A few years ago I went to Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, a Desiring God National Conference, and subsequently read the book drawn from those conference messages. I can’t deny that the speech given by Joni Eareckson Tada was not my favorite, at least in the live setting. Maybe it was her style of delivery or maybe it was just that the session came at the end of a long day but, while I listened and learned, I found that I enjoyed many of the other speeches more than hers. And yet as I read her chapter in the book, I was truly transfixed by it, and by one line in particular.
Joni’s contribution to the book is loosely autobiographical. She illustrates suffering by speaking of her own life and her experience as a quadriplegic. At one point she describes the first weeks after her accident and the days she spent lying in a Stryker frame—“a long, flat canvas sandwich where they put you faceup for three hours and then strap another piece of canvas on you and flip you facedown to life for another three hours.” Trapped in this device, she was filled with despair. Her thoughts were dark and hopeless. She was in a downward spiral. She imagined God standing with her, holding her sin before her and asking, “Joni, what are you going to do about this? What are you going to do about this attitude? It is wrong. This sin is wrong.” Joni’s response was proof of her despair:
But I, hurting and stubborn, preferred my sins. I preferred my peevish, snide, small-minded, mean-spirited comments, grunting at people when they walked in or out, and letting food drool out of my mouth. Those were sins that I had made my own. You know what it’s like when you make sin your own. You housebreak it. You domesticate it. You shield it from the Spirit’s scrutiny. I did not want to let go of the sick, strange comfort of my own misery.
Joni’s transparency about her own sin was deeply affecting. I was transfixed by the words, “the sick, strange comfort of my own misery.” And isn’t sinful misery comforting? True misery—misery brought about solely by tragedy—is horrendous. Suffering and the Sovereignty of God provides several examples of this type of misery, such as the misery of the unexpected death of a father or a child. There is little comfort in this kind of misery. There are tears and groanings and questions, but far too often there is little comfort. But when we allow sin to pollute or misery, our sin becomes so comforting. Like an alcoholic escaping into the bottle, we can escape into our own sin and let it bring us its cold comfort.
I have never suffered as Joni has. I’ve never suffered like many of the contributors to this book have. Steve Saint’s father was brutally slaughtered when Steve was only a small child. His daughter suddenly and unexpectedly died in the prime of her life. Mark Talbot suffers with his affliction every day of his life. Dustin Shramek was called to share the blessings of the gospel in a country that had nothing to offer his son when he was born prematurely. This is the kind of suffering I can only imagine, though I try not to imagine it. I only hope and pray that I never have to experience it. Yet I know that at some point in life tragedy is likely to strike. I wonder then how I will react. Will I find my comfort in God and in the promises of Scripture? Will I, like Shramek’s wife, stay up late into the night “scouring the Scriptures for hope and comfort?” Will I be strong?
Or will I, like so many before me, turn my back on God and blame him, shaking my fist at God for not preventing what He could have prevented? Will I be faithful or will I be faithless? Will I find comfort in Him or will I find comfort in the sick, strange comfort of my own sinful misery?
God extended His grace to Joni Eareckson Tada. Her paralysis was not enough. One week into the three-week stint of lying in that horrible contraption, Joni came down with the flu. Suddenly “not being able to move was peanuts compared to not being able to breathe. I was claustrophobic. I was suffering. I was gasping for breath. I could not move. All was hopeless. All was gone. I was falling backward, head over heels, down for the count, decimated.” She broke. She cried out to God and in her anguish, in her brokenness, He gave her hope. She learned to rely on Him rather than herself. She was healed, not physically, but spiritually. She has since told her story countless times and helped countless others to find their refuge in Him.
God extended this same grace to Steve Saint. Saint has travelled the world, sharing the story of forgiveness and hope. God extended this same grace to Dustin Shramek. He writes:
Experiencing grief and pain is like falling off a cliff. Everything has been turned upside down, and we are no longer in control. As we fall we see one and only one tree that is growing out from the rock face. So we grab hold of it and cling to it with all our might. This tree is our holy God. He alone can keep us from falling headfirst to our doom. There simply aren’t any other trees to grab. So we cling to this tree (the Holy God) with all our might.
But what we didn’t realize is that when we fell and grabbed the tree our arm actually became entangled in the branches, so that in reality, the tree is holding us. We hold on to keep from falling, but what we don’t realize is that we can’t fall because the tree has us. We are safe. God, in his holiness, is keeping us and showing mercy to us. We may not be aware of it, but it is true. He is with us even in the deepest and darkest pit.
Joni came to learn that her suffering was not a random occurrence and was not a punishment, but was a trial and a responsibility given to her so she could reach out to others just like her. And while her wheelchair and all it represents is a sore trial, she came to see that the weaker she is, the harder she leans on Jesus. And the harder she leans on Jesus, the stronger she discovers Him to be. And for now she looks forward to the day when God will wipe away her tears. “I find it so poignant that finally at the point when I do have the use of my arms to wipe away my own tears, I won’t have to, because God will.”
Grief is a normal experience on this earth. Peter tells us that we should “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Just as God dispenses wealth and talent in differing measures, so He dispenses grief to some more than to others. Yet we will all grieve at times in our lives, for we live in a sick, battered, broken, sinful world. We should not be surprised when we suffer. But as God dispenses grief, so He dispenses grace in far greater measure. As the Psalmist tells us, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Where there is sorrow there will be misery, but where there is misery there will also be grace. And this grace can sustain. The experiences of Joni Eareckson Tada, Steve Saint, Dustin Shramek and so many others gives me confidence that it will.