This summer marks 60 years since polio gave me my first remembered encounter with suffering and pain. As a preschooler, I spent six months away from home — one month at Vassar Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, and then five months at the New York State Rehabilitation Hospital (now Helen Hayes Hospital). My parents drove a 1939 car and traveled to see me on Saturdays and Sundays. Although the distance from my home to each of these hospitals was about 50 miles, no Interstate highway system existed then. The dependability of an older car meant tears and disappointment for me when my folks simply couldn’t get to the hospital some weekends. I remember an overcrowded room that held 20 beds. As a four-year-old, I was the youngest one in one of those beds, but I looked into the hallway lined with iron lungs. In pain, frightened and missing my Mommy and Daddy, I’m sure I was not an easy patient. When an overworked medical staff left hot packs on my back and the backs of my legs too long, I blistered. After extensive rehab, I returned home just before my fifth birthday. That little girl still lives inside me, and some days she’s folded up like the butterfly perched on this zinnia. Jesus affirms that we will have troubles in this world. That’s a fact of life that some learn earlier than others. But at some age we all contemplate the issue of suffering.
I have college friends –one currently looking at just-diagnosed cancer and the other — who’s been in the battle for over a decade. And after years of proclaiming the gospel from her wheelchair, Joni Eareckson Tada has breast cancer. Too many married couples tear their vows and lives apart in divorce. Financial ruin, abusive sexual appetites, and a myriad of other sins cause pains that gnaw at the soul.
Job probed the topic of suffering after he experienced deeper losses than I can ever imagine. Paul gained a perspective that could call his trials “these light, momentary troubles” that could “not compare with the eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrestled with questions involving the existence of God and the goodness of His character. When hardships come, doesn’t God hand us a privilege and a responsibility, a way in which He wants the frightened butterfly to unfold its wings and find life-sustaining nectar?
When I look for Scriptures that sustain the paradox of privilege and responsibility, I find I Peter 4:12-13. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (emphasis mine)
Then I read Paul’s words to those at Philippi. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” Phil 1:27-29. (emphasis mine)
What about you? When did you first learn something about trials and tribulations? A better question, however, is this: How has God helped you find a path through those difficulties and shown you His grace? In this world we will never eradicate pain and suffering, but we have a Savior who points the way, helps us navigate and endure through the pain as we draw closer to Him. Philippians 4:5-7 gives us a worthy compass. “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” May we all unfold our gossamer wings and drink deeply from God’s nectar.