I woke up in Hell. Really. It was that hot. Open heart surgery was finished and my thirteen-year-old body was racked with pain. It’s easier today. Open the chest and cut the sternum from stem to stern, operate and wire it back together. Pain is intense but bearable. A little tube in your nose provides oxygen. Not then. Not like that.
My chest was cut open wide and a spreader with a crank pushed apart my ribs. Septum ripped. Fourteen inches of cut takes a lot of stitches to close. No easy oxygen tube in my nose. I was in an oxygen tent. Above my right ear was a boiler of some sort producing oxygen that flowed into the tent. Morphine didn’t touch the pain. The oxygen boiler never ceased sizzling.
I told Jesus that if this agony was anything like His suffering on the cross I wanted never to forget it. Looking back, I knew my agony had a purpose; I knew my life was changed forever. I knew enough about the Bible to know that God uses experiences like this to mold us to look more like Jesus.
Five days later Dr. Mitchell sat on my hospital bed and said, “We made a mistake. I held your heart in the palm of my hand and cut it open to find the hole. But, there was no hole. I put your heart back in and sewed you up. You have a perfect heart.” Well, not really. The scar tissue compromises my heart to this very day.
My daughter Jessie suffered for nine months until Jesus finally spirited her to her Heavenly mansion. I was in shock. I denied what was happening. I got depressed. I grieved. I got angry. I went through all the stages of loss until months and months later I finally reached a peaceful resolution.
Now, I wanted to know why.
On the basis of James 1:5 I believed that He’d tell me.
If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.
Early in my ministry I put together a Biblical checklist to help me to understand why I was suffering. At that time my check list had only three things to check.
1. Is This Suffering Punishment for a Sin I’ve Committed?
A father’s sins can be passed on to their children to the fourth generation (Exodus 20:5-6).
I thought of my many sins. If God wanted to punish me with a dying daughter, He had plenty of justification. But, I sensed the calm, quiet voice of the Holy Spirit whisper from deep within, “No, this is not punishment for sin.”
2. Is It Time To Die?
I watched Dad die. He was 85 and full of lymphoma. No one lives forever. It was time to die.
The day will come when our lives will be closed like a book and the last chapter written. Then, thank God, we have faith to know that He will lead us into glory.
I asked God, “Is Jessie’s sickness unto death?”
By the way, shortly after Jessie was born, a woman approached me and said, “If you just had enough faith your daughter would be healed.” She was well meaning but ignorant. It is not always God’s will to heal. Sometimes it is time to die.
3. Is This Suffering Designed To Bring God Glory?
Before Jesus healed the man born blind, His disciples asked Him “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
Jesus responded, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3).
God receives glory from the way we respond in the midst of our difficulties. When we murmur, complain, gripe and get angry at God, there is not much glory to see. But, let us live out Philippians 4: 10-13—and be content in every circumstance because Jesus Christ is pouring in the power—then God’s glory is displayed for all to see.
“Lord, is the purpose of Jessie’s sickness so that You can receive glory?”
Very quietly, deep in my innermost spirit, I heard Him reply, “Yes, Roger, do you know how much it hurts to have a little baby who cannot grow up physically?”
“Yes, Lord, it’s is like a sharp pain and a dull ache all rolled into one.”
Then, God said, “Roger, Jessie’s short life is designed and accomplished so that you might have a tiny-little taste of how I feel when one of My born-again children refuses to grow up. The greatest tragedy in Christianity is the Believer who refuses to grow up.”
God continued, “Jessie’s life was designed to focus your heart on helping baby Christians grow up to be spiritual mothers and fathers. I hope God has received much glory from these maturing Christians.
The checklist in my early ministry had only three questions. I’ve added others over the years.
4. Is This Sickness The Result Of The Fallen World In Which We Live?
The fall of Adam introduced sickness, colds, cancer, rape, accidents, pinched sciatic nerves, wars and death. These are realities of our fallen world.
The first teenager I buried was driving home when a drunk driver crossed the median and killed him. I have a hard time saying that his death was God’s will. Accordingly to a Biblical world view, this was an accidental occurrence in a broken world.
5. Is This Trial The Result Of Some Spiritual Battle In The Spirit Realm?
Job endured horrible tragedies and sicknesses. He suffered because of the battle taking place between God and Satan in the spiritual realm. Job was just a suffering pawn in the chess match of Heaven (Job 1-2). Unfortunately, he never figured that out.
Paul encouraged us to be on guard against the devices of Satan: “. . . in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Corinthians 2:11). Fortunately, as we mature spiritually we learn to see through Satan’s schemes so that we may fight with him on his own ground and win (Ephesians 6:10-17).
6. Is This Suffering Designed To Mold Me To Look More Like Jesus?
Two of my high school friends were hurt in a devastating car wreck returning home from the lake. Shortly after I arrived the surgeon came out to inform both sets of parents that one boy would survive and the other was going to die. Unfortunately, their billfolds were in the glove compartment at the time of the accident. Both were wearing swim suits.
Fortunately, Romans 8:28 assures us that all will turn out well:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, …”
But, at that moment Romans 8:28 didn’t seem quite right. All four parents loved God—but, for one set of parents—things were not going to work out well at all. I kept my mouth shut and decided to sort out this passage later.
I understood when I read verse 29. God never promised that everything would always turn out well for those who love Jesus. He promised that all things worked together for the good purpose of maturing us to look more like Jesus. We can never understand the “good” in verse 28 until we incorporate it with verse 29:
“All things work together for good for those who love God who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his son …”
Miles Stanford wrote:
The open secret of healthy spiritual growth is to know and settle upon this fact as set forth in Romans 8:28-29. When we see that all things are working together to make us more and more like the Lord Jesus, we will not be frustrated and upset when some of these “things” are hard, difficult to understand, and often contain an element of death. We will be able to rest in our Lord Jesus and say to our Father, “Thy will be done.” And our constant attitude of faith will be: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). This is our matriculation to spiritual maturity” (Miles Stanford; Principles of Spiritual Growth).
7. Is This Suffering The Result Of Following Christ?
Jesus concluded the Beatitudes with a warning:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Paul viewed suffering for Jesus as a treasured pleasure: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him . . . (Philippians 1:29).
My wife Julie and I teach often in the Middle East. The stories of suffering we hear from some of our Christian friends in closed countries like Uzbecistan or Tajikistan curl my toes.
One friend was called in by the secret police to reveal the names of other Christians in their country. He was interrogated and tortured yet refused to divulge names. Finally, a curtain drew back and through the one-way glass he saw his wife tied to a chair with four men lurking near by.
“Tell us their names or they’ll take turns raping your wife.” He refused. Later both were released.
8. Is This Suffering The Result Of Doing Good?
Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:17: “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.”
My father worked as an airline vice-president overseeing finances for over forty years. New management threw him out on his ear. Dad was angry and confused. He confided, “Some day when Larry (the new CEO) is burning in Hell and God tells me to dip my finger in the water and bring him a drop, I am not going to do it.” Dad was so hurt and angry.
Two years later FBI agents knocked on his door and invited themselves in. They wanted to know about some transactions that occurred after my dad left the company. The Feds had discovered a secret slush fund illegally siphoning money to President Nixon’s reelection campaign fund. My dad was a man of integrity—and the new management knew that he would never go along with the deception.
Dad said that best day of his life was the day he was dismissed: “With all the pressure I was under, I would never have reached 65 if I hadn’t gotten out of there.” At sixty he started his own accounting business. At 65 he decided it was time to work in the morning and play golf in the afternoon. When he reached 70 he decided to close down the accounting business and just play golf. He suffered for doing good.
9. Is This Suffering Intended To Keep Me From Future Sin?
Sometimes it is! Think about Paul’s thorn:
“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
I love Portria Nelson’s “An Autobiography In Five Short Chapters”:
Chapter One: I walk down the street, There is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter Two: I walk down the street, There is a deep hole in the sidewalk, I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe I am in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It takes a long time to get out.
Chapter Three: I walk down the same street, there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in. It is a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get our immediately.
Chapter Four: I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
Chapter Five: I walk down a different street.
10. Is This Suffering Designed To Increase My Faith and God Dependence?
Jesus engineered a three and one-half year training program for His disciples aimed at increasing their God dependence. The storm on the Sea of Galilee was part of the training:
Without warning, a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. (Matthew 8:23-26).
Philippians 4:13 was my dad’s favorite Bible passage: “I can do all things through Christ who give me the strength.”
He was in great shape at eighty-four when the lymphoma hit. The doctors tried numerous drugs with little success. The last try was an experimental drug. In December I took dad to his doctor for an update.
Well, Roger,” the doctor said to dad, “the new drug’s not working. We might as well stop using it.”
“OK, what are we going to try next?”
“There is no next. There is nothing more we can do.”
I watched my dad react as he heard that his life was over: “How long do I have?”
“Three months or less.”
He bowed his head and shook it softly back and forth: “Well then, I guess this is it.”
I rolled him in his wheelchair passed the nurses’ station that we’d never pass again.
After a while he spoke, “Well, Osh (He called me “Osh”; it was my little boy nickname.), “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
I Have No Illusions About My Checklist. Sometimes, I’m Still Left Wondering Why? After All, God Does Have His Secrets.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I enjoy those passages when Christ had to admit, “I don’t know everything!”
The disciples asked, “When will your coming be?” Jesus was forced to say, “I don’t know.”
Once upon a time I listened to Calvin Miller tell a “once upon a time” story the about a traveler who saw a monastery in the dim, rainy mist. He knocked on the door and when the abbot answered, he asked, “May I come in?”
The abbot said, “Not only may you come in, you may eat with us.” The traveler had a wonderful evening, safe, dry, well fed, and warm. Because the weather was so bad, the monks invited him to spend the night. He agreed on the basis that they supply him with several things. “What is it that you want?” they asked.
“If I spend the night, I must have a pound of butter, a pair of rubber pants, a poker, a cricket bat, and a bass saxophone.” It was an unusual request; nevertheless, they scurried around the monastery and found them all. As they went to sleep that night, the monks heard an awesome progression of half tones and squeaks and squawks coming from the traveler’s room.
The weather continued badly so they asked him to stay another night. He agreed, but only if they again supplied him with a pound of butter, a pair of rubber pants, a poker, a cricket bat, and a bass saxophone. Again, they heard those awful noises emanating from his bedroom.
Finally, it was time for him to leave. The old abbot walked him to the door and said, “We were glad to supply all of those things, but if you don’t mind, would you mind telling me why you wanted them?”
The traveler said, “Well, it is a family secret that’s been in my family for years. But, if you promise not to tell another living soul, I’ll tell you.”
So, he told the abbot, and the abbot, being a man of his word, never told another living soul.
When we follow Christ we are often are forced to live with mystery. If Jesus cannot answer it all, neither can we. We wait in darkness; and, one day, by faith, God will give light in the next life.
Fortunately, We Are Never Abandoned In Our Sufferings. God Knows Exactly Where We Are And What Is Going On.
“When my spirit grows faint within me,
it is you who know my way.” (Psalm 142:3)
“But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10).
And surely I am with you always, even to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).