One thing is clear: unless we die young and suddenly, all of us are going to endure severe suffering. This is true because, as I’ve said many times, only one thing is going to prevent you from watching absolutely every person you know die from murder, accident, or disease, and that will be your own death from murder, accident, or disease! We live in a fallen world, but thankfully, if we trust in Jesus, then we will live forever and ever.
But here we suffer!
What I hope to do in this series is tell how you can prepare yourself to succeed when confronted with severe suffering. Not being prepared will make your suffering worse, and worse for those around you.
Many people want to push the idea of their enduring severe suffering as far out of their minds as possible. But, that’s a colossal mistake. That’s worse than finding a lump under your arm and pretending it isn’t there. So here’s the first step to prepare you to succeed in severe suffering.
Accept that Severe Suffering Will Come
First, we need accept that severe suffering will come. As I wrote in my last blog, God didn’t promise that you won’t suffer. In fact, God did promise that you will suffer. As Jesus said in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” God intends to purify us and to prove us, and He does this through suffering. Get used to the idea! When severe suffering strikes, it is easier to handle when you expect it.
Discipleship is costly and we need to count the cost. Jesus was clear about this in Luke 14:26-30, 33:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish….” So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
What price are we willing to pay to be His disciples? One evening, I was praying while I walked down a seldom trafficked street near our apartment, and I decided to count the cost of being Jesus’ disciple and to commit to Him that I was willing to endure whatever He called me to endure. So I went through the kinds of suffering that I might have to endure. I thought of prison. That would be awful but I told the Lord I was willing (many Christians right now are imprisoned for the cause of Christ). Then I thought about being a paraplegic. Frankly, I thought that would be worse than going to prison for Jesus, but I told the Lord I would be willing to be a paraplegic. Then I thought about cancer. For me that was the worst. That scared me because when I was 16, a 17-year-old friend, after a long battle, died of cancer. Would I be willing to endure cancer? The worst! At least in my mind. “Okay, Lord, even if I get cancer I will honor You.”
Honestly, the decision that I was willing to sacrifice everything for Jesus made me strong. As the saying goes, “the fear of God is the fear that removes all others.”
Then, when something really hard would come—like when I thought I had leukemia (I posted about this), or when we were foster parenting and we had the police at our house seven times in two-and-one-half-years, or when we suffered one miscarriage after another and never had children (Jean E. wrote about this), or when I’d have debilitating migraines—I would consider my commitment, my earlier counting the cost, and I would raise my hand towards heaven and tell the Lord, sometimes with tears in my eyes, “I don’t take it back!” I’ve said those words to the Lord many times over the last forty-five years and it always strengthens me: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe” (Proverbs 18:10).
Then I got cancer
I started to have lower back pain in 2002. But who doesn’t have back pain, right? As the months went by the pain increased so I went to a doctor who took x-rays and told me I needed to do stretching exercises. Well, the pain increased and I saw more doctors—an orthopedic surgeon took x-rays and referred me to a physical therapist. That didn’t help at all! As the pain increased I had little choice but to accept the doctor’s diagnosis but, deep down, I suspected that I was being misdiagnosed, that I really had cancer, and if I did have cancer, the longer we waited was only making things worse. But during this time I would look up towards heaven, consider my counting the cost, and I would say, “I don’t take it back!” Then, when the pain became severe—so severe I couldn’t sleep—I decided to pay out-of-pocket for a CT (we had a $5,000 deductible).
I got the CT on Friday and the following Monday morning my orthopedic surgeon called. Not his assistant—the surgeon himself—I knew that was bad. He told us (Jean E. was on the other line) that I had a tumor on my spine.
I had bone cancer
After we got off the phone, I met Jean E. in her office, and with tears streaming down our faces, I led us in a prayer of thanksgiving to God (yes, I also asked for my healing), and I knew at that minute that I’d humiliated Satan in the Heavenly realm (I write about this principle in my book—the link is below). The next day in the shower I told the Lord with tears in my eyes, “I don’t take it back! I want to love you with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my strength and with all my mind, and I want to love my neighbor as myself” (Luke 10:27—this has been my life prayer since I was a teenager). Praying this strengthened me.
Then when my cancer biopsy revealed that my cancer was severe and my orthopedic oncologist told me that, if that diagnosis was correct, he wouldn’t operate but would instead start me on chemo to see if it shrank the tumor. He also told me the not-at-all-comforting news that if the tumor responded to chemo, then he might opt to take it out (that was very dark news). Jean E. and I again held hands and I led us in a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Later, with tears in my eyes, I told the Lord, “I don’t take it back.”
Thankfully, my orthopedic oncologist looked at the slides himself and thought the biopsy might be mistaken and decided to operate. Surgery removed the cancer—I lost my tailbone, the bone above that, and half the bone above that (thankfully you don’t need those bones very much). A couple of weeks later we learned that the biopsy was mistaken, I had a lesser form of cancer. That was 14 years ago and I’m thankful to report that I’m well.
Now you can accept this or not: but I never doubted God’s love for me or God’s existence during that time. Not even once. Never. In fact, during that time I felt loved by the Lord. I really did.
You may wonder, if I never doubted the Lord’s love or existence, then why did tears stream down our faces? It wasn’t because I feared dying. I didn’t fear dying. What scared me was the prospect of leaving Jean E. alone because I knew the Scripture didn’t promise that I would survive that cancer. The thought of leaving Jean E. alone was very hard on us. But I knew, in spite of the tears, that God loved me and was taking care of us. God didn’t give us more than we could handle. Neither will God give you more than you can handle—I’ve written on this.
Before I got cancer, I took a hermeneutics and homiletics class from D. A. Carson. He told the class that when his wife got cancer, he didn’t doubt God for a minute because he had already decided that these kinds of things happen to people.1 Similarly, we must all count the cost and recognize that severe suffering will come and decide how we’re going to handle it before it happens. I realize these are not comfortable thoughts but, if you count the cost, and if you really are willing to pay it, it will be a stronghold in your life, regardless of what severe suffering you might endure, and you have overcome, you have conquered! Those who overcome will be ushered into God’s Kingdom where He will tell you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23).
Revelation 21:5-7: “And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ And He said, ‘Write, for these words are faithful and true.’ Then He said to me, ‘It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.’”2
Honor the Lord through suffering and you will inherit the Kingdom.
There’s more to succeeding in severe suffering. I’ll continue this in my next post. Coincidentally, the first reviewer of my book on Amazon.com, Daniel Wynne, titled his review of my book: “I urge you to read it BEFORE you encounter a crisis.” I think you’ll find he’s right and we weren’t in cahoots!
- I was reminded of a story told by the founder of Voice of the Martyrs, Richard Wurmbrand, “A Christian has been released from prison. He is a farmer. He goes into the fields and prays, ‘God make me perfect.’ An inner voice answers, ‘Would you be ready to return to prison in order to become perfect?’ He shrinks back. He has suffered so much. He replies, ‘Anything else, God, only not this.’ The inner voice says, ‘Then do not ask to be perfect.’ A long inner struggle follows. In the end the Christian yields. ‘Make me perfect at whatever cost,’ he prays. Soon he is rearrested….” Richard Wurmbrand, If that were Christ would you give him your blanket? (Waco, TX: Word, 1971), 10. [↩]
- NASB [↩]