(Editor’s Note: This post was originally written as a guest post on the blog Rain Makers and Storm Chasers… I was grateful to write this as part of a series that my friend Jenny was hosting, and am pleased to post it for you here.)
Nobody likes to suffer. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone. I know how easily my whole day can be wrecked because something doesn’t go my way. I like control, and I like predictability. And both of those things are fine when you can see the road in front of you and chart your course out for miles ahead. But control and predictability go straight out the window when suffering enters the equation, and we leave the high road and enter the valley. It’s the valley where things get bumpy. And it’s the valley where God begins a supernatural task of exposing our cloaked motives, uncovering our wayward intentions, and revealing our deep seated agendas.
It’s in the valley where our counterfeit kingdom’s come crashing down.
Dr. John Piper wrote this in his seminal work, Desiring God:
I have never heard anyone say, “The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and comfort.” But I have heard strong saints say, “Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depths of God’s love and growing deep with him, has come through suffering.” (John Piper, Desiring God, 1996, p. 222, Used by Permission, http://www.desiringGod.org.)
I don’t intend this to be a long treatise on suffering, covering it from every angle and bringing worlds of wisdom to it. Some of it is drawn from my own experience, and some of it I know because Scripture teaches it and the experiences of life confirm it. But there is one lesson of suffering that I understand because, at least in this moment, my wife and I are living it.
Suffering because of Sin
Let’s be clear. Suffering in this life, for the believer, does not come as a punishment for sin. God’s righteous and punitive anger for sin was completely poured out on his son, Jesus.
There. Glad that’s out of the way. But you, like myself, may need to read that occasionally (constantly?).
Is affliction brought on by sin? Certainly sometimes. There are things that we can do here on earth that are a violation of how God intended the world to operate that can directly lead to things being unpleasant. A use of drugs can lead to nasty addictions and chemical imbalances. An addiction to shopping or material possessions can cause a lot of debt to pile up. We can suffer in the repercussions of our actions… and we can face longstanding consequences. But it is God’s mercy when things all fall apart. When God gives us over to the desires of our hearts, and we chase after that which can never satisfy, one of two things will happen.
We will show whether or not the Spirit of Christ truly dwells within us.
The child of God will be shaken to the core. The child of God will run to their heavenly Father and cling to the cross as their only life saving, soul cleansing hope in repentance and faith.
The child of this world will keep on running. Keep on chasing. Keep on looking for everything in the world to satisfy them except for the one whom they were designed for.
If God is not refining us… if God is just letting us sin without any consequences for our actions… we have great cause to fear at that point. Look at what the author to the Hebrews says:
 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?  If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:6-8 ESV)
Look, sin is a condition, not just a behavior. So repentance is a lifelong endeavor, not just an occasional thing done when the mood strikes.
We can suffer because of sin. And God uses the exposure of our wicked hearts to bring us back to him.
But there is another type of suffering; the type of suffering that comes because of God desiring to show himself to be great. And this isn’t suffering brought on as consequences to sin. This is suffering that is brought on so that the child of God and the watching world might see and savor that God is to be supremely treasured above all.
Suffering in the Valley
I said earlier that some types of suffering I know about from personal experience (sin really screws things up). And this last type of suffering… well, my wife and I are in it. And we aren’t out of it yet.
But first, a little background.
Week 18 of our pregnancy was supposed to be a happy week. We were going to find out the sex of our baby, and celebrate this miracle growing in my wife’s womb.
Well. Neither one of us expected the ultrasound appointment ending with an “uh-oh” followed by a “hang on” followed by “the Operating Room is expecting you at the hospital and the doctor is right behind you go now”. Jen had been diagnosed with cervical incompetence, and we were witnessing on ultrasound what could have been the beginnings of a very tragic miscarriage. So in to surgery she went, a stitch was placed, and at home bed rest was the new way of life.
The weeks that followed were increasingly stressful. If we didn’t make it to 24 weeks, the baby would not be medically viable outside of the womb, and we would lose our son.
There was also the spot. The spot under the placenta that looked like a fibroid. If that abrupted, the baby would bleed out and we would lose him.
So the weeks came, and went. Ultrasounds looked grimmer, and grimmer. Week 24 came, and we rejoiced. Faith and medicine were at least on speaking terms with one another now, agreeing that there might be a chance for our baby to live.
But then the medical community said it was time for hospital bed rest to take over and be the new way of life.
My wife had been stripped of her independence. She was in bed, being a gorgeous human incubator for our son. I had been stripped of my control. I could do NOTHING for either of them.
The spot under the placenta was an angioma. The cervix had thinned to 5mm (the size of 5 dimes stacked one atop the other).
Waiting. This became the new way of life. What were we waiting for? Tragedy? Happiness? I wanted to know. I wanted the ride to be over and the end to be shown so I could know how to prepare myself.
Ah. There it was. I had just been found out. I was a counterfeit king, living in a counterfeit kingdom. There I was, exposed and alone, hoping that no one else noticed the little boy behind the curtain trying to play the big strong king.
I didn’t want the journey. I wanted the end of the story. I wanted to go on crafting my carefully laid out plans and majestically paper thin life in terms of ease and comfort. I wanted to wax eloquently about the academics of theology without having to put propositions in to practice.
And so God brought everything to a screeching halt. And he isn’t done yet.
I wish I could tell you how it all works out. I wish I could tell you that mother and baby are fine. I wish I was telling you all of these things from the front seat of the car looking at the rearview mirror, with memory and angst fading in the distance.
No, the only thing that I can tell you are some simple biblical truths. God is good, and does what is good. Jesus did not come to make my already good life better, but rather to show me that he (and only he) is in fact better than life. God is in the process of breaking me because he loves me, and staging a divinely orchestrated coup to upend the counterfeit king clamoring for a throne he did not earn, with a crown he cannot hold. God is king, and I am not. God is good, even though I don’t know how the story will unfold.
But we go through the valley when we suffer. So I have begun praying like I never have before… connecting my faith with brothers and sisters here and now, as well as with those who have gone before. I pray for my wife, and I pray for my son. But I also pray for my own heart, that God would surgically rip to the core of my deceitfulness and make himself radiant in me. I have even borrowed some words from that old collection of puritan prayers, The Valley of Vision:
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision. Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine; let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley. (from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers, ed. by Arthur Bennett).
What about you? Where have you usurped the place of Christ, and tried to rule your world with your own agenda, your own renown, or your own veiled sense of control? What would it look like for you to recognize who you are and whose you are, and to fall back on the matchless grace of Christ? My prayer for you is that you would not resist the valley, but cling to the one who formed you, found you, and is finishing you and perfecting you to be like Him. To the glory and praise of His glorious grace. Amen.