How are we supposed to cling to God’s love in our suffering when it often brings our own failures and shameful past to the surface?
During the 1846-1860 cholera pandemic that claimed over one million lives, Charles Spurgeon wrote a brutally honest and illuminating passage in reminiscence of that time.
“At first, I gave myself up with youthful ardor to the visitation of the sick, and was sent for from all corners of the district by persons of all ranks and religions; but, soon, I became weary in body, and sick at heart. My friends seemed falling one by one, and I felt or fancied that I was sickening like those around me. A little more work and weeping would have laid me low among the rest; I felt that my burden was heavier than I could bear, and I was ready to sink under it.
“I was returning mournfully home from a funeral, when, as God would have it, my curiosity led me to read a paper which was wafered up in a shoemaker’s window in the Great Dover Road. It did not look like a trade announcement, nor was it, for it bore, in a good bold handwriting, these words: ‘Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the Most High, thy habitation; there shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.’
“The effect upon my heart was immediate. Faith appropriated the passage as her own. I felt secure, refreshed, girt with immortality. I went on with my visitation of the dying, in a calm and peaceful spirit; I felt no fear of evil, and I suffered no harm. The Providence which moved the tradesman to place those verses in his window, I gratefully acknowledge; and in the remembrance of its marvelous power, I adore the Lord my God.”
While Spurgeon was already a keen follower of Christ, he became a preacher at only 19 years old and in the middle of a London gripped by epidemic illness.
This stern labor and near hourly dependence on God’s providence changed him. It steeled his faith and doubtlessly contributed to him becoming one of the greatest ministers of the modern age.
When Pain Brings Up Brokenness
Suffering is when we are told that we must cling to God most, and yet it is these times when it is most tempting to question the goodness of our Father.
In a sermon, Nicky Cruz pointed out, “At times, we all face big problems in our marriage, our family, our work, our relationships. As we try to fix those problems, the devil condemns us over our hang-ups. That’s when we lose heart. We undermine or underestimate ourselves and God’s ability to use us.
“There is a great secret to winning that battle. Paul tells us, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16, NIV).”
No time like a time of suffering makes it easy to feel ashamed or doubtful of the Bible’s promises. When we go through hardship, or watch those we love struggle, how do we give voice to God’s countless assurances to walk with us, to love us and care for even the smallest details of our lives?
Worse yet, how do we claim God’s word when our trials have brought the brokenness of our own lives, our failures and poor choices, to the surface?
“Paul is one of God’s greatest examples to us,” Nicky continues. “He had hang-ups that nobody knew about…. In spite of those hang-ups, Paul was the one who received revelations of salvation, transformation and change. He was the one who stood in front of religious leaders, kings, people with the power to take his life, yet Paul wasn’t afraid of anything. He spoke the truth, and the Lord worked mighty miracles through Paul’s life.”
Nicky concluded, “God will take your naked faith, no matter how small, and create a miracle bigger than you have ever dreamed or imagined. He has a history of using the insignificant to accomplish the impossible. ‘With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God’ (Mark 10:27).”
Suffering is almost always messy and often cluttered by our own sins in addition to others’, but none of this negates God’s nature or the Word we have been given.
Through the Forge of Suffering
After losing two infant children and being diagnosed with a chronic illness, Vaneetha Rendall Risner wrote beautifully of her journey toward trusting and hoping in God through all of her life’s ups and downs.
“To find hope through suffering, I cannot be tied to a specific outcome. My hope is not that my situation will turn out a certain way, or that God will give me exactly what I want, but rather that God will always do what’s best for me. It is a living hope in a Savior who loves me, not in an outcome I feel entitled to. I need to trust that God wouldn’t allow anything that isn’t best for me, and that everything in my life is put there for my good (Romans 8:28).
“God’s love has been poured into me, and all of Scripture proclaims that love. The cross displays it and the Holy Spirit seals it.
“…when my hope is in a God whom I know loves me, God shapes me through my trials. When my son died, my faith was shaken, and I doubted everything around me. But when I cried out to God, he poured himself and his love into me. My faith grew stronger.
“So, when I learned of my debilitating disease years later, I was distraught at first, but remembered how faithful God had been to me. I didn’t panic; I knew from experience that God would give me all that I needed.”
As we move through trying times, honestly grappling with uncertainty about the future and very present pain, we often find our hearts opening in new ways to the Spirit’s presence and power. Like athletes who push through physical barriers to achieve their goals, we learn how the Holy Spirit is making us capable of enduring and even thriving in the midst of desolation.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
“Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:31-37 ESV).
Voices Crying Out That God Is Good
Only three years after the 1846 cholera outbreak finally passed, another started and reached pandemic levels again, claiming an additional 600,000 lives worldwide.
Spurgeon was able to reach out to churches, leaders and believers everywhere with encouragement born of his own experiences in the previous epidemic that had brutally gripped London.
“And now, again, is the minister’s time; and now is the time for all of you who love souls. You may see men more alarmed than they are already; and if they should be, mind that you avail yourselves of the opportunity of doing them good. You have the Balm of Gilead; when their wounds smart, pour it in. You know of Him who died to save; tell them of Him. Lift high the cross before their eyes.
“Tell them that God became man that man might be lifted to God. Tell them of Calvary, and its groans, and cries, and sweat of blood. Tell them of Jesus hanging on the cross to save sinners. Tell them that: ‘There is life for a look at the Crucified One.’”
Suffering and fear cannot hold any ground against the inexorable force of God’s all-knowing presence.
Disease and death, while grim adversaries in this life, will not have the final word over our souls. The church, the body of Christ which is individual believers banding together, was made for moments such as this. Our peace may brighten homes, workspaces, emails and conversations when all other lights have gone out.