About three months ago my husband, Ken, and I were back in the Baltimore area for my 30 high school reunion. You know how reunions are. You check out everybody's waistline. You look at the bald spots. But I had such fun eating dinner that evening at the reunion with my high school girlfriend Jackie.
Jackie is a friend with whom I used to share history homework, a couple of boyfriends, a lot of milkshakes, and at least 25 laps around the hockey field. We were on the hockey team together, and we laughed and dug out many warm, sunlit memories. We commiserated about the time our hockey team went for the Baltimore County championship against Parkville High School. We were so excited. All the cheerleaders got on the bus with us, and we sang songs all the way, trucking up the Beltway to Parkville High School. The clouds were beginning to gather, but the whistle blew. The game began. I was center forward. Jackie was my defense man. We went back and forth and forth and back, hitting goals, defending balls. It was a fantastic game. But just as the rain began to fall in the last quarter, Parkville slipped a goal by us, and we lost.
Jackie and I and the rest of the girls were downcast, . We slung our hockey sticks over our shoulders, grabbed our sports duffel bags, and , went back to the bus and climbed on board amidst pouring down rain. As the windshield wipers went clunk, clunk, clunk all the way back down the Beltway to Woodlawn Senior High School, some of us cried. We had worked hard. The season had been long.
Jackie and I took the back seat of the bus. We were the saddest. I was the captain of the hockey team, and she was the . We felt responsible. But being Christians, we clasped our hands together, dried our tears and, believe it or not, we sang there on the back seat of that bus bumping down the beltway. "Man of Sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came." We were glad we had a Savior who understood our heavy hearts.
What rich, wonderful memories. God was good to us back then, very, very good. Psalm 107:1 was a psalm I learned in high school, and it stuck with us in our senior year: "Give thanks to the Lord for he is good. His love endures forever."
A couple of months after that hockey championship I graduated from school, and a month later I dove into shallow water and broke my neck.
Suddenly God didn't seem so good. Suddenly he seemed uncontrollable, unsafe. I was anxious. I wanted to believe in the goodness of God. I was on finding answers, understanding reasons for my paralysis. And I certainly wasn't short on people to sit by my hospital bedside and flip through the Bible with Jackie being one of them, although she had gotten a job and was going off to college, and other friends were getting married. Life was going on.
There are good reasons why we suffer
I found reasons, and I discovered answers. I saw God's goodness at work. In fact, somewhere after I was released from the hospital and after the first couple of years settling into life in a wheelchair, I made a mental checklist. You've probably done the same when you've come up against heartache or hardship. Do you mind if I let you inside of my head a moment to describe what that checklist sounded like?
1. I have learned that all things fit together into a pattern for my good and God's glory. That doesn't mean being famous. It doesn't mean being a author, people knowing me. It simply means being like Christ. Okay, check. I've got that one.
2. Hardships have forced me to make decisions about God. Ah, this wheelchair has made muscular my faith. I can believe him more now than I did before the accident. Check.
3. Suffering has done a job on my character. I'm not so sloppy about relationships. I stick to promises. I'm at least more patient. (Well, kind of.) Okay, check. I've got that one.
4. Being paralyzed has made heaven come alive. Not in a cop out way, but in a way that makes me want to live life better here on earth because I know full well more is coming in the next. Check.
5. My thought life sure has been jerked right side up. Can't reach for the common temptations most people do. Check.
6. Suffering. Oh, God, thank you. Suffering has made me a lot more sensitive to people who are hurting. I could not have cared less about quadriplegics like me before my accident, but I'm more sensitive now. Check.
But good reasons don't always meet our need
My goodness, a checklist like this can sound a little dry, can't it? A little technical. But years ago it helped answer at least in part that nagging, sticking question about the goodness of God. Why would he allow something like this to happen? Hey, why not? God is more concerned about conforming me and you to the image of Jesus Christ than he is about our comfort zones. God is more interested in my inward character than my outward like refining my faith, humbling my heart, strengthening my character, cleaning up my thought life. It's not a bad answer, but not always the best one.
Sometimes even good answers aren't enough. Like that night long ago and far away, after all those wonderful things began to sink in. I knew the reasons. Really I did. I was thankful there were answers. I was grateful God was not sitting in heaven capriciously flipping coins. No, there was a plan. There was a purpose. But sometimes, have been there, I know you when you've got all your theological ducks in a row, it's just not enough. Sometimes the pain seems to outweigh even the best of benefits.
It happened one night when I was in the hospital for a check up. That night they showed The Birdman of Alcatraz on the Monday Night Movie. I don't know how many of you have seen Burt Lancaster play the part of the birdman, but after about an hour and a half of watching him clutch those iron bars and look out into freedom, I began to get claustrophobic. I felt as though I was so paralyzed that I was in prison. Lord, I can't do this. I'm grateful that all things work together for good, that my thought life is being cleaned up, that the lively hope of heaven is springing in my heart. I'm grateful you're making me sensitive to others. I'm grateful, God, that my prayer life is improving. But, God, Isometimes even all this good doesn't outweigh the pain I'm feeling right now.
That was the night my girlfriend J her, my on the hockey team? She snuck in to see me after hours because she had gotten off work late that night. She snuck in after hours and hid behind the couch in the visitors' lounge. When they turned lights out in the hallway and the nurses' station cleared, and all my other roommates were sound asleep snoring away, long after the movie, and I was wide awake, still wrestling with those anxieties. I heard a movement over toward the door, and I peered through the guardrail of my hospital bed, and there was Jackie crawling on her hands and knees across the linoleum floor.
She gets right up the side of my bed, takes hold of the guardrail, peers through it at me, and I hiss, "Jackie, if they catch you, they're going to kick you out of here."
She said, "Shhhhh."
And with her hand she lowered the guardrail of the hospital bed, and, as most high school girls do with one another, she climbed into bed and snuggled next to me. She grabbed my paralyzed hand, lifted it high so I could see it. Mind you, my hands can't feel. I can't move. My fingers have no sensation. So she lifted high my hand intertwined in hers and then turned her face toward me on the pillow and began to softly sing, "Man of Sorrows, what a name, for the Son of God who came. Ruined sinners to reclaim. Hallelujah, what a Savior."
It met my need like nothing else. And it underscored to me how good, how very good God is no matter if you are free roaming about, able bodied, or in what you think is a prison of a wheelchair. God is good. He's got his reasons, and they are good. They are right and true. All things do fit together into a pattern for good. Heaven is more lively to those who suffer. Your prayer life, if you go to God in the midst of your pain, will deepen. You will be made more sensitive to others.
Suffering hearts need a person, not an answer
But I will be the first to tell you that when your heart is wrung out like a sponge, a list of 16 biblical reasons as to why all this is happening can sting like salt in a wound. You don't stop the bleeding with reasons or even answers, even though they are great, solid, and true. Answers are great for S.A.T. exams and pop quizzes, but they often only reach the head. They don't get to where it hurts in the gut and heart. That's because the problem of suffering is not about something; it's about in your gut and in your heart.
When you're suffering, it's not as though you can walk up to a blackboard and chalk on it the cold, dry, detached question, "Why are you allowing this to happen?" No. You don't phrase it in a dry, abstract, theological way. When you're hurting and you want answers and you need you say "Why"'re not asking it of some thing, you are asking God. "God, why?" You are addressing a Person.
In the heat of emotion and disappointment you cry, "What gives?" It follows that the answer to suffering must not be neat and tidy. The answer to suffering must be someone, because when a person suffers, he or she is like a child in tears looking up into the face of her daddy and asking, "Why, Daddy? Why?" That child does not want answers. He does not need reasons so much as for Daddy to reach down and pick him up and press that little child to his breast, pat him on the back, and say, "There, there. Everything's going to be all right. Daddy's here."
That's our heartfelt assurance, isn't it? It is the fatherly assurance that there is an order to our reality. Our heartfelt plea is for fatherly assurance that somehow everything will be okay, that our world is not splitting apart at the seams, that it is not coming apart in nightmarish the world, our world, is orderly and stable. That is what we want to know.
God must be at the center of things. He must be at the center of our suffering. What's more, he must be warm and personal and compassionate. He must be Daddy. This is our cry.
And God, like a father, does not give advice. He does not give reasons or answers. He goes one better. He gives himself. If you are the one who is at the center of the universe holding it all together so it does not split apart at the seams; if everything moves and breathes and has its being in you, like it says in Acts 17:28, you can do no more than give yourself. In Isaiah 54, God becomes the husband to the divorced woman. In Psalm 10, he becomes father to the orphaned. In Zechariah 2:5, he becomes the wall of fire to those who need protection. In Isaiah 62, he becomes the bridegroom to the person grieving that she'll never marry. In Exodus 15, he becomes the healer to the sick. In Isaiah 9, he becomes the Wonderful Counselor to the confused and the depressed. In John 4, he becomes living water to those who are thirsty. In John 6, he is the bread of life to those who are hungry for more than this world can give.
Friends, you know me. And you know I staked my life on the fact that God's got good reasons. I have written books about it. But we cannot distance the Bible's answers ever from God. Even Jesus said in John 5:39, "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life."
That God is a part of the problem of suffering may not complicate matters after all. How or to what extent he created the problem is not the question. He is the answer, and we need him. We need him desperately.
I woke up this morning and I said to my girlfriends who were getting me I've been doing this for more than 30 years now, and you'd think I'd be used to it. But I said, "Oh, we need grace for today. I need grace for today. Lord Jesus, somebody has to get me dressed in this bed, exercise my limbs, sit me up in my wheelchair, scrub my teeth, brush my hair, fix my breakfast, push me down to the elevator. Oh, Lord God, I can't do this. Would you please give me strength?" Utter, desperate, abject need of God. God is good, supremely good in the midst of our suffering because he gives us himself. And that's why this morning I had in my heart, "Man of Sorrows, what a name. When he comes our glorious King."
God gives himself, not a list of answers. He is the answer. He doesn't give us a bunch of words. He is the Word, the Word made flesh, nails gouged, hands nearly ripped off, spat upon, beaten bloody, flies buzzing, hatred hammering. These aren't merely dry theoretical facts about the Lord Jesus. This isn't love as an abstract cool, detached, and theoretical. No. As someone has said somewhere, this is love poured out like wine as strong as fire.
I'm so glad sitting in this wheelchair that I can trust a God who got messy when it comes to suffering. He smeared his blood on his cross writing in red ink, "I love you," saving us from hellfire. Which, incidentally, is the ultimate suffering, right? Here on earth, you and I only experience hell's splash over. One of the best answers to the question "Why is there suffering?" is because there is a hell. I don't want to go to hell, and suffering only reminds me of that. God gives us tiny little tastes of hell on earth so that we might be awakened out of our spiritual slumber with an splash of eternal realities in our faces.
Suffering comes to compel us toward God
Besides that, suffering reveals who we are. That is its best benefit to you and me. When we suffer, when the pressure confines, when limitations crowd in, then evil begins to fizzle. All the things within us God wants to remove like dross begin to rise to the surface where they hit the bright clear light of day and the cleansing light of the Lord Jesus. As C.S. Lewis once said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, but he shouts to us in our pain."
We would all stumble through life thinking this parade of 24 days was just going to continue on, one high school reunion after the next until suddenly we're against our gravestone. It's a little too late to think about heaven and hell then. We'd all stumble through life unaware of a heaven or a hell were it not for God giving us a taste of suffering.
And so God allows suffering between him and us so that nothing will come between him and us. For who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or danger or sword? No. In all these things we are more than conquerors. For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor the powers, neither height nor depth nor broken necks nor broken hearts nor broken homes will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
If ever we are tempted to forget the goodness of G I once was, lying on that hospital ever someone challenges you on the goodness of God, the only way, the best way, the most supreme way God's goodness is made manifest is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God is good not because he explains the reasons why, but because he explained himself on Calvary. The spotless Son of God, who in the span of nine hours bore the sins of more than forty billion did not just generally die for the general sins of the whole general world. No, he specifically died for you and for me.
Praise God, the Father has no more anger left for us. It was all poured out on Jesus, and all God's got left for us is mercy and forgiveness and tender compassion and grace upon grace upon grace.
"Amazing love, how can it be that God as Dr. Peter Kreeft has said, "that God should plunge a knife in his chest for me? Me, cool and indifferent, detached and intellectual. That he, the God of life, should conquer death by embracing it, destroy the power of sin by letting it destroy is what 1 Corinthians 1:25 is all about. This is the foolishness of God far wiser than human wisdom, the weakness of God, far stronger than human strength. Christ is God's foolishness. Christ is God's weakness.
God wrote the book on suffering, and he called it Jesus. This is why God is good. He is good because he gives himself.
Are you broken? He is broken with you. Do your friends no longer call you to go places with you? Jesus couldn't get his three best friends to spend a single hour in prayer with him. If you feel like the world has passed you by, remember it passed by Christ first.
Does he descend into your hell? Yes. For though the darkness is all around me, you cry, even the darkness is not dark to him. You can endure almost slump shouldered in a hospital room by the bedside of a loved one dying of can endure almost anything if you know God is sitting next to you.
In short, Jesus was the most G man who ever lived, so that he might say to you, "I will never leave you. I will never forsake you." God is good. Thomas Merton said, "In order to suffer without dwelling on our own affliction we must think about a greater affliction and turn to Christ." This is not a matter of dry technique, nor a matter of memorizing reasons or packing answers. This is a matter of simple faith.
Right before my high school reunion I called one of my girlfriends on the hockey team. I said, "I'm looking forward to the reunion. Is Jackie going to be there?" And my friend on the other line said, "Joni, didn't you hear the news?"
"What news?" I said.
"Oh, it happened last night. You knew that Jackie and her husband separated, didn't you?"
"Yes, I had heard that," I said.
"Well," my friend went on to say. "You know her teenage son Joshua? He's been having a lot of problems lately: bad grades in school, hanging around with the wrong crowd, dabbling in drugs. He made a profession of faith some time back, but he's wandered away from the Lord. Last night the evening news reported that Jackie's son was found in a burnt out fire. He set himself on fire, and his dad's house burned down. He left a suicide note in the mailbox. Joni, didn't anybody tell you?"
"No. No, I didn't know that."
I took a deep breath, and she recounted to me the details of the story. I tried to call Jackie to let her know how sorry I was to hear about her son's suicide. Since I couldn't get hold of her on the telephone, I immediately wrote her a letter. I read part of it to you now:
Ken and I are planning to be in Baltimore soon, and I'm hoping that we can see each other then. If so, Jackie, I would want to hold your hand as you once held mine in the hospital. Do you remember when you crawled into bed with me? And I would softly sing to you as you once sang to me, "Man of Sorrows."
I don't know what else to write but that. May the Man of Sorrows be your comfort. And as in the hospital, I would hope you would feel what I felt and what I still remember to this profound and a soul settled. Peace, Jackie, not answers, not reasons. Do you remember that night 30 years ago? Jackie, I have never forgotten it.
I saw Jackie when Ken and I traveled to Baltimore. And we sang that song together. In fact, I talked to her again just last weekend. Her soul sounds settled. The peace still is profound. She's not grasping for answers. She doesn't want to read my latest book. Rather she said, "Joni, I've got this cross around my neck. It's one that my son gave me. Every time I start to feel desperate, like I can't make it, like I'm in a prison, then I hold onto that cross." Jackie's got her hand in the One who holds all the answers, and that for her is enough.
Joni Eareckson Tada is an author, artist, and speaker. She has written over 25 books and is the founder of Joni and Friends, a nonprofit organization for the acceleration of Christian ministry among those with disabilities.
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Joni Eareckson Tada is a best-selling author of more than 50 books, an internationally-known speaker, and the Founder and CEO of Joni and Friends International Disability Center. You can learn more about Joni at JoniAndFriends.org.