Making Sense of Suffering

Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes have written an excellent book called When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty. I had read it some time ago, but picked it up again yesterday to look for a particular quote, and was struck again by the truth of what they have written–truth that is comforting to hear but not easy to live out.

Here is a portion of how Joni–as a quadriplegic for 40+ years–makes sense of the suffering she continues to endure day by day…

“…the cross is where we die. We go there daily. But it isn’t easy. Normally, we will follow Christ anywhere—to a party, as it were, where he changes water to wine, to a sunlit beach where he preaches from a boat, to a breezy hillside where he feeds thousands, and even to the temple where he topples the tables of moneychangers. But to the cross? We dig in our heels. The invitation is so frighteningly individual. It’s an invitation to go alone. The Lord does not give a general appeal but a specific one, personal to you. The transaction exists between the Almighty of the universe and you.

We know it as a place of death. “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature…” (Colossians 3:5). Who wants to do that? Crucify his own pride? Kill his own daydreams and fantasies? Dig a grave for his pet worries?

We simply cannot bring ourselves to go to the cross. Nothing attracts us to it.

Thus we live independently of the cross. Or try to. As time passes, the memory of our desperate state when we first believed fades. The cross was something that happened to us “back then.” We forget how hungry for God we once were. We grow self-sufficient. We go through the motions—turning the other cheek and going the extra mile—but the effort is just that, an effort. We would hardly admit it, but we know full well how autonomous of God we operate.

This is where God steps in.

He permits suffering. He allows Peter’s blindness, Laura’s degenerative disease, Mr. Beach’s hunting accident, my paralysis. Suffering reduces us to nothing and as Soren Kierkegaard noted, “God creates everything out of nothing. And everything which God is to use, he first reduces to nothing.” To be reduced to nothing is to be dragged to the foot of the cross. It’s severe mercy. Our dark side abhors it; our enlightened side recognizes it as home base.

A miraculous exchange happens at the cross. When suffering forces us to our knees at the foot of Calvary, we die to self. We cannot kneel there for long without releasing our pride and anger, unclasping our dreams and desires—this is what “coming to the cross” is all about. In exchange, God imparts power and implants new and lasting hope. We rise, renewed. His yoke becomes easy; his burden light. But just when we begin to get a tad self-sufficient, suffering presses harder. And so, we seek the cross again, mortifying the martyr in us, destroying the self-display. The transaction then is able to continue. God reveals more of his love, more of his power and peace as we hold fast the cross of suffering.”

Sometimes I’d rather wallow in self-pity than go to the cross to kill that self-pity and receive God’s “severe mercy.” But it’s mercy I need, so to the cross I must go.

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