffering – A Personal Story CCEF


Rest for the weary? – David Powlinson, CCEF

Joni – by Joni Eareckson Tada

I want to give a plug here for Joni Eareckson Tada’s well-known autobiography for anyone who may not have read it. Many Christian biographies paint unrealistic portraits of Christian lives that can actually leave one discouraged.  So many are about great preachers or church leaders – something few of us will ever be.  They tell us about their Sunday nights but rarely their monday mornings.  The beauty of this biography, outlining the spiritual journey of a young quadriplegic, is that it provides a profound testimony to the way  God’s power is made known through weakness.

Joni is refreshingly honest in the way she shares her story.   She humbly describes her pain, despair and struggles with sin.  Consequently she testifies to the glory of God, who has ‘put this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not of ourselves.’

Here is a little appetiser from the preface in Joni’s own words:

What happened on July 30, 1967, was the beginning of an incredible adventure that I feel compelled to share because of  what I have learned.

Oscar Wilde wrote:  “In this world there  are only two tragedies.   One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”  To rephrase his thought I suggest there are only two joys.  One is having God answer all our prayers; the other is not receiving the answer to all your prayers.  I believe this because I have found that God knows my needs infinitely better than I know them.  And He is utterly dependable no matter which direction our circumstances take us.

God’s merciful justice

Scripture presents the justice of God as something which is not only good but beautiful.  This may seem strange, especially if we think of justice purely in terms of punishment for sin.  God’s justice implies judgement and God’s judgement is something to fear.  However when we consider that these judgements are also deeply concerned with protecting and caring for weak and wounded people they also stir up other more desirable emotions.

In the book of Isaiah there is a beautiful promise describing Christ’s tender attitude towards the poor and needy where it says,

He will not cry out or raise His voice,
Nor make His voice heard in the street.
A bruised reed He will not break
And a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish”
(Isaiah 42:2-3a)

At a glance this verse might easily be mistaken purely as a portrait of Christ’s love and mercy.  The true beauty of this portrait however lies not so much in what it reveals  of Christ’s love but in what it tells us of his justice.  The words immediately preceding this frequently quoted verse are a promise that “He will bring forth justice to the nations.”   And just what does bringing forth justice  mean?  It means bringing a quiet reassuring voice to an anxious soul.  It means dealing ever so gently with people that are bruised and easy to break.  It means preserving those whose lives have  become like the flickering flame of a candle that would be easily snuffed out by one false movement.

This tender portrayal of justice is then immediately followed by the words,

He will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not be disheartened or crushed
Until He has established justice in the earth;
And the coastlands will wait expectantly for His law.
(Isaiah 42:3b-4)

That sounds good to me.  Come quickly Lord Jesus.

Singing through Hardship

Previously I wrote about the kinds of songs that are most helpful to those who are suffering.  Here I simply want to add to that something more basic – that it is a good idea to sing when things are hard.  Consider the examples in the New Testament.   The only time we read of Jesus singing is in the Upper room just before he was led away to die.    In Acts the only account of singing that I can recall is found when Paul and Silas were in gaol.  Given these circumstanes it would seem unlikely that the singing of either Jesus or these disciples was simply the outworking of some happy or joyful feeling.   What seems more likely is that they knew singing would help them deal with their suffering in a way that would glorify God and encourage their own hearts.

I knew a lady who suffered from chronic insomnia.  She would wake up in the middle of the night and find herself  anxious and unable to get back to sleep.  Doctors failed her but one thing that did help relieve her anxiety was to get out a hymnbook and start singing.

Joni Erickson Tada who is currently battling cancer attests to this also.  She writes, “there’s nothing like a little hymn-harmonizing with friends to make my spirits soar during this battle against breast cancer.”   Singing is not simply an expression of feeling but is also a God-given means of instructing our feelings.  It helps us look beyond our circumstances and reminds us that God is for us.

A true friend – Proverbs 18:24

A man of many friends comes to ruin but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.  Proverbs 18:24

At first glance it might appear that the purpose of this proverb is primarily to make us think about the quality of the friends that we have.  It’s great to be popular, it’s great to have a lot of friends, but when trouble comes and those so-called friends desert us, what we really need is someone who won’t.  We don’t need lots of friends but good friends who will treat us like their own flesh and blood.

While this is true, I’m not sure that this is the real point of this well-known proverb.  I wonder if what is actually being said here is more about us than about our friends.  In other words, the contrast is not so much between having one good friend and many fake friends but rather between the danger of seeking to have many friends as opposed to seeking to be a friend.

Notice that ‘a man of many friends’ is not being compared with ‘a man of one really good friend’ but rather with ‘a friend’.   There is a man who works hard to be popular but there is also a friend who sticks closer than a brother.  There is a man who has many friends  but there is also a man who actually is a friend.

If this interpretation is correct, then the warning is not so much about the  number or quality of friends that we have but about the friendship that we ourselves offer others.  Instead of asking ourselves whether we have  one or two really good friends, we ought to ask ourselves whether we are concerned to be true friends ourselves.

It’s been said that we live in an age where people have never been more connected and yet more lonely.  We have no shortage of email addresses, mobile phone contacts and social networking sites where we accumulate hundreds of ‘friends’ but something’s missing.  It’s possible to be so busy seeking friends that we forget how to be friends.  This proverb teaches that it is better to be a friend than to have friends.

Of course it’s not just a matter of taking a good look out ourselves and determining to be nicer to other people and a little less obsessed with ourselves.  Simply trying to do better never works.  We don’t naturally have the resources to be truly good friends.  We find that only in Jesus, who,  though he was the Lord of glory, was not ashamed to call us brothers.  As we experience his friendship in response to our hatred and his stick-ability and patience in response to our propensity to wander off in sin, we will learn how to show this same friendship to others.

Songs for those that don’t feel like singing

On a few occasions when I’ve felt too sick to  read or listen to a sermon or even just watch T.V. to pass the time one of the things that has helped me most is Christian songs.   These songs help me not because I necessarily feel like ‘praising’ God at such times but because they seem to speak to me when nothing else does.   They teach me from God’s word when a sermon can’t. When I’m too tired and too discouraged to hear God’s word, for some reason I can hear it through song.  It’s interesting that many of the psalms in the Old Testament are written in the context of suffering.  Such songs remind us of fundamental truths about God and his salvation.   They also  help us pray when we don’t know what or how to pray.

I also find that the songs that help me most aren’t always the ones that are most typically sung in church.   I suspect there is a tendency to  think of singing in terms of praise (which it is) but then praise is defined quite narrowly as songs which speak specifically about praise and worship.  However in scripture we praise God when we recount biblical history (a description of what he has done e.g. Ps 105).  We praise him when we teach the scriptures.  We praise him when we confess our sin (Josh 7:19).  We praise God by describing our plight and the need for his grace.

When I’m in the pit, I don’t find it easy to sing songs of  ‘praise’ in the narrow sense but I can sing psalms about suffering, songs which point me to the sufferings and love of Christ and more generally songs that  teach me fundamental truths from Scripture that I need to learn or remember.

Perhaps part of the problem lies also in a tendency to see singing in the Christian life as something that is primarily meant for the church service and so songs are written more with a view to performance than to teaching.    It seems however in the New Testament that singing was much more personal and instructional than it often is today.   It’s purpose  according to Paul in Colossians is to ‘teach and admonish one another.’  That can happen anywhere.   The songs we learn in church need to be the kind of songs that will help a person in prison, or hospital or stuck at home with a chronic illness.  Then having learnt such songs we need to take them into our homes, schools, prisons etc.  Rightly used it is a wonderful means by which God makes his word to dwell richly in our hearts.

When John Newton and William Cowper met each week  a few centuries ago to write hymns, their goal was primarily the instruction of God’s people by putting a message based on a text of scripture into poetic form.  Here is an example of one written by John Newton.   It is simply a summary and application of Hebrews 12:

Afflictions do not come alone,
A voice attends the rod;
By both He to His saints is known,
A Father and a God!

Let not My children slight the stroke
I for chastisement send;
Nor faint beneath My kind rebuke,
For still I am their Friend.

The wicked I perhaps may leave
Awhile, and not reprove;
But all the children I receive
I scourge, because I love.

If therefore you were left without
This needful discipline;
You might, with cause, admit a doubt,
If you, indeed, were Mine.

Shall earthly parents then expect
Their children to submit?
And wilt not you, when I correct,
Be humbled at My feet?

To please themselves they oft chastise,
And put their sons to pain;
But you are precious in My eyes,
And shall not smart in vain.

I see your hearts, at present, filled
With grief, and deep distress;
But soon these bitter seeds shall yield
The fruits of righteousness.

Break through the clouds, dear Lord, and shine!
Let us perceive Thee nigh!
And to each mourning child of Thine
These gracious words apply.

We need people writing and teaching songs and hymns like this today.   A diet of  very narrowly defined ‘praise’ songs where the main refrain is something like ‘I will always worship you’ etc. will not give us the spiritual meat that we desperately need – especially when things are hard.  This is not a call to sing only hymns, or only music that is at least one hundred years old.  It’s a call to sing old and new songs that will do what our souls need them to do – feed us on the pure milk of the word so that we may grow.