… but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
We’d been warned to look for danger signs of rejection following a bone marrow transplant (the last step in treating lymphoma months earlier). Still, I felt rather silly texting my oncologist at home just before the Fourth of July to report some bouts with escalating abdominal pain. By the end of the day, we were at the hospital. My wife Beth and I were about to descend into a pit of pain and suffering previously unimagined.
• I was shedding the lining of my GI tract; my liver and skin were under attack.
• I would not leave my hospital bed until Labor Day.
• I was fed intravenously and would not eat or drink by mouth for six weeks.
• I had a 5 to 10 percent chance of survival.
• The post-hospital recovery would consume the next two years.
How in the world would I endure this kind of unrelenting pain, fear, and uncertainty for months on end? The Lord provided rescue in the form of (1) His Word and (2) Himself. Romans 5:3-5 helped a lot.
Richness of His Word
Clearly, these verses implied my pain and loss were God ordained—designed with great purpose to change me (us). This truth saved my sanity. He was changing me just like the Apostle Paul had described. It was happening before my eyes.
I also learned that during a hard, dry time like this, it’s no time to read devotionals exclusively. As good as some are, I needed the Scripture. I didn’t need a burst of inspiration. In the fog of suffering, I forgot what God was like. Sometimes, I honestly wondered if He really answered prayers—if He really intervened in our lives—and whether my progressively worsening circumstances signaled the absence of His care for me.
So, I started reading the life of King David in 1 and 2 Samuel—a chapter a day—very slowly. Soon, I was reminded of all the trouble David encountered even though he was the anointed future king of Israel. Over the next weeks, I used a red pen and underlined all the places God intervened for David. I also underlined each place I saw the Lord’s attributes. My Bible was full of red. He did intervene. I remembered who God was—what He was like in multiple situations. I could scan the red parts of my Bible anytime I wanted and get reminded of who He is.
Richness of Himself
An amazing thing happened. Just knowing God as He really is, in all those dimensions, took away fear. It removed my insistence to know whether I’d live or die, when I would recover, why this happened, how I would ever work again. The “when, how, what, and why” were satisfied by the “Who.” Once I came face-to-face with Jesus and was assured of His 100 percent accuracy, power, wisdom, gentleness, patience, and love for me, I didn’t need to know the plan. I knew Him. I trusted Him and would follow Him anywhere.
That suffering produced endurance, alright all right. And my character was being transformed, too. There was a new level of peace and security at my core that wasn’t there before. I had a new hope that did not disappoint.
A PCPC pastor visited us early on at the hospital and reviewed Romans 5:3-5. Regarding the last sentence (v5), he said, “Beth and Jay, start looking for the ways God is pouring His love into your hearts.” We sharpened our attention and saw His work all over the place: pivotal encouragement by the right person at the right time; specific acts of grace for our children; money in the mail when we needed it; meals at home when Beth was too exhausted to cook; and a spirit of peace during downturns in my health.
Before that pastor left my bedside, he said, “In the middle of the night, when you can’t sleep and are all alone, imagine the Lord Jesus on the cross, suffering for you.” A couple days later, I had taken a bad turn and was particularly discouraged at about 10:30 at night. Unexpectedly, my oncologist walked in the room. He’s a godly man and said he felt a definite nudge of the Holy Spirit to drop by before he went home. We talked honestly about life and death. Then he said, “As you lie here alone, imagine the Lord Jesus on the cross, suffering for you.” It was yet another moment of God pouring His love into my heart.
Sometimes we get it backward and think when suffering comes, it’s God’s main job to remove it. That’s not what Romans 5:3-5 teaches. Instead of fighting the bewilderment, Jesus is there in the yielding. And now I can look back on the horrific events of the past three years and declare: it was no tragedy. It’s still a mystery, but I can truly rejoice in my sufferings. They were how God rescued me.