Is All This Suffering for Nothing?

In October 1987, I was invited to participate in a women’s seminar at Nyack College, where I sat on a panel of pastors’ wives for a Q&A. I had only been a pastor’s wife for four years, and under my name it said, “Brand New Pastor’s Wife.”

I was at one end of the panel of four, and at the other end sat Elisabeth Elliot. I was 31 years old, and it had been 31 years since her husband, Jim, and four others had been speared to death by Waodani tribesmen of Ecuador, leaving her alone to raise their 10-month-old baby girl. Elisabeth returned and spent two years as a missionary to the very people who had killed her husband.

I was young and inexperienced, but Elisabeth was the age I am now, had married and lost two husbands, and was ten years into her third marriage. This woman, who had grieved much, once gave a seminar to a small group of women entitled “Suffering is Never for Nothing,” which was recently compiled into a book with the same title.

As I read this book, I was compelled to ask myself, “Is all this suffering for nothing?” When I suffer a loss, I feel like everything normal, everything I expect to stay the same, has either radically changed or disappeared. It feels like I was putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and someone crumbled up a section that was already pieced together and threw it across the floor. Life feels scrambled, chaotic, out of control. But is it?

When you and I as believers face our own personal episode of chaos and destruction, that is our moment to choose what we believe, to look at our lives with something other than our own eyes, to affirm our trust that there is One who is in control of everything. This is a challenge to lean harder on the One on whom we have already been leaning, to overcome feelings that our suffering is for nothing.

In the words of Elisabeth Elliot, “There have been some hard things in my life, of course, as there have been in yours, and I cannot say to you, I know exactly what you’re going through. But I can say that I know the One who knows. And I’ve come to see that it’s through the deepest suffering that God has taught me the deepest lessons. And if we’ll trust Him for it, we can come through to the unshakable assurance that He’s in charge. He has a loving purpose. And He can transform something terrible into something wonderful. Suffering is never for nothing.”

“And he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.” Romans 9:33b

Moved by Tears

There is nothing so heart wrenching as a baby’s cry. Whenever my nieces or nephews begin to cry, I strive to respond immediately—like their parents.

As a hospice chaplain, I recently encountered a patient who taught me new lessons about the impact of tears.

Miss Ruth* always spoke with excitement about her upcoming 98th birthday celebration. After she celebrated with her family, she began to steadily decline. In her final stages of life, she would communicate through tears. We, her caregivers, would plead with her, “Miss Ruth, what’s wrong? What do you need?” Most of the time she answered, “Water . . . pain . . . I want to go home!”

But one day, Miss Ruth answered with amazing energy and clarity through her tears, “God has been so good to me! I want to praise my Savior!” She and I ended our visit by singing Hezekiah Walker’s song, “Grateful.” I am thankful that on this day Miss Ruth’s tears gave us the opportunity to celebrate together—even in the midst of her pain—the sweet reality of Jesus’ goodness.

The World Is Weeping

Many have been crying out over the painful realities exposed in recent months. We have witnessed unequal access to medical care during this global pandemic, multiple natural disasters, racial prejudice demonstrated by some in both policing and protests, and the destruction of peoples’ lives without consequence. Some in the evangelical church have asked, “What does this have to do with the gospel?” A study of Luke 3–4 answers this question.

During the years of Jesus’ ministry on earth, God’s people suffered under Roman oppression. They flocked to John, the Baptizer, hoping to jump-start a movement through repenting before Him for the sins of their people. Jesus, Emmanuel God, enters their world. Though Jesus was without sin, He took up the mantle of His calling by identifying with the sin-convicted crowd (see Luke 3) through also receiving baptism. This intimate act drew Jesus deeper into identifying with the experience of people living in a world full of troubles (John 16:33).

Next, Jesus entered more deeply into the life of those he came to liberate through fasting 40 days in the wilderness. He was tempted in every way, as we are, yet He was without sin. First, the enemy attacked Jesus’ humanity, tempting him to forfeit the eternal for the temporal. Then the enemy targeted his soul by manipulating the Word of God, in much the same way he tempted Eve. Finally, he attacked Jesus’ Spirit by offering a shortcut to bypass suffering and speed his earthly reign (see Luke 4:1–13).

Jesus won the battles against the enemy that we as humans tend to lose repeatedly.

A Kingdom Response

After His temptation in the wilderness, Jesus began ministry in His “Jerusalem.” He entered the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah 61:1–2, declaring Himself the fulfillment of this Scripture.

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, . . .”

His proclamation stung to the core those who realized they were not the victims but the oppressors. God revealed their hearts as they opposed Jesus, and He demonstrated His Kingdom power through a miracle—Jesus walked away unscathed from their assassination attempt (see Luke 4:14–30).

Jesus then moved into His “Judea” to advance God’s Kingdom. Spiritual prisoners were set free, the blind received their sight, and the brokenhearted were comforted. The results of a true Isaiah 58 fast broke out in power through Jesus’ ministry!

Jesus has entered our world and proclaimed, in word and deed, the good news of the Kingdom of God to set people free from oppression and make them whole (see Luke 4:31–44).

May we follow Jesus, identifying with the marginalized and oppressed as He does. My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will align us with the Father, fulfilling His will on earth through us.

The world is crying out. Do you hear it? Will you respond and join God’s Kingdom movement?

*name changed