Just a few days before surgery, I sat in my office with a friend who is a semi-retired doctor. She graciously reminded me, “You know, we have a very privileged perspective in the U.S. to assume we’ll go into a doctor’s office and come out fixed. That’s not the case in much of the world. And it may not be the case that you get better either.” Though a bit jarring at first, her words provided an adjustment to my perspective that was eventually restorative for my soul.
Chronic pain has been a part of my life for much of the past two decades. I sustained an unfortunate injury, resulting in multiple surgeries that have provided little relief. For half of my life I have hidden the daily pain from almost everyone but my wife. However, over the past few years the severity intensified to the point that I was saying more frequently, “No, Daddy can’t play with you now.” Further, I was increasingly functioning with low-grade anger because of the constant pain. So back to the doctors I went. With two more surgeries over a short span, the pain was impossible to hide from others. Well-intended Christian friends and acquaintances would ask what happened and quickly offer a cheerful platitude: "God will heal you." I became equal parts thankful and doubtful.
Is it true? Can I expect God to heal me? Should we expect him to solve our dilemmas? To fix broken circumstances? To mend fractured relationships? And what does it mean for us when our hurts persist?
Not long after I received the sage counsel from my friend, words from the apostle Paul came to mind:
“A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’" (2 Cor 12:8-9).
Paul’s testimony contains insight for all Christ-followers. His words aren’t platitudes—they don’t provide a quick fix for his ambiguous “thorn” or for any of our problems. Rather, they are like seeds that need to establish roots and grow before they can produce fruit.
Implicit in Paul’s message is the immutability of God—the truth that he is unchanging. The author of Hebrews elaborates even more clearly, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever” (13:8). We must root ourselves in this good news. Paul’s emphasis to the Corinthians highlights God’s generous provision. Through his persistence in prayer and his acceptance of Jesus’ answer we, too, can have confidence: God will give us the desires of our heart, or he will give us the grace to be sustained without them. Either way, we can rest assured God is always giving to meet our needs. Our foundation is built upon God’s unchanging nature.
Pain and suffering can be polarizing. It drives some toward God, and causes others to spurn him. For Christians, trials—though difficult—are opportunities for spiritual growth. Literally every New Testament author addresses the immanent suffering of God’s people between the cross and Christ’s glorious return. Knowing that doesn’t make it inherently easier to suffer, but it does help stretch our perspective, and provides the endurance to persevere. Spiritual growth is not synonymous with alleviation of hardships; rather, growth is marked by the ability to see outside ourselves and look to the cross, where Jesus’ ultimate suffering marked the defeat of sin, suffering, and death.
Jesus said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” That means our weaknesses, not our strengths, often provide the room for God to do his greatest work in our lives. When the seeds of the gospel are sewn in us, and they take root in the truth of God’s character, the only real power suffering has over us is the power to sanctify us—to grow us closer to God.
Though I have a very limited knowledge of horticulture, I do understand that it takes time for plants to produce fruit, and they don’t produce fruit in every season. Neither should we expect to see the fruit of our trials right away or at all times. Plants need careful tending to produce good fruit—a service Jesus has said he provides for us (Jn 15:1-2). Who knows exactly how long Paul pleaded with God for the thorn to be removed before he was able to minister to others through it? Who knows how long any of us will endure present hardships? But I delight at the thought of echoing Paul’s response in my own suffering:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (1 Cor 12:9-10).
When I arrived at the surgery center, I registered at the front desk. It had been a long time since I’d been there, so we needed to update my information. The receptionist moved through her list, “I see your marital status has changed, and so has your address. Last time you were here you said you had no religious affiliation. Is that still true?” I let out an involuntary laugh and told her, “Well, I’m a pastor now, so let’s update that, too.” Fourteen years earlier I put my faith in Christ, largely in part because of a trauma I couldn’t overcome on my own—a pain that God didn’t fix. Moments before surgery I was able to worship, “God might heal my pain. . .and if not, he’s still good.”
Gabe deGarmeaux oversees local and global outreach and small group ministries at Pathway Church in Pennsylvania. He earned an MA in Cross-cultural Ministry at Dallas Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @gabe_deg.