Suffering is a weird bedfellow. Having grown up in the family where my mother’s mental illness has been relentless for my entire life and having experienced infertility and the inability to have a child of my own, I’d known what I thought was my share of suffering. But then at 59 to be diagnosed with advanced invasive breast cancer … well, I entered a new and deeper relationship with suffering. Double mastectomy, six months of rugged chemo, six weeks of daily radiation and now a painful year of five surgical procedures to reconstruct my chest. Yes, I’m well acquainted with suffering.
So as a pastor and a bit of a scholar, I have done with suffering what I have done with many subjects in my life: I’ve studied it. And my study has taken me to the Bible, to books, teachings and personal testimonies of those who know suffering. I have found that sometimes suffering comes into people’s lives as a short-term guest. It stays for a few days or weeks and then moves on, the memory of its visit dimming rather quickly. For others it seems that suffering moves in, takes up residence and no matter how much you ask it to leave, pray that it will leave, beg God to make it leave, it just hangs out and hangs on. For some it becomes a permanent bedfellow and it is always there – every minute of every day.
Joni Eareckson Tada, Christian speaker and author may possibly be North America’s greatest expert on suffering. As a teenager in 1967, she took an innocent dive into the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay and broke her neck, resulting in permanent, life-long quadriplegia. She is paralyzed from the shoulders down. But Tada is a shining example of what happens when suffering moves in to stay and yet life can become extraordinary in spite of the worst of disabilities. As if quadriplegia weren’t enough, the last 15 years Tada has suffered from debilitating chronic pain. And as if that weren’t enough still, three years ago Tada was diagnosed with advanced, invasive breast cancer … like me. And like me, she endured a mastectomy and radical chemo. During her chemo she got pneumonia, a really bad case, which is a common cause of death for a quadriplegic.
In their book Joni & Ken: An Untold Love Story (Zondervan, 2013), Joni and her husband Ken Tada share with great frankness and authenticity what it’s like when suffering is your strange and threatening bedfellow. They call it a “splash-over of hell”. And anyone who has encountered great suffering, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, mental or in some other sense … well, I’m guessing we’d all agree that suffering is indeed like a splash-over of hell.
The dark and frightening times of suffering can be overwhelming and for some, the only option they seem to have is defeat, complete and utter despair. They give up to the suffering and suffering wins – body, soul, and spirit. Having been through my own splash-over of hell, I certainly have no criticism or judgment for those who give up in the face of its power.
But I have found there is another way to respond to resident suffering. It’s the same perspective you’ll hear reflected in the life of Joni Eareckson Tada and others who’ve stared down suffering, called on the name of God and asked Him to show up in the darkest and most terrible of nights. Tada and I would tell you that the promise found in the Bible in James 4:8 is true. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.”
You see, there is a message that needs to be proclaimed louder and more often from pulpits in churches around this nation. It needs to said to more people over coffee at Starbucks. It needs to be shared at the side of more hospital beds, in more nursing homes, and it needs to be whispered in the ear of suffering people everywhere. It is this: God loves people who are suffering and when invited in, He will always come to them. “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” A promise made by God … and God always keeps His promises.
So what Joni Eareckson Tada found in the deepest of her suffering was Christ coming to her in a way that brought hope and strength for the very hard journey. What I found in the deepest of my suffering was the presence of a Kind Savior who reminded me of His love and shined His light into my darkest moments. And somehow, when God is there, suffering can’t win. Tada calls this the “splash-over of heaven”.
Yes, suffering is a strange and sometimes threatening bedfellow. Suffering is a splash-over of hell. But in times of suffering when God shows up, we get a splash-over of heaven in the midst of our splash-over of hell. If you or someone you know is suffering right now, remind them of that little Bible verse from James 4:8, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” Who knows? They just might receive a splash-over of heaven when they need it the most.