I had such a joyful childhood. I read voraciously. I ran barefoot through the woods. I had seven younger siblings: some close enough in age to adventure together; some young enough, for a little while, to be my living dolls. I learned to bake, to appreciate beauty, and to get very dirty once in a while, just for fun. I got to travel all over the US, and God fulfilled my long-held dream of living in Israel. He transformed me, rescuing me from crippling shyness, and I was given the joyful task of writing.
Until well into young adulthood, I would say, “I’m the happiest person I know.” Then – well, then life happened. Among my loved ones, I saw broken relationships, illness, and disappointment. My own dream of being a young mother faded into the rearview mirror, and singleness stretched on much longer than I had ever expected. The near-death of a sibling and the loss of my aunt – a close friend – led to a crisis of faith in which I cried out to God, “When will You say ‘Enough!’?”
More recently, I experienced several months of intense anxiety about my health. The part of me that God intended to provide caution – like a dashboard light saying, “check this issue” – became instead a strobe and siren blaring, “Danger! Danger! Danger!”
For those months, the emotional pain was even more intense than grief. I remember telling friends, “I feel anxious. And I’m surrounded by the lovingkindness of God.” The cognitive dissonance of suffering can be so very disorienting, like being caught in a massive wave, tossed and twirled and thrown end-over-end.
Often, until I read books by those who have suffered, I’m unable to even articulate my own struggle, let alone see beyond it to a time when I could once more experience hope. And sometimes, I discover that books I already read have unexpectedly armed me for the fight to trust my Jesus with all my heart.
Among the first authors to give me words for my suffering is Elisabeth Elliot. For decades, her definition has been a helpful companion to me: “The word suffering is much too grand to apply to most of our troubles, but if we don’t learn to refer the little things to God how shall we learn to refer the big ones? A definition which covers all sorts of trouble, great or small, is this: having what you don’t want, or wanting what you don’t have.” (emphasis added)
While Elisabeth warns me away from the deadly quicksand of self-pity, she gives me freedom to say to myself, This hurts. This experience is not nothing. Then she turns my gaze towards Jesus: “Our circumstances are not the window through which we understand His love, but rather we must view our circumstances through His love.”
Here are her words of comfort from A Path Through Suffering: “Each time God gives us a hard lesson He desires also to give us Himself. If we open our hands to receive the lesson we open our hearts to receive Him, and,” she adds, “with Himself His vision to see the glory in the surrender.”
It was a day when I felt prickly, when I hurt, and hurt others. Yet on that day, God sent a reminder that He saw me: I won a giveaway for a copy of this book. I was living overseas at the time, so I knew I wouldn’t actually receive it for another two months, when my brother was due to visit for Christmas. When his suitcase—with my book inside it—was lost for thirteen days, it felt like a metaphor for my life: a long, long, long delay for a simple, good thing I desired.
In Every Bitter Thing is Sweet, Sara tells the story of twelve years of infertility, a long, winding road to adoption, and how she began “looking at life through the lens of being overlooked by God.” She wasn’t asking “Is God good?” But instead, “Is He good to me?”
Finally, Sara realized that God was asking her to consider a life “void of family but full of Him.” Would she still love Him, if He never gave her kids? For days, she wrestled with this question about His character: “Why would He put this desire deep within my core only to ask me to relinquish it? Why invite me to travel a road with a dead end?”
She also asked, “Could I love a God who might take away the very desire He put in me? Could I further engage with the very One on whose watch I was wounded?” Then “Somehow, out of this darkness, which seemed so bleak, came a response that I didn’t expect. . . . Yes, I could love Him. Yes, I could trust His leadership. Yes, I could even find delight and joy and contentment living from the underside of mystery – perplexity. Yes, there was a dance to be danced in this valley.”
What God is teaching me in singleness, He taught Sara in barrenness – and is still teaching her in the chaos of motherhood. My wait is the best possible preparation for what comes next. And the best way to survive waiting? Savor the gift of hunger, which the Bible says makes every bitter thing sweet. And practice. Practice the presence of God. Speak back to Him what He says, and voice His lovingkindness aloud.
Katherine Wolf was in her early twenties, a model and the mother of a baby son, when she suffered a massive stroke. To save her life, over half her cerebellum was removed. She spent a year of relearning to do the simplest life-tasks, and fifteen years later, her face, her speech, and her mobility still bear the marks of that stroke. But together, Jay and Katherine live to share the message that joy is not only found in a pain-free life.
I read their story during my crisis of faith, and their words helped me accept that I too had been invited into the “young suffering club” – a place of growth that’s not just for mature Christians, but for all of us. Katherine writes, “In some ways, Jay and I have been blessed to suffer greatly at such a young age because it informs the way we live the rest of our lives. We have learned that when everything else is gone, hope remains.” They found that, “The call to give thanks, not at the end, but in the midst, began to reverberate inside us. We may never arrive at the ending we hoped for, so if we waited until then to celebrate all that had been given to us, that celebration might never come at all.”
Jay and Katherine add in Hope Heals, “Our culture tells us to succeed, be beautiful, avoid pain, and be happy. What if everything important in our lives is actually the opposite? Maybe it takes life being undeniably terrible before we can truly recognize its undeniable splendor.”
When I received God’s Grace in Your Suffering in the mail as a gift from an online friend, I was drawn to the simple sketch on the cover: a nail-pierced, outstretched hand. And as I read, I was moved to tears.
David Powlinsons wrote frequently about biblical counseling and psychology from the perspective of faith. Informed by his experiences of chronic illness and open-heart surgery, this, his final book, reads like a letter from a wise older brother in the faith. “When you face trouble, loss, disability, and pain,” David asks, “how does the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ meet you and comfort you?” This book’s purpose, he says, is “to anchor your experience more deeply in God’s goodness.”
There are only eight chapters in God’s Grace in Your Suffering; several include a handful of questions to make the lessons personal. There are zero platitudes. As David says, “God’s sovereign purposes don’t include the goal of just accepting your troubles. He’s not interested in offering you some cognitive perspective to help get you through a rough patch. He’s working so you know him, so you trust him, so you love him.”
He adds, “The ability to suffer well is like manna – you must receive nourishment every day. You can’t store it up, though you do become more familiar with how to go out and find what you need for today.” And how to find that nourishment is a skill David shares in this book.
With its square-ish silhouette, this brand-new title by our very own Colleen Chao is a friendly-looking little book. And it does not disappoint. Birthed out of Colleen’s long-term singleness, chronic illness, depression, and terminal cancer diagnosis, the bite-sized chapters are indeed fiercely tender, real, and encouraging. The fresh, honest lessons from In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God are a gift not only from Colleen, but from her young son Jeremy, who was willing to share his mom’s legacy with us.
Colleen describes the gifts God gave her during these sufferings as “meant to be shared.” In the words of F.B. Meyer, they’re “the bread of our experience, the product of our tears and suffering and prayers” and they help others to thrive.
“None of us are good at suffering,” Colleen admits. “But the secret to slowly becoming a hope-filled, joyful sufferer has been shockingly simple (not easy, but simple): I go to God. . . . Slowly, sometimes awkwardly, suffering allows us to see [Jesus] more clearly because we are forced to go to Him again and again.”
When others blamed her for her long-term singleness, she realized, “I wasn’t single because I was discontent, but singleness helped me see and confess my discontentment” —a failing that every person must confront. She encourages us to cover the ignorant words of others with love, then “go back to the perfect, life-giving, light-emanating Word and listen to Him as He speaks tenderly and truthfully into your deepest need.”
To me, the very sweetest insight in this book is the one God gave Colleen’s six-year-old son when she was first diagnosed with cancer. After they read the story of the fiery furnace together, Jeremy remarked, “There are four people in this family.” He understood that Jesus had come to join his family in their affliction.
I hope and pray that you find Jesus’ company in your suffering as well.