Long Suffering: A Longer Look

It’s been seven years since I discovered a pea-sized lump in my right breast and received that dreaded diagnosis . . . cancer

And it’s been three years since that diagnosis turned terminal. 

Because I didn’t expect to live out the year after my terminal diagnosis, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the gift of more time here. It’s what I’ve prayed for. But I’m also exhausted by the length and magnitude of the journey, and I long to be Home with Jesus. In the face of impending death, these extra years have come at a high price.

The longevity of this cancer journey has made me reflect on long sufferings I endured in my twenties and thirties: Singleness. Chronic illness. Cyclical depression. Among many shorter-lived trials and crises, it’s been the extended afflictions that have exposed hideous parts of my heart—parts that would have gone undetected had the pain been cut short. It’s true that the longer we bear up under a burden, the heavier it can feel. In The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry poignantly describes the experience: 

He walks with the effort of a man burdened, a man carrying a great bale or a barrel, who has carried it too far but has not yet found a place convenient to set it down. Once he could carry twice this weight. Now half would be too much.1

Dear reader, are you carrying a heavy burden that you can’t yet put down? Are you wearied by the “too far” and “too much”? Perhaps you’ve wondered as I have—How do I keep going? How can I keep a tender heart of hope when I’m tempted to give in to the weariness, despair, and bitterness?

There’s no simple answer to the questions of suffering, is there? Suffering is complex, and each person’s experience is as unique as they are. But again and again I’ve returned to two unshakeable truths:

I need to behold the beauty of Jesus through his Word, and 
I need the community of living and dead saints.

These prolonged burdens we bear will either grant us an enviable experience with Christ—or crush us. They will either enlarge our hearts for eternal realities—or harden them. And what we do in our moments of “too far” and “too much” will largely determine the outcome. 

When we behold Jesus and when we link arms with His people, our burdens begin to workwonders for us, and for all those our lives touch. The pain may actually increase, our troubles may multiply, we may feel weaker and more broken than ever before, but there will be an inner experience of peace and joy and hope and love and purpose—and we will live morefully, moreabundantly than we knew possible. (See 2 Cor. 4:16.)

Look to Jesus

I love Samuel Rutherford’s example of beholding the beauty of Jesus in suffering. Rutherford was a seventeenth-century Scottish pastor who lost his wife and seven of his nine children, and who was exiled for his faith. He wrote letters to encourage other sufferers, specifically “the fainthearted.” He encouraged them to “look again to Jesus and to His love; and when they look, I would have them to look again and again, and fill themselves with beholding of Christ’s beauty.”2

This is an echo of the psalmist David, who—when his enemies were hunting him down for the kill—said, 

I have asked one thing from the LORD
it is what I desire: 
to dwell in the house of the LORD 
all the days of my life, 
gazing on the beauty of the LORD 
and seeking him in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)

And still fearing for his life, David wrote some of my favorite words in Scripture: “Those who look to him are radiant with joy; their faces will never be ashamed” (Psalm 34:5).

Can you imagine running from a band of assassins yet being able to say, “All I want is to see God’s beauty and radiate his joy”?!

This longing is echoed down through the ages by countless Jesus followers and fellow sufferers. John Flavel and J.I. Packer lived in two very different centuries, but joined the same chorus when they wrote,

O that we were but acquainted with this heavenly spiritual exercise, how sweet it would make our lives, how light it would make our burdens! . . . O fill your hearts with the thoughts of Him and His ways.3

By this kind of looking we come, in the fullest sense, to live. To speak as Paul does [in 2 Corinthians 4:17–18] of looking, and looking hard, at what is unseen and at present unseeable . . . is the best he can do to keep Christian minds and hearts facing in the right direction—that is, forward—so that our hope may fill our horizon and, countering our weakness by adhering to our source of strength, we may keep on keeping on, traveling hopefully until we arrive; which . . . will be the happiest thing imaginable.4

So how do we do this on a practical level? How can we “look to Jesus” today, smack-dab in the middle of our pain? 

Besides spending daily time with Jesus in His Word, here are several habits I’ve found to be helpful in fixing my gaze on Him throughout the day:

1. I set a timer for five minutes and meditate on God’s greatness. 

I try to picture eternal realities (see Scriptures listed below) and I ask God to enlarge my thoughts of Him. A big view of God shrinks the size of my suffering.

2. I memorize Scripture and call it to mind. 

I’m not a skilled nor faithful memorizer, but I keep working at it, slowly, and it has transformed many a dark and desperate moment.

3. I read and listen to people who hold before me a great view of God. 

The writings of past saints, sermons by Spirit-filled preachers, worshipful music by Jesus-loving musicians, and wise friends and counselors give me much-needed glimpses of God that I couldn’t get on my own.

4. I remind myself of the ways God has been faithful to me in times past and I keep an eye out for His mercies today

As I do this, I thank Him for His goodness, talk about it with others, and write about it. 

While the daily time I set aside to meet Christ in His Word is “the long gaze,” these smaller practices reorient my gaze upward throughout the day, often happening in the in-between or waiting times—the school pickup line, my doctor’s office, the midnight hours when I can’t sleep. Amy Carmichael wrote,

Fill up the crevices of time with the things that matter most. This will cost something, but it is worth it. “Seek ye My face. My heart said unto Thee, Thy face, Lord, will I seek.”5

Despite my bent to waste my “crevices of time,” to fixate on myself and my circumstances, I’ve found that even the struggle, the discipline, to shift my eyes from self to God transforms unbearable moments into beautiful ones. Training my eyes on Him helps me to see my pain for what it is: an invitation into more of Christ who is Love and Life itself, who is and has everything I need.

In my next article of this series, I’ll dig a little deeper into how we can link arms with our fellow saints, past and present. In the meantime, I want to leave you with several Scripture passages to help you look long at Jesus—and keep looking. 

May He strengthen your suffering heart as you behold His beauty today.

What rich wisdom from our dear sister Colleen! Lord willing, she’ll be sharing more on God’s faithfulness during times of deep suffering at Enduring Trials & Suffering, the third in our Biblical Help for Real Life series of online events. Register now for the single event to be held November 12, or bundle the whole series of events and save!

Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack (Berkeley, CA: Read How you Want, 2010), 226.

Samuel Rutherford and Ellen S. Lister, The Loveliness of Christ: Extracts from the Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2007), 87.

John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Zeeland, MI: Reformed Church Publications, 2017), 226.

J. I. PACKER, Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 106.

Amy Carmichael, Candles in the Dark: Letters of Hope and Encouragement (Fort Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 2012), 19.

About the Author

Colleen Chao

Colleen Chao

Colleen Chao writes about God's goodness in her journey through singleness, depression, chronic illness, and stage-four cancer. She is the author of In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God: 31 Days of Hope, Honesty, and Encouragement for the Sufferer. … read more …

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