The Beauty Of Suffering and Adversity
|8 “To the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. 9 I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown11 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death. Revelation 2:8-11
The fear of being diagnosed with cancer is just as hard as the reality of it being true.
In September, I was diagnosed with stage three rectal cancer. Doctors discovered a 4-inch mass of cancer in my rectum that had pierced the lymph nodes and the interior wall of my colon. The process is hard. For those of you who, like me until recently, don’t know the process of fighting cancer, let me tell you about this process.
The Process of Suffering
To shrink the mass, for five weeks I made daily hospital visits to receive radiation. I also took daily chemotherapy pills to contain the cancer. The second part of treatment has been to undergo eight doses of IV chemotherapy every other week. The process takes about six hours to complete. I also receive intravenous chemotherapy delivered through a box attached to me for forty-six hours. The purpose of the treatment is to kill the cancer. But there are many side effects, the worst of which are extreme constipation followed by diarrhea, neuropathy, and fatigue. Fighting cancer is not pretty.
|Fighting cancer is not pretty
Because the mass is in my rectum, it is very painful to have a bowel movement. Bowels push against the mass. The mass pushes against the muscle, causing severe pain that often lasts several hours. The chemotherapy also causes spasms in my esophagus which makes it painful to eat or drink; sometimes not even water will go down. In response to this challenge, my oncologist ordered a new medicine to calm my spasms. He then told me to eat eggs because they should slide down my esophagus so I could eat to maintain my health.
Fear Makes Emotions Go Sideways
The thought of cancer brought an inner fear of which I had not been previously conscious. In December, my wife, Krista, and I had a heart-to-heart conversation:
“Honey, you have become less patient with our kids, less gracious to me, and less kind to yourself.”
“When did you notice these changes?” I asked (even though I knew the answer).
She said, “Honey, I saw it in July!” I nodded in confirmation.
In the months prior to my diagnosis, I knew there was something wrong. I never uttered the word cancer, but due to family history, my gut told me it was true. “I have cancer.” is a hard thing to utter. Even harder is to admit to yourself that you have a life-threatening disease. Once diagnosed, my gut became my reality. Questions filled my heart:
|Fear made my emotions go sideways. In my affliction I was inclined to hide. I needed Jesus, but, even more, I needed Jesus to take me on a journey to rediscover the gospel narrative.
Is this it? Am I going to die at 50?
I am not ready yet? Is this the end?
What would Krista do if I am gone?
How will she handle being a widow at 46?
How will my children handle it if I am gone? We adopted them; they don’t deserve this!
They are only five and seven; how will they survive?
The fear of the unknown spilled out into my relationships. I became more moody, irritable, and less gracious to others and myself. This is what fear does—it conquers emotions and sabotages faith. Fear makes one coward in unbelief. Fear made my emotions go sideways. In my affliction I was inclined to hide. I needed Jesus, but, even more, I needed Jesus to take me on a journey to rediscover the gospel narrative.
The Gospel Narrative Frames Our Suffering and Adversity
|Jesus begins his message with the gospel narrative in its simplest form—a proclamation of life over death.
Jesus said to the church at Smyrna, “These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again” (Rev 2:8-11). Jesus begins his message with the gospel narrative in its simplest form—a proclamation of life over death. Just as a frame holds a picture and directs our eyes to a central point, God holds our suffering and directs our eyes away from our suffering to the gospel narrative. This narrative moves us from death to life, from suffering to redemption, from immaturity to maturity, from loss to hope. God uses suffering to mature our character, reset out affections and moves us into an eternal reality. For me, this journey was a cry out in humility, a redevelopment of my faith, and a deeper dependence on God’s grace. As Dr. Timothy Keller puts it,
“So suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way of Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our sufferings despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.”
The gospel narrative is all about God’s redeeming power that moves us to faith amidst the suffering fear. Faith makes one reach beyond oneself to a sovereign God. God, then, becomes known, intimate, and real in the deepest recesses of the soul. Fear made my emotions go sideways. In my affliction I was inclined to hide. I needed Jesus, but, even more, I needed Jesus to take me on a journey to rediscover the gospel narrative.
Our God Intimately “Knows” Our Suffering and Adversity
|Though you might think you are “damaged goods” in your own eyes, you have a treasure inside woven by my eternal hands. In the darkest times of pain, the beauty of adversity leads you to intimacy with me!
Notice how Jesus speaks to the church at Smyrna: “I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich! I know about the slander…” (Rev 2:9). Jesus’ knowledge of their affliction wasn’t abstract or aloof—he himself had suffered temptation without sin and is able to empathize with our weakness (Heb 2:18, 4:15). When Jesus told the Smyrna church that he knew their afflictions and weakness, he was essentially saying—to them and to us:
I have been there. I have experienced your pain and know it intimately. I now hold you and your pain in the secret places of my eternal heart. I weep for you and sustain you. You are not alone. Though you might think you are in poverty, you are rich with my presence. Though you might think you are tarnished, you have a beauty within you that can’t be destroyed. Though you might think you are “damaged goods” in your own eyes, you have a treasure inside woven by my eternal hands. In the darkest times of pain, the beauty of adversity leads you to intimacy with me!”
Be Courageous and Faithful in Our Suffering and Adversity
Jesus’ intimate knowledge leads to courage and faithfulness in a truer reality. He urges: “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” It’s as though Jesus says,
“Your suffering is real. Do not deny it! Do not succumb to it! Do not let it overcome you! Be courageous through suffering because there will be a victory. The crown is waiting for you. Home is your destination. So do not fear. Remember, I am the Lord over suffering— even now. I have suffered for you so you can have peace in your suffering—even now.”
Jesus then tells the church to be faithful. Faithfulness means being loyal to the character of truth and being obedient to that truth, even when it is extremely difficult. Faithful obedience leads to blessing and discovering of joy during hardship.
So, when my doctor told me to eat eggs, I cooked them. I was faithful to obey his instruction, even conflicted—fearing more pain, yet hoping for relief. I looked at the eggs, prayed for mercy, and took a bite. I had no pain. I literally sang praises. I took a picture and sent it to my wife. “I ate eggs today and they went down!” I experienced God’s grace! But God is doing something more profound
Suffering and Adversity leads to Beauty
He is using this adversity to smooth out the jagged edges of my character. He is transforming my demeanor to be calmer, insightful, and peaceful. I am becoming a more tender and patient husband, father, and leader. I am finding gentleness in me that I have never experienced before as a man. I have clarity not to skip over the small things of life. Now I savor the preciousness of every moment God gives—a tear, a smile, the bark of my dog, the howl of the wind, a hardship, a rainbow, and even the storm before it. I am experiencing a resurrection in my heart.
|Two tools of the master craftsman are adversity and suffering. The tool of adversity matures us, while the tool of suffering humbles us. Suffering removes our jagged edges while adversity smooths our character.
Two tools of the master craftsman are adversity and suffering. The tool of adversity matures us, while the tool of suffering humbles us. Suffering removes our jagged edges while adversity smooths our character. I can thank God for my suffering. Though it is often painful, and I would never have chosen it, there is blessings of grace and beauty of His presence in suffering. Now seven months into this journey, I can truly say: “Thank you, God, for the suffering of cancer because it has led to beauty.” Can you see the beauty in your suffering and adversity?
 Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (New York: Penguin, 2013), 163–64.