Some Thoughts on Pain and Suffering

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Over the years, I have walked alongside men and women who have faced death with bitterness and despair. I have also walked alongside men and women in the same circumstances, but with a settled peace in their hearts, joy on their faces, and certain declarations about how their best days are still ahead of them.

At Christ Presbyterian Church, the family of believers in Nashville that I get to serve as pastor, there are scores of people who have endured deep sorrow and loss and who have done this exceptionally well. It’s not that these men and women have denied suffering or somehow swept its awfulness under the rug. Instead, they have looked suffering square in the face with the same gusto as the Apostle Paul when he says, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55), and, with similar conviction:

We are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).

One such person was a man from our church named John. John lived a full and beautiful life as a faithful husband, a loving father, a true friend, a gifted artist, and loving servant of our church. At an age that seemed far too premature, John was diagnosed with ALS, a condition that incapacitated him physically, confined him to a wheelchair and breathing machines, and eventually took his life.

I would sometimes visit John in his home during his decline. For me, these times with John gave new meaning to Paul’s reflection on his own suffering—that, although the “outer man” may be wasting away, the “inner man” is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16).

John did not give in to despair as his body wasted away from disease. Rather, he faced his situation with remarkable joy, thankfulness, and poise. Though frustrated by the pains and losses associated with his illness, he didn’t allow himself to be defined by them. Though he was in great pain, John never grew cynical. When he ate through a straw and food dripped down the side of his face, instead of cursing he would crack a joke. When his nurses and helpers arrived to treat his physical needs, instead of demanding that they do this or that, he invited them to join him for Bible study. When I and others went to his home to pastor him, he would end up pastoring us.

John’s attitude and lightness of being, especially considering the suffering he was forced to endure, made such an impression on me that I finally asked him how he could face suffering with such an admirable poise. His simple and immediate answer was:

Well, that’s easy. I’ve been a Bible reader all of my life. Somewhere along the way, I guess it all sunk in.

When John said these words to me, it gave new meaning to something Charles Spurgeon once said, “A Bible that’s falling apart usually belongs to someone who isn’t.”

Horatio Spafford wrote the hymn It Is Well With My Soul after several of his children were lost at sea. He was a man who knew suffering. That hope-filled hymn was born from pain. Whenever we sing that Scripturally-rich song together at church, I look around to see how it is impacting our people. Almost without fail, those who sing the hymn with the most gusto are the sufferers. This includes people like John with his ALS, Al with his cancer, Jan and Susan with their cancer, Sarah with her chronic fatigue, scores of men and women with their anxiety and depression, and the dozen or so mothers and fathers who, like Horatio Spafford and his wife, have also endured the unthinkable experience of burying their own children.

What enables these solid souls to keep singing? What empowers them to keep hoping, to keep believing, and to keep pressing forward in the face of gut wrenching, heart-breaking, life-busting circumstances? It is the truth that they have discovered in Scripture, and it is the animating work of the Holy Spirit pressing this truth into their hearts and lives.

God is who he says he is, a good Father who will never allow us to be separated from his love, because the Bible tells us so (Romans 8:31-39).

Jesus is a faithful Savior and Friend, and he is making all things new in spite of the way things may seem…

…also because the Bible tells us so.


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3 responses to “Some Thoughts on Pain and Suffering”

  1. J says:

    You mentioned Horatio and It Is Well With My Soul, though I love the hymn, the way you shared his story made me think that perhaps you don’t know the rest of his life story. Personally I think the end of his life, when he experiences what would be diagnosed today as severe mental illness, points to God’s grace to us in our broken state. It’s not that Horatio pushed forward in faith, but that God’s grace is sufficient, not only in the loss of our loved ones, but also in the loss of abilities to write faithful hymns and do the “amazing things Christians are remembered for” or even the capabilities to do anything, tell reality from hallucination. Horatio wandered the desert claiming to be the Messiah. I believe his Messiah was with him, even as his grief broke his mental capabilities.

    • scottsauls says:

      He wrote the hymn right after receiving the news of his children’s deaths. That was the specific life circumstance out of which the words were written, notwithstanding things that occurred during other seasons of his life.

  2. Bob Boersma says:

    “It is well with my soul”. Having lost my wife 20 years ago with 4 young children at home, I questioned, is it well with my soul? Yes! I have learned to rely on my Lord and Saviour as I have experienced peace and comfort. Today, as I look back, I realize I still resort to my own strength, but I also am being led to find comfort in His peace and love. I truly look forward to glory along with my new family and friends. What a wonderful mystery! Thank you for your posts.

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