The church would be impoverished if Joni Eareckson Tada was not a member of it. Christian history would be lacking if it did not involve the accounts of Marie Durand and Corrie Ten Boom. We would be missing out on much encouragement if its ranks did not include Amy Carmichael and Elisabeth Elliott. What binds these precious saints together is not first their common gender, but their common faithfulness in suffering. By facing trials in a distinctly Christian way, by ministering to others through their sorrows, by testifying to God’s light even in the deepest darkness, each of them has provided a testimony to God’s grace that has lifted many tired hands and strengthened many weakened knees. They have shown their fellow Christians how to suffer well and in that way provided much comfort to them.
Each of these women was called to a ministry that involved suffering and sorrow. This call ultimately came from God, for the trials they endured did not happen apart from his purpose and plan. The evil that befell them may have come by accidents or illnesses, by the spears of enemies or the conquests of Nazis. But none of it fell outside the jurisdiction of the God who knows the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come, the God who says “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” There is sweet providence and bitter providence in the lives of God’s people, but it is all providence, all in some way guided by his hand.
We are thankful for these women and for many lesser-known Christians who have proven to us that by God’s grace we can endure even the deepest sorrows, even the most grievous losses, even the most painful circumstances. We are thankful that when we encounter trials and traumas we can ponder their words, we can read their biographies, we can be challenged and comforted by their example. But while we are grateful for them, none of us wants to be them. While we are grateful that there is a ministry of sorrow, few of us are willing to undertake it ourselves.
I know of many who beg God for the ministry of leadership, for the opportunity to lead a great organization from strength to strength. I know of many who long for the ministry of music, to stand before great crowds and to lead them in songs of worship. I know of many who are eager for the ministry of hospitality, to welcome the sojourner, the homeless, the needy. But I know few who are ready to suffer loss for him. “Give me riches and I’ll give them back to you,” they pray. “Give me the gift of prayer and I’ll spend my life in intercession. Let me serve like Dorcas, bless like Barnabas, lead like Paul, preach like Stephen. But suffering—I’ll give that to someone else.”
Many want to study the Word with a towering intellect like Martyn Lloyd-Jones, but few want to study it with a broken body like Amy Carmichael. Many want to teach with all the skill of R.C. Sproul, but few want to first receive lessons in the school of suffering like Fanny Crosby. Many will give up their fame like Eric Liddell and some their wealth like Selina Hastings, but few will surrender their bodies like Helen Roseveare. There is a glaring imbalance between our gratitude that this ministry exists and our willingness to receive it in our own lives.
Though we should not wish evil upon ourselves, we should wish good upon the church, and much good comes to her through those who endure their sorrows well. We should not long to suffer, but we should be willing to. We should not desire loss, but we should consent to bow the head, to bow the heart, to bow the knee, and to be a blessing to God’s people in whatever sorrows God ordains for us. When we surrender ourselves to God, we are meant to hold nothing back, but to give ourselves entirely to him, entirely to his hand, entirely to whatever he calls us to, even if it hurts.
Marie Durand and Amy Carmichael have long since gone to glory. Corrie Ten Boom and Elisabeth Elliott have joined them. Joni Eareckson Tada has passed the age of 70 and will not always be here to cheer us with her songs, to encourage us that as her body becomes more and more broken, her soul becomes more and more sweet. Soon enough she will finally leave her wheelchair behind as she finally leaves this world behind. And, as she goes to be with Jesus, who till take the torch from her weakened hand? Who will allow their brokenness to be their qualification for a ministry of sorrow, a ministry of comfort? Who will allow their greatest ministry to grow out of their deepest sorrow? This is a sacred ministry God calls some to undertake on his behalf. Those he calls are ordained to it not by the laying on of hands but by the emptying of their arms, the breaking of their bodies, the shattering of their hearts. He calls them to lose so they might bless, to grieve so they might comfort, to suffer so they might strengthen, to endure so they might encourage. He calls them to submit to him in their sorrows, that they might be a light in the darkness, a song in the night.