The Gift of Suffering

All we card-carrying evangelicals know the doctrine—suffering is good for us! We don’t go looking for it, but we know it will happen, and we know that when it does happen God gives us peace and perseverance in the midst of it. We hang in there, read Job a few more times and wait for the light at the end of the tunnel. We also know that the gospel of health and wealth promoted by people such as Benny Hinn and his mob is right off the deep end of delusion. What looked like a healing of back pain was really a warm fuzzy glow which came from turning down the air conditioning in the Sydney Entertainment Centre. (I sat through five hours of the rubbish, so you can trust me here).

But sooner or later theological theory becomes a part of your day-to-day reality. Will you really ‘walk the talk’ when the heat is on? When it really hurts—what then? Will we still say “blessed be the name of the Lord” when everything is collapsing around us? Or will we curse God and die?

The acid test came to our church when our rector died. He was our teacher, pastor and friend. And he died of cancer. Slow. Hard. Painful. A man in his mid 50s in charge of a growing and successful church, looking forward to travelling around Australia with his wife after they retired—they even went and paid for the caravan. On a Sunday night they both stood in front of our congregation and read out the sentence his doctor had handed down: a few months left—maybe a year. Dead certain dead. And one by one everybody in the room cried. And then we prayed.

We didn’t know what to pray for—what was the correct thing to ask for? We prayed for his wife, we prayed for our church, we prayed for our grief. We prayed that God would miraculously heal him—yet we conceded that even this terrible cancer had come from the hand of God and that as finite sinful human beings there was nothing we could do to fix it up. And so we told God that we realized there was nothing we could do about it. And then we cried and prayed some more.

And our prayers were answered. People became more dependent on God in their daily lives. We were seeing that our wealthy suburb and our wonderful houses and materialist lifestyle all meant very little. Our friend was dying and only the resurrection would bring us back together. We started to hold the things of this world just a little more lightly than we had previously done. We read our Bibles more. We went to church more often. People were converted. Our rector evangelised other dying cancer patients as he died with them. His wife said it was the closest period of their entire marriage. And we rejoiced that in the gospel there was one big fantastic solution to this ugly mess of sin that we all find ourselves in. And as he died he kept telling us to persevere, to persist in the gospel, to remember that the fields are ripe for harvest but that the labourers are few. And then he died and went to his Lord and we all prayed and cried some more.

Such is the way of the gospel—what you see is not necessarily what the reality is. A Friday afternoon in AD33. Just another crucifixion. Seen one you’ve seen them all. A Thursday afternoon in Sydney AD1999. Just another middle-aged man dying in his bed. It happens every day.

But in the first case God lays it on the line for his people. In the second case one of God’s children collects the inheritance. And those of us left behind became just a fraction more like Christ. And this is the plan of God at its magnificent best.

No doubt a miraculous recovery would have made our church famous for its ‘healing ministry’ and Christians near and far would marvel at the great prayer warriors that facilitated this healing. We would have been so proud of ourselves. And we would not have learnt a thing.

To our great God, through Jesus Christ, and on behalf of our dear departed brother—thanks for the lesson.

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