Last Friday I went to my uncle’s funeral. It was a wonderful ceremony and a fine memorial for a fine man. My uncle, Rick, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which made the end of his life very difficult. He was diagnosed with the disease in August of 2003, and it quickly began to exact a devastating curse on his body. For the next 9 years my uncle and his family experienced a long and devastating death.
The funeral itself was a happy time. Rick’s life before the disease was outstanding. His life was marked by a profound love for God and for others. The church was full of people eager to testify the how he was a blessing to them. When it is time to bury a loved one, it is so encouraging to know that they loved the Lord, and more importantly, the Lord loved them.
Yet, there remains a question that seems heavy on many of our minds. Why would God allow this kind of suffering, especially in a family who loves Him so dearly? I don’t claim to know the specifics of why God chose to allow my uncle to suffer, but I do think I can make two claims with confidence.
1. Suffering is not necessarily the result of a specific sin. Certainly, suffering only exists because sin has entered the world. Without sin there would be no suffering, and this is one of the things that makes heaven so exciting. Yet Jesus makes it clear that specific instances of suffering should not necessarily be linked to specific sins. Jesus makes this clear in an interaction with his disciples in John 9:2-3.
And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parent, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3)
When my uncle died, no one there believed that his sickness was a result of his sin. His life was characterized by obedience and love for God. Yet, he lived in a fallen world and the effects of sin affect the world indiscriminately. There is no point in tracing every instance of suffering back to some sin which produced it. Instead it is enough to know that a fallen world is a hard place, liberally offering pain and suffering to all its inhabitants.
2. Suffering is not without purpose. While the effects of sin are indiscriminately distributed, it does not follow that they are without purpose. Jesus explained that the suffering of the blind man was so that God might be glorified in him. In that story, Jesus proceeded to heal the man, demonstrating himself master even over the effects of sin. Yet many other times, in fact more often than not, healing is delayed until after death so that the believer and those around him or her can experience a different aspect of the glory of God.
This was certainly the case with Paul. Consider Paul’s own testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
God allowed Paul’s suffering, and I believe my uncle’s suffering, for the same reason, to serve as a reminder of our need for Him. Rick’s life served as a sign pointing people to Christ, his death was no different. It reminded us of our frailty and our overwhelming need for God’s mercy. It reminded us that we are weak, but God is strong.
John Newton – I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow
Perhaps the greatest poem on this topic was written by John Newton, the author of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” His hymn, “I asked the Lord that I might grow,” explains in excruciating detail how God uses suffering to accomplish His purposes.
I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know;
And seek more earnestly His face.
Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair!
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins–and give me rest!
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part!
Yes more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe!
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds–and laid me low!
“Lord, why is this!” I trembling cried,
“Will you pursue your worm to death?”
“This is the way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”
“These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set you free;
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you may seek your all in Me!”
There is no doubt that Newton understands that suffering has a purpose. The only question left is, “is it worth it?” Newton asks for grace and faith, but the price he pays for it is dear. What reward is worth the suffering that Newton describes? What reward is worth the long and devastating death that my uncle and his family endured? The reward must be, and most assuredly is, greater than the suffering.
John Newton only hints at the great reward. He is taught to seek his all in Christ. Paul explains the reward much more explicitly in Philippians 3:8-11.
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
The reward of suffering is Christ. This is why we can count it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds, because it leads us to Christ. The process is certainly long and hard. We must be taught to persevere. We are taught the painful lessons required to learn character. But at the end, there is hope (Romans 5:3-5). There is Christ. The suffering that Newton describes and the suffering that my uncle and his family endured are not worth it if we expect some cheap reward. If the reward is something small, a better job or better friends, the price would indeed be too steep. But this is no small reward. The reward of suffering is Christ. For Him, no price is too high.
My uncle knew Christ and is today in heaven, free from the suffering that characterized the last ten years of his life. Yet, I cannot escape the conviction that he perhaps endured suffering for more than himself. Perhaps, his suffering can be our tutor as well. My prayer is, I believe, the same as his would be. That as we remember how his body failed, we will learn not to trust in our own bodies. We won’t rely on our strength or our wits. We won’t presume to have many more years before we must face our creator. Instead, we will begin now to strive for the great reward, the surpassing worth of know Christ Jesus.