Revive Our Hearts Podcast

Suffering Is Not for Nothing

Dannah Gresh: Elisabeth Elliot knew what it was to suffer. Her first husband was murdered and her second died of cancer. Yet she was able to look back and see how God used situations like these for good.

Elisabeth Elliot: The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. And out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, author of Surrender: The Heart God Controls, for Sunday, September 6, 2020.

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: Imagine that you’ve moved to an undeveloped area in a South American country. Your husband of two years has gone missing in the jungle. And then you hear the news. Your husband has been killed by the people he was trying to serve.

That's exactly what happened to Elisabeth Elliot. We’re about to hear a message from Elisabeth—something she knows a lot about. She'll explained what was going through her mind during these moments. Now you may never be through a situation like Elisabeth Elliot's, but all of us can expect to go through periods of suffering.

No matter what pain you’re facing right now. I hope you’ll listen to Elisabeth’s honest description of what it’s like to live in a fallen world. You’ll get a lot of hope and important perspective from God’s Word over the next few minutes. Let’s listen.

Elisabeth: When C.S. Lewis was asked to write a book on the problem of pain, he asked permission to write it anonymously. Permission was denied as not being in keeping with that particular series. This is what he wrote in his introduction. “If I were to say what I really thought about pain, I should be forced to make statements of such apparent fortitude that they would become ridiculous if anyone knew who made them.” And I would echo those sentiments.

When I hear other people’s stories about their own sufferings, I feel as though I know practically nothing about the subject myself. I’m in kindergarten as it were compared to, for example, my friend Jan who is quadriplegic and lies on one side or the other twenty-four hours a day in a nursing home in Connecticut; or my friend Judy Squires in California who was born with no legs; or my late friend, Jo Bailey, who lost three children. But if all I knew about suffering was by observation alone, it would still be sufficient to tell me that we’re up against a tremendous mystery.

Suffering is a mystery that none of us is really capable of plumbing, and it’s a mystery about which I’m sure everyone at some time or other here has asked, “Why?” If we try to put together the mystery of suffering with the Christian idea of a God who loves us, we know if we think about it for as much as five minutes that the notion of a loving God cannot possibly be deduced from the evidence that we see around us, let alone from human experience.

I'd like to go back to some of my own home training. I gew up in a strong Christian home in Philedelphia where both of my parents were what I call, seven-day-a-week kind of Christians. We had a little brass plate over the front doorbell that said: Christ is the head of this home. The unseen guest at every meal. The silent listener to every conversation.

We were taught that God is love. I suppose one of the earliest hymns we were taught was that little gospel song: "Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so."

When I was nine years old, my one and only girlfriend (almost my one and only—I lived in a neighborhood with forty-two boys—I had another friend who lived about six blocks away) . . . Her name was Essie, and Essie and I were nine years old when she died.

When I was three or four years old, we had a guest in our home who was a missionary on her way to China. Her name was Betty Scott. She went to China, married her fiance named John Stam. A few years later, I'm not sure how old I was, maybe six or seven . . . My father came home one evening with a newspaper telling that John and Betty Stam had been captured by Chinese Communists, marched almost naked through the streets of a Chinese village, and had then been beheaded.

You can imagine the impression this made on the mind of a young child in view of that fact that Betty Scott Stam had sat at our supper table and had given us her testimony as she was on her way to China.

I also remember very vividly the newspaper stories of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby. I would go to sleep at night imagining I saw a ladder coming up by my window. My parents not knowing that I was concerned in this way didn't think to tell me that there really wasn't a whole lot of danger that anyone would be interested in kidnapping a child like me. We were not really what you might call . . . rich.

Nevertheless, I did have some experience of death as a small child. And just a few weeks ago, to bring it more up-to-date, some friends of my husband's and mine called to say that their little four-year-old child that was born with spina bifida was doing very well, but the mother was pregnant. For various reasons, she had some tests that revealed that the child she is now carrying also has spina bifida. They were calling to say that they were hurting, please pray for us.

When I hear stories like that, it makes me think that my own experience of suffering is really very little at all. 

But the question is unavoidable to the thinking person: Where is God in all of this? Can you look at the data and believe?

It was the question put to Alyosha by Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky's famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Recounting the story of a little girl of five, Ivan said to his brother,

She was subjected to every possible torture by her cultivated parents. They beat her, thrashed her, kicked her, for no reason till her body was one bruise. Then they went to greater refinements of cruelty. They shut her up all night in the cold and frost in the privy. And because she didn't ask to be taken up at night—as though a child of five sleeping its angelic sound sleep could be trained to wake and ask—they smeared her face and filled her mouth with excrement. It was her mother who did this. And that mother could sleep, hearing the poor child's groans.

Can you understand why a little girl who can't understand what is done to her should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark, and weep her meek, unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her. Do you understand that, friend and brother, you pious and humble novice. Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted?

So I hasten to give back my entrance ticket. [Ivan says] It's not God that I accept, Alyosha. Only I most respectfully return my ticket. Tell me yourself, I challenge you. Answer.

Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end. Giving them peace and rest at last. But that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature. That baby beating its breast with its little fist, for instance, and to found that edifice on unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell me the truth.

What I want to share with you is what I see to be the straight truth with no evasions and no clear, flat platitudes.

It’s very fresh in my mind just this week a picture that I saw in Time Magazine of an inconsolable newborn baby whose mother was on crack cocaine. Just to look at that picture brought down on my own head, as it were, everything that I was planning to say to you in this series.

I happened to be sitting on a plane yesterday next to a woman who was reading a book that was called Master of Life Manual which according to the cover was about metaphysics, brain/mind awareness, human potential principles, and this stunning statement, “Create your own reality now.” I thought I would hate to be down to such an extreme that I was having to create my own reality in the face of the data of human experience.

So I would ask questions. Is there a reason to believe that suffering is not for nothing? Is there an eternal and perfectly loving purpose behind it all? If there is, it’s not obvious. It doesn’t exactly meet the eye. And yet if for thousands of years in the face of these stunning realities there is this terrible truth. If for thousands of years people have believed that there is a loving God and that that God is looking down on the realities around us and still loves us, and these people have still continued to insist that God knows what He’s doing and that He’s got the whole world in His hands, then I repeat, the reason cannot possibly be obvious. It can’t be because those thousands of people were all deaf, dumb, blind, or stupid and incapable of looking clearly and steadily at the data that you and I are constantly having to look at. What is the answer?

F.W.H. Myers in his poem “St. Paul” wrote these words:

Is there not wrong too bitter for atoning?
What are these desperate and hidden years?
Hast Thou not heard Thy whole creation groaning,
Sighs of the bondsmen and a woman's tears? 

The answer is not obvious. There must be an explanation somewhere. It’s my purpose in this series to try to get at the explanation and then to see if there’s something that you and I can do about this question of suffering. I’m convinced that there are a good many things in this life that we can’t really do anything about, but that God wants us to do something with. I hope that by the time I’m finished, I will have made myself clear.

Now, the word suffering may seem very high flowing and perhaps much too dignified for your particular set of troubles today. If I knew you and if I knew your stories, then I would know that I can’t possibly speak personally to every need that’s here, to every kind of suffering. I’m fairly sure that there would be some people here tonight who would be saying, “Well, I really don’t know any such thing as suffering. I’ve never been through anything like Joni Eareckson or Jo Bailey or even Elisabeth Elliot. And of course, that’s true. And I could say the very same thing if I knew your story. I could say, “Well, I’ve never been through anything like that.”

So I want to give you a definition of suffering which will cover the whole gamut from when the washing machine overflows or when the roast burns and you’re having the boss to dinner that night, all those things about which our immediate human reaction is, “Oh, no!” From that kind of triviality, relatively speaking, to your husband has cancer, your child has spina bifida or yourself have just lost everything. I think that you’ll find the definition that I’m going to give you will cover that gamut. 

I think that the things that I’m going to try to say to you will apply to the small things—those sometimes ridiculously small things that if you’re like me you get all upset about and all bent out of shape about—that matter not at all by comparison with the big things.

And here it is, my definition. Suffering is having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have. Now, if you can think of something that does not come under one of those two headings, please see me later because I do want to hear about it. I think that covers everything.

Now, can you imagine a world, for example, where nobody had anything that he didn’t want—no toothaches, no taxes, no touchy relatives, no traffic jams? Or by contrast, can you imagine a world in which everybody had everything they wanted—perfect weather, perfect wife, perfect husband, perfect health, perfect score, perfect happiness?

Malcome Muggeridge said, “Supposing you eliminated suffering. What a dreadful place the world would be because everything that corrects dependency of man to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now. But he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.” Muggeridge gets at the heart of what I want to say. It’s not for nothing. Now how do I know that?

The deepest things that I have learned in my own life have come from the deepest suffering. Out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires have come the deepest things that I know about God. I imagine that most of you would say exactly the same. I would add this that the greatest gifts of my life have also entailed the greatest suffering. The greatest gifts of my life for example have been marriage and motherhood. And let’s never forget that if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be very careful never to love anything or anybody. The gifts of love have been the gifts of suffering. Those two things are inseparable.

Now, I come to you tonight not like R.C. Sproul who is a theologian and a scholar. I come to you not merely as one who has stood on the sidelines and pondered these things, but as one in whose life God has seen to it that there has been a certain measure of suffering, a certain measure of pain. It has been out of that very measure of pain that has come the unshakeable conviction that God is love.

Now when my little girl, Valerie, was two years old, her father had been dead for more than a year, and I was beginning to teach her things like Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul.

And I can still hear that tiny, little, baby voice saying, “He leadeth me beside the still waters.” I realized that when I heard her say that again, and I still have a tape of her saying that, I thought, Where did she get that weird intonation? And I realized that she had gotten it from her mother who was coaching her word by word. She’d say, “He leadeth me,” and I would say, “beside” and she would say, “beside.” Anyway, she learned it. 

Things like Psalm 91, one of my favorite psalms.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High and lodge under the shadow of the Almighty who say the Lord is my safe retreat, my God, the fortress the refuge in which I trust. He will cover you with his pinions and you shall find safety beneath his wings. You shall not fear the hunter’s trap by night or the arrow that flies by day. A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand close at hand but you it shall not touch (vv. 1–7 paraphrased). 

Now, I want you to think of how a mother who is a widow tried to teach her little daughter whose father was killed by a group of savage Indians, who thought that he was a cannibal, what this psalm means—what the words of Scripture means. She learned “Jesus loves me this I know” not because her daddy was killed. She didn’t know it that way. But “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” She learned to sing, “God will take care of me.” How was I to explain that “a thousand shall fall at thy side and ten thousand at thy right hand but it shall not come nigh thee.”

I tell you this because maybe it will help you see that I have been forced from the circumstances in my own life to try to get down to the very bedrock of faith—the things which are infrangible and unshakeable. God is my refuge. Was He Jim’s refuge? Was He a fortress?

On the night before those five men who were killed by the Auca’s went into Auca territory, they sang, “We rest on Thee our shield and our defender.” What does your faith do with the irony of those words? There will be no intellectual satisfaction on this side of heaven to that age old question, “Why?”

But although I have not found intellectual satisfaction, I have found peace. And the answer I say to you is not an explanation but a person, Jesus Christ, my Lord and my God.

When I came to the realization was missing, not knowing for another five days that he was dead, the words that God brought to me then were from Isaiah 43:

When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee, for I am the LORD thy God (vv. 2–3).

I realized then that God was not telling me that everything was going to be fine, humanly speaking, that He was going to preserve my husband physically and bring him back to me. But He was giving me one unmistakable promise—I will be with thee, for I am the LORD thy God.

He is the one who loved me and gave Himself for me. And that challenge that Ivan Karamazov gave to his brother, Alyosha, echoed a challenge that was given thousands of years earlier. The challenge flung at Jesus when He hung on the cross: You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down (Matt. 27:40 NKJV).

Then you remember how the religious elite in derision yelled, "He saved others; Himself He could not save. He trusted in God; let God deliver Him now" (Matt. 27:42–43 NKJV). He's a miracle worker, let Him prove it to us now. Because He said, "I am the Son of God. 

And so we come back again to the terrible truths that there is suffering. The question, “Is God paying attention?” And thirdly, “Why doesn’t He do something?”

And in answer to that third question, “Why doesn’t He do something?” I would say, “He has. He did. He is doing something, and He will do something.” The subject can only be approached via the cross—that old rugged cross so despised by the world. The very worst thing that ever happened in human history turns out to be the very best thing because it saved me. It saves the world.

So God’s love, which was demonstrated to us in His giving His son Jesus to die on the cross, is brought together into harmony with suffering. You see, this is the crux of the question. And those of you who’ve studied Latin remember that the word crux, the Latin word crux for cross. It’s only in the cross that we can begin to harmonize this seeming contradiction between suffering and love. We will never understand suffering unless we understand the love of God.

We’re talking about two different levels on which things are to be understood. Again and again in the Scripture we have what seem to be complete paradoxes, because we’re talking about two different kingdoms. We’re talking about this visible world and an invisible kingdom on which the facts of this world are interpreted.

Take for example the beatitudes—those wonderful statements of paradox that Jesus gave to the multitudes when He was preaching to them on the mountain. He said things like this—very strange things: “How happy are those who know what sorrow means. Happy are those who claim nothing. Happy are those who have suffered persecution. What happiness will be yours when people blame you and ill treat you and say all kind of slanderous things against you. Be glad then. Yes, be tremendously glad.” Does it make any sense at all? Not unless you see that there are two kingdoms—the kingdom of this world, the kingdom of an invisible world.

The apostle Paul understood the difference when he made this stunning declaration. He said, "It is now my happiness to suffer for you." My happiness to suffer. It sounds like nonsence, doesn't it? Yet, this is the Word of God.

Janet Erskine Stewart said, "Joy is not the absence of suffering, but the presence of God."

It's what the psalmist found in the valley of the shadow of death. Remember, he said, "I will fear no evil." Now, the psalmist was not naive enough to fear no evil because there isn't any. There is. We live in an evil, broken, twisted, fallen, distorted world.

What did he say? "I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me" (v. 4).

When I stood by my short-wave radio in the jungle of Ecuador in 1956 and heard that my husband was missing, God brought to my mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, “When thou passeth through the waters, I will be with thee” (43:2). You can imagine that my response was not terribly spiritual. I was saying, “But Lord, You’re with me all the time. What I want is Jim. I want my husband.”

We had been married twenty-seven months after waiting five-and-a-half years. Five days later I knew that Jim was dead, and God’s presence with me was not Jim’s presence. That was a terrible fact. God’s presence did not change the terrible fact that I was a widow. I expected to be a widow until I died because I thought it was a miracle I got married the first time. I couldn’t imagine that I would ever get married a second let alone a third. God’s presence did not change the fact of my widowhood. Jim’s absence thrust me, forced me, hurried me to God—my hope and my only refuge. And I learned in that experience who God is—who He is in a way that I could never have known otherwise.

And so I can say to you that suffering is an irreplaceable medium through which I learned an indispensable truth.  “I Am.” “I am the Lord.” In other words, God is God. Well, I still want to go back and say, “But, Lord, what about those babies? What about that little spina bifida child? What about those babies born terribly handicapped with terrible suffering because their mothers were on cocaine or heroin or alcohol?” What about my little Scotty dog, McDuff, that died of cancer at the age of six? What about the Lindbergh baby? And the Stams that were beheaded? And I can’t answer your questions or even my own except in the words of Scripture.

These words from the apostle Paul who knew the power of the cross of Jesus. And this is what he wrote: 

For I reckon that the sufferings we now endure bear no comparison with the splendor as yet unrevealed which is in store for us. For the created universe waits with eager expectation for God’s sons to be revealed. It was made the victim of frustration [all those animals—all those babies who have no guilt whatsoever] the victim of frustration not by its own choice but because of him who made it so yet always there was hope [and this is the part that brings me immeasurable comfort] because the universe itself is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and enter upon the liberty and splendor of the children of God. (Rom. 8:18–21 paraphrased)

Where does this idea of a loving God come from? It is not man so desperately wanting a god that he manufactures him in his mind. It’s He who was the word before the foundation of the world suffering as a lamb slain and He has a lot up His sleeve that you and I haven’t the slightest idea about now. He’s told us enough so that we know that suffering is not for nothing.

Nancy: Elisabeth Elliot has been explaining how the tragic events in her life forced her to lean on the Lord for everything. Now, I assume that most people hearing today’s message can think of at least one difficult painful situation in their lives. As you think of the situation in your life that’s causing you the most heartache or suffering, let me ask, “Where are you turning for help?” Can I encourage you to call out to the Lord in the middle of that pain? Seek Him through His Word, through prayer, through singing, through worshiping Him and even through your tears.

And Lord, You know exactly who’s been listening to this message today and what they’re going through—the heartache, the grief, the broken family relationship, the physical needs, the financial needs, the unexpected circumstances, the heartache—Lord, You know each of our hearts, You know each of our circumstances.

I just pray that You would extend the helping healing hand of Jesus into every heart, every life, that we would call out to You in the midst of our pain, that we would seek You, that we would lean on You. Even as Elisabeth Elliot learned to, in that desperate moment when the chips were down and she had nowhere else to turn. Thank You that she found You to be a solid rock and a fortress for her heart—that she discovered that Your everlasting arms are always underneath us.

You carry us. You carry our burdens and our pains, and You meet with us in the midst of our heartache. So Lord, I pray that You would minister tailor-made grace to that listener who’s just in a desperate situation and doesn’t know where to turn. May she or he turn to You and find all that they need not only to survive, but to thrive, in the midst of the pain.

Thank You, Lord, that beyond the cross there is a resurrection. Beyond the pain there is gain—that You will take us through those difficult circumstances. And as Your Word promises, “When You have tried us, we shall come forth as gold.” For all of that we give You thanks. In Jesus holy name, amen.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth is reminding you that God is your refuge and strength. It's an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

All Scripture is taken from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

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