God’s Purpose in Our Suffering

By Steve Saint   •   February 26, 2009

This is why Jesus suffered on earth in every way that we do. First Peter 2:21 says, “To this [suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (NIV).

If we are going to emulate our Savior, we have to identify with the people to whom we take His Good News. Christ took on our likeness and subjected Himself to the suffering that plagues us. I don’t advocate that we look for suffering–life brings enough of it on its own–but suffering is an important prerequisite to ministering to hurting people.

Pain Is God’s Plan

When I was 5 years old my mother called me into her bedroom and told me that my hero, the man whom I wanted to grow up to be like, was never coming back to live with us.

She was talking about my dad.

I thought, But he promised me that he would teach me to fly. How could he leave?

Mom said that he had gone to live with Jesus. I knew that was something we all looked forward to, but I couldn’t understand why Dad left us behind.

My father, a missionary pilot, was one of five missionaries killed when they tried to reach out to the Waodani Indian tribe in Ecuador in 1956. The death of the five missionaries and the amazing change in the Waodani after Aunt Rachel (my dad’s sister) and Elisabeth Elliot (the widow of Dad’s friend Jim Elliot) were invited into the tribe to teach them God’s “carvings” is now a well-known story.

Countless lives have felt this impact; thousands of missionaries name the story as the reason their hearts were moved to respond to God’s call. Our family has been blessed by the love and kinship of the Waodani people. Mincaye, one of the men who killed my father, is now the man my children call Grandfather. All of this was God’s plan.

A lot of people believe that when bad things happen, God merely allows them. But God didn’t merely tolerate my dad’s death, and I don’t think He turned away when it was happening. In His sovereignty, He was orchestrating events for His glory and ultimately for our good. This was a hard realization for me, but then I read Acts 2:22-23: Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross (NIV).

If God could plan the death of His own righteous Son, why couldn’t He bring about the death of my dad?

Another Part of the Plan

My wife, Ginny, and I had three boys. Then we finally had a little girl, Stephenie, whom I made promise me that she’d never grow up. She broke her promise and went away to college. Then Youth for Christ asked Stephenie, who played the piano and bass guitar, to travel with one of their groups for a year, sharing the Gospel around the world.

It was a tough year. I wanted my daughter home, because I knew that some day she would probably meet a boy and go off to get married. She was tall and slim and, in my eyes, beautiful. She was Ginny’s bosom friend. She was our baby.

Finally, the year was over and she was coming home to Orlando. Ginny and I met her at the airport. Grandfather Mincaye was there, too. He was jumping around, big holes in his earlobes, wearing a feather headdress.

Stephenie arrived and we headed out for a welcome home party with the whole family.

Later, I passed Stephenie in the hallway of our home, and she just leaned on me and said, “Pop, I love you.” I thought that my life would never be more complete than it was right then.

A while later, Ginny said, “Steve, Stephenie’s back in her room and says her head is really hurting. Let’s go back and be with her.” So we ditched everyone else and went back. Ginny sat on the bed and held Stephenie, and I put my arms around those two girls whom I loved with all my heart, and I started praying.

While I was praying, Stephenie’s body tensed and she let out a little yelp of pain. Her eyes rolled back into her head. We called 911. The medics rushed her to the hospital. I rode in the ambulance while Ginny, Mincaye and our son Jaime followed us in the car.

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Grandfather Mincaye didn’t understand why strangers had rushed into the house and hurried off with Stephenie. Then he saw her at the hospital, lying on a gurney with a tube down her throat and needles in her arm. He grabbed me and said, “Who did this to her?”

I didn’t know what to say. “I don’t know, Mincaye. Nobody is doing this.”

He grabbed me again and said, “Don’t you see?”

No, I didn’t see. My heart was absolutely tearing apart; I didn’t know what was happening.

Mincaye said, “I see it well. Don’t you see? God Himself is doing this.” He started reaching out to all the people in the emergency room, saying, “People, people, don’t you see? God, loving Stephenie, He’s taking her to live with Him.”

“Look at me,” he said. “I’m an old man; pretty soon I’m going to die, too, and I’m going there. Please, please, won’t you follow God’s trail, too? Coming to God’s place, Stephenie and I will be waiting there to welcome you.”

Finally the doctor determined that Stephenie had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. She had no hope of recovery. This was the time to either lose my faith or to show the God who gave His only Son to die for my sin that I love and trust Him.

As my daughter died, I watched the plan unfold. My sweet wife, too, accepted this as God’s will and plan. Sometimes Christians have an idea that if we do what God wants us to do, then He owes it to us to take suffering away. I don’t believe that anymore.

I believe that in His sovereign will, He brought this to pass.

Seeing God’s Heart

In the years before Stephenie died, people had started asking me to speak. I began to realize that there was a deficiency in my heart: I could not see the world the way God does.

“I can’t keep doing this,” I told Ginny. “I’m speaking to people from my head, and it doesn’t work. I can’t speak unless I feel the passion of this.”

So I started praying, “God, please let me have your heart for the hurting world. I see it, and I empathize a little bit, but I don’t have a passion for it.” I had no idea if God would give me such a passion or how He would do it, but I begged God to let me see His heart.

Oh, be careful what you pray for. Through the loss of my daughter, God did change my heart. He broke it. He shredded it. In the process He helped me see what He sees. From God’s perspective, just as I was separated from Stephenie, our loving heavenly Father, the God and Creator of the universe, is being separated every day from those He desperately loves. And He will never be reunited with them again if they die without knowing Christ.

I don’t know what role God has for you, but I know He has a role. His great passion is expressed in His Great Commission, and He has given it to messy, wimpy people like you and me. He has made us His ambassadors of reconciliation, and suffering gives us credibility with a hurting world and demonstrates God’s sufficiency to meet our needs.

©2006 Desiring God; article appeared in the March 2009 edition of Decision magazine

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