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Suffering and Survival: It’s a Question of Who

  • Dr. Beverly Rose
  • 2006 31 Jul
Suffering and Survival: It’s a Question of Who

Whenever I attend church, I am approached by a large group of well-wishers. It is not because many of them know me personally or have read my new book, So Close, I Can Feel God’s Breath. It’s for a far different reason. They want to draw close to someone who suffers.


It’s not commonplace for me to feel so welcome when I am out in the world. In other places, such as the mall, some people actually go out of their way to avoid me. I choose to think it’s not because they are seeing me, but visualizing themselves in my place — in a wheelchair. They may be afraid of what I've become. But are they even more afraid of what might become of them?


Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College writes, "Our society is the first one that simply does not give us any answer to the problem of suffering except a thousand means of avoiding it.”


How strange, since pain is an inevitable part of the human condition. Yet, even modern medicine is often at a loss when it comes to the issue of suffering.


I know, because I prevailed upon the medical profession for 16 years to find an answer to what struck me down in the prime of my life, at the peak of my career as a clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral medicine at Harvard. I met doctors so frustrated by being unable to cure me that they defensively dismissed my symptoms as being "all in my head." Finally, a top researcher at the Muscular Dystrophy Association proved them right. He analyzed muscle biopsies taken from my quad muscle and discovered that it was in my head — and all over my body. I was suffering from a rare form of muscular dystrophy.


Our society may deny pain, but we Christians know that suffering exists as proof of our fallen state. Maybe that’s why the congregants in my church can more easily approach a sufferer like me. They know that, in this fallen world, suffering is inevitable. Jesus did not come to make this world a rose garden. He came to wear its thorns and suffer so that He could redeem our suffering. They also know that because of Jesus we can survive our suffering and go to a much better place. The harder question is: how will we get through our trials before we get there?           


As a Jew lying in a sickbed searching for answers, I struggled with this question for years, and unfortunately found more questions than answers. Then I met Jesus in a most unexpected epiphany and not only gained new life, but also blessed assurance that I will survive death. What I was not so sure about was how I would survive life — and just how much Jesus would really be there to help me.


I still struggle with this question even now that I know Jesus came. It was easier for me as a Jew to accept an inconceivable, unreachable, unknowable God’s apparent indifference in response to my suffering than the apparent inaction of the personal God who reached out to me in His Son when I merely whispered the name Jesus. I sometimes still question why God, who was so present with me at that miraculous moment, seems to sit idly by and do nothing to heal me or alleviate my suffering.  Or does He? 


Some may argue that maybe He doesn't care.  But then why did He come? An indifferent God would never have reached out to us in such extraordinary way, and certainly wouldn't have suffered and died for us. Nor would He have suffered with us.      


Others might say that maybe He doesn't truly understand our suffering. That doesn't seem likely. The Bible tells us that Jesus chose to live in the midst of those everyone else scorned. He came to the sick, the poor, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. God didn't spare Himself suffering. When He came to earth in Jesus, He not only came to comfort and save the suffering, but He also came to know suffering firsthand. 


When Jesus lived among the suffering, He was made to suffer for living among them. The powerful elite taunted Him for associating with undesirables. They derided Him for breaking deeply rooted customs such as touching lepers, who were considered unclean, and for healing the sick on the Sabbath.  Jesus was laughed at, His sanity was questioned, and He was ultimately killed. This does not sound like a God who doesn't understand what it's like to suffer. It is a God who suffered with and for those who suffered, becoming intimately familiar with what it is like for us to suffer.


Some may argue, as Rabbi Kushner does, that God is not powerful enough to heal us. Then how do we explain the healing miracles Jesus performed? Yet, Jesus’ miracles not only caused us to wonder at the miracle but also to wonder why, if He had such powers, He didn't use them to rescue all of humanity. 


Well-meaning Christians, in an attempt to encourage me have said, "God doesn't give us everything we want, but He gives us everything we need." I've always wanted to ask them what their definition of need is. Do I need to be able to walk, to get out of bed, to feed myself? Living in my body, in the physical world, just how much of what I want is, indeed, what I need? I don't know — which may not be a bad thing. That's because the answer is not what I need, but what God needs of me. You may ask: what can God can possibly need from a mere human being? He needs that we trust in Him.


God’s system may not seem to favor each of us all the time, but it ultimately favors all of us. We are left to trust that God, in His infinite wisdom, works all things for the good. Fortunately, we have living proof in Jesus that suffering can be redeemed and transcended.


Paul, after appealing to God to have a thorn in his side removed, prayed that his suffering would be redeemed, because he knew that Jesus could transform it. John Donne, bedridden and in despair, who first prayed that his suffering be removed, eventually offered prayers that it be redeemed. Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic, who as a teenager broke her neck in a diving accident and has been confined to a wheelchair for years, claims that her accident was the best thing that ever happened to her because it turned her toward God. Amazingly, God not only got her attention but also the attention of others who see His work displayed in her life. But is that enough? Does that justify such horrible suffering?


Joni once said of her life, "It's a daily, hard-fought-for, desperate pulling down of grace from heaven." What can someone who suffers relentlessly possibly mean by grace? If I were to define God's grace as giving me everything I want, I would conclude that He is not a very gracious God. After all, He has not restored what I have lost nor healed me. I continue to suffer from a disabling illness, and live alone and poor. Yet Joni’s ministry is proof that if I trust in Jesus, God will work in me for the good.  Despite quadriplegia or maybe because of it, Joni has given hope to millions as a renowned speaker, radio host, acclaimed writer, artist, and singer.  She also funds the distribution of wheelchairs to the poorer nations around the world.  Whenever I hear Joni speak, I hear the grace of God in her voice, reminding me of the inspired words of Paul, who wrote that God's grace is sufficient for him.


When I first became a believer, I read those words but couldn't understand what Paul meant. In my life, God's grace was necessary but certainly not sufficient for me.  Yet, as I began to walk daily with Jesus, I discovered that He broke into my suffering daily in places that bore the mark of His mighty and loving hand. Jesus sent a loving Christian to help me write my first book when I didn't have money to pay for assistance and couldn't imagine how I would physically accomplish such a monumental task.  By grace, the book was published, even though I was an unknown author lying in a sickbed. It was also by grace that He provided someone drive me all the way from Boston to my new home in Colorado because flying is difficult for me. Whenever I stare into the loving eyes of such amazing friends, I see Jesus lovingly gazing back at me.  That is grace. It is by grace that this failing body finds the strength to pen these words.  And grace when God is palpably present in thin places giving me inspiration and hope.  It is also grace that in the darkness of night, exhausted and in pain from writing, I whisper the name of Jesus, and He comes to comfort me as He did the first moment I came to know Him. It is all by His amazing grace.


Down through the ages, humanity has struggled with the question of why we suffer. I have found the answer not in the why but in the who — Who is not only the very embodiment of God Himself, but also the embodiment of God's love and grace.


When Jesus became the crossroads between this world and the next, everything changed forever. In that remarkable moment in history, God — in Jesus — showed us He loves us by coming to earth. He showed us He cares by becoming one of us. He showed us He understands by sharing our suffering. He showed us His hope for us by dying on a cross, redeeming our sins and giving us assurance of eternity. God gave us all this by the grace of Jesus, in amazing places of thinness. Because of Jesus — the ultimate thin place — we can recognize God's face and see his hand in our lives in thin places all around us.


Such grace is sufficient for me.

Dr. Beverly Rose earned a doctorate in clinical psychology and held an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School. Author of Mothers Never Die and So Close I Can Feel God's Breath, Dr. Rose has appeared nationally on radio and television. Raised in the Jewish faith, she is now a faithful follower of Jesus. Despite the daily trials of living with a neuromuscular disease, Dr. Rose experiences great joy and hope in her walk with the Lord. Dr. Rose currently resides in Tucson, Arizona.

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