Mike Graham is a husband and dad of two kids. He has a successful personal training business and is a lay elder at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Last year, my parents finally retired after decades of hard blue-collar labor. As Christians, they were diligent to save and plan for their future together. Only months after retirement, my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It did not take long for the chemo and cancer to drastically change her quality of life. She went through enormous suffering and passed away about 4 months after diagnosis.
As a son living in a different state, I was limited in my ability to spend time with my mom or assist my father and other brothers in her care. During these months I struggled to provide comfort and care. I felt inadequate. I struggled with guilt and shame because I could not be present. The night I had planned to drive up and visit she passed away right before I started the trip. I was left with so many thoughts and words that I wanted to share. I was hoping and planning to communicate my love and thankfulness to her and say goodbye. I feel like I failed her; I failed to be there and to encourage her and express my love. Even now it is hard to sit with these feelings and thoughts.
When the clouds get dark and the winds begin to blow and our final days of suffering begin, will our hearts – will my heart – be prepared?
Pain is coming.
When tragedy strikes, it shakes our world. Suffering, pain and death reveal our true heart. Our faith can be shaken. Confusion, despair and pain become louder than the words of Scripture and we are tempted toward unbelief, bitterness, anger, isolation and depression. As we watch those around us suffer, we can feel speechless and useless, not knowing how to help or respond.
In a fallen world, suffering and pain are always coming. Our world is cursed because of sin so our relationships, bodies and loved ones will all be subject to suffering. The question is not “if,” but “when” so we must openly talk about this reality and prepare ourselves before it arrives.
Prepare for pain.
We often attempt to care for others by staying just close enough to hand out verses. But in the midst of suffering and tragedy, others may not feel loved through being read a set of verses on God’s sovereignty. The suffering and pain feels too raw to be told to take joy in your trials. Being reminded that God will work all things for good when everything feels so bad does not feel helpful or empathetic. Godly friends and caregivers will give of themselves and mourn with those who mourn before compassionately connecting Truth to sorrow. This is easier to do, however, if God’s Word has functioned as our foundation before suffering comes.
If you know you will run a marathon, the wisest thing to do would be to prepare for it – to train. If we know suffering and death are coming we are wise to prepare for these trials and tests of faith. Now is the time to:
- Pursue God and His Word, breathing in His promises and bathing in His Gospel.
- Form a deeply connected community who will love and hold us in our pain as we seek to do the same for them.
When I was suffering the loss of my mother, I humbly learned how desperately I need the people around me. I did not need them to say the right thing or have the perfect response to my struggles – I primarily needed their presence in my life. I could see and feel God’s faithfulness to me in his people. I sensed God’s gentle loving hand in the hug or touch of another. My understanding of God’s love grew as I experienced the beauty of the Holy Spirit working through His people.
A vision of His promises.
When we returned to my hometown for her funeral, my brother told me that my mom talked to him about her excitement to meet her new eternal family in heaven just a few days before she passed. She couldn’t walk, could barely speak, but she could hope; she could begin to glimpse into heaven and sense the joy of eternity even in her suffering.
I wish I could have been there, but what comfort and joy to know that Jesus was there. He was holding my mother’s hand, reminding her of his faithful promises. He was preparing her heart and giving her spiritual eyes to see her true home. It has brought me peace to be reminded that my mother’s death wasn’t about my inability or failure to comfort or help her, but about His sufficiency and faithfulness to care for her.
As I have reflected on my mother's death over the past several months, I have frequently thought of my my own final moments. God’s Word helps me to envision them and rehearse my heart and mind’s response so that I can hope in Him even as I face suffering and death. His Word tells about His faithfulness; that His ever-present hand is extended to us through all of our pain and suffering. Though we cannot, He can see past the dark curtain and describe to us the beauty of what is on the other side. As we look to Him our hearts are molded and shaped by His promises.
I see my arms extended and my tearful eyes lifting, longing to be taken home into His arms to join Him and my forever family. My heart fills with overwhelming thankfulness. I am grateful for His goodness and grace that have been palpable throughout my life. As my body fails, I feel fully alive for the first time. All sin, suffering and selfishness falls away. My heart is made new and filled with pure desires and a singular devotion. In the very presence of God I worship; I worship with ever fiber of my being. Every previous sensation of pleasure pales in comparison to this new eternal experience. Joy and peace are powerfully felt at the level God intended and my eternal life begins.
God, through His Word and His people, is giving me a vision of beauty and hope to embrace in the coming storm of suffering.