I have seen a lot of suffering lately.
The week before Christmas a patient I had known for over 15 years was sent home from the hospital on hospice. His bone marrow cancer had left his bones and attacked his liver. It was too late for the bone marrow transplant he had been waiting for and too advanced for any hope of a response to any treatments. Within 24 hours of going home he was confused and difficult to arouse. He died less than a day later.
I had another patient go home on hospice Christmas eve. The combination of metastatic cancer and heart disease had left her too weak to fight. As it was possible this Christmas would be her last she chose to spend it at home. She still holds out hope that she might regain enough strength to resume curative treatments but there are no guarantees. Hers was a sick Christmas.
On December 23rd I made a house call on a third hospice patient. This patient has an incurable lung infection. We thought it would have taken her life months ago but she has hung on, her body refusing to give up on the unwinnable fight even though her mind did long ago. Walking across the room can be an ordeal for her. The disease has destroyed so much lung tissue she has no respiratory reserves remaining.
All three of the patients and all of their families suffered this Christmas. The emotional and physical pains were real and intense. In addition to their hospice status they had something else in common, the lingering question, “Where is God in all of this?”
Modern society, and at times the Christian church within it, seems to have the view that suffering has no rightful place in this world, that its presence is evidence that God either does not exist, does not care, or is weaker than is claimed. The thought that a good God could allow suffering, or worse, ordain it, makes no sense to us.
When Christians do talk about suffering it is usually discussed as a temporary stop on the journey to a positive destination. This is often true. My own life is evidence of this reality as my struggles with chronic pain and anxiety have helped soften and mold me into a more patient and caring man. What is seldom discussed or acknowledged in the Christian faith is the suffering that endures, the pain that never fades and is a permanent part of someone’s life.
It is seldom discussed but it is readily evident in the world around us. Whether it be from conditions such as fibromyalgia or Lou Gehrig’s disease or oppression under hateful governments there are millions of people around the world who wake up each morning in the same state or worse than they were the day before, with no end in sight and no hope for better days. What is God’s purpose for these people? Why do they continue to suffer when there seem to be no further lessons to learn? Why does not God rescue them from their pain, allow them to go on the next life now?
These questions returned to my mind this week as I was reading through the book of 1 Peter. Peter was writing to Christians in Asia who had experienced severe persecution under the Roman emperor Nero. Many Christians had been killed or tortured and the ones that remained lived in fear of the same. Peter wrote to educate and encourage these people in the truths of God.
The most astonishing aspect of Peter’s letter was his attitude about suffering. Peter wrote that, for these people at least, suffering was not something to be temporarily endured but rather a calling to be accepted. Peter told the people of the eternal nature of their call, of the profound blessings that awaited them in the next life and the certainty of them receiving them. He reminded them that Jesus was called to suffer on their behalf and that they were called to suffer as well. He then made the remarkable point that the manner in which people endure prolonged suffering is a powerful testimony to others.
As I read his words I realized that they are in profound contrast to what many Christians seem to believe. When suffering comes we spend our days praying for relief, looking for a lesson or hoping for a way out. Peter’s words remind us that none of those options may apply in this lifetime. At times the only purpose for our suffering is that God be glorified by the manner in which we endure it.
Not a truth I particularly like, but a truth I need to accept.
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