We would be Absolutely Insufferable if we Never Suffered by Elisabeth Elliot
All the passages below are taken from Elisabeth Elliot’s book “A Path Through Suffering.” It was published in 1990.
Have faith, like the flowers to let the old things go. Adorn His beatitude, His “blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended ended in Me”-–the beatitude of the trusting—even if you have to appropriate it like John the Baptist in an hour of desolation.
IMAGINE A WORLD IN WHICH NOBODY had anything he didn’t want—no toothaches, taxes, touchy relatives, traffic jams.
Now imagine a world in which everybody had everything they wanted—perfect weather, perfect marriage, perfect health, perfect score, perfect happiness, with money and power to boot.
The world we live in, however, is full of good things we can’t have and bad things we don’t want, much worse things than toothaches and traffic jams—war, famine, drought, floods, volcanoes, cancer, AIDS. One week I kept track of the tales of sorrow that came to me in that week’s mail alone: desertion, death, disease, divorce, depression, alcoholism, addiction, abuse, homosexuality, and suicide. Hardly a day closes without news of a broken marriage or broken health for someone we know.
“Supposing you eliminated suffering,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “what a dreadful place the world would be! because everything that corrects the tendency of man to feel over-important and over-pleased with himself would disappear. He’s bad enough now, but he would be absolutely intolerable if he never suffered.”
Although the Book of Job settles the question of whether man’s suffering is always punishment for evil—it isn’t, since God Himself called job a blameless man—we must not overlook the punitive aspect of suffering. Sometimes we do need chastisement. Suffering gives us occasion to examine ourselves, adjust our priorities, reset our sights, and confess our sins. It is a discipline, administered by a loving heavenly Father who “lays the rod on every son whom he acknowledges…. If you escape the discipline in which all sons share, you must be bastards and no true sons…. Discipline, no doubt, is never pleasant; at the time it seems painful, but in the end it yields for those who have been trained by it the peaceful harvest of an honest life” (Heb 12:6, 8, 11).
St. Augustine recounts how his mother, when a young girl, acquired the habit of tasting wine when she was sent by her parents to draw some from the hogshead. This was not out of any desire to drink, but merely a “mirthful freak” which sprang from the exuberance of her youth. Day by day she would taste a bit more until she was drinking a little cup brimful.
“What didst Thou then, 0 my God?” writes Augustine, “How didst Thou cure her? how heal her? didst Thou not out of another soul bring forth a hard and a sharp taunt, like a lancet out of Thy secret store, and with one touch remove all that foul stuff?”
God’s “lancet” was the bitter insult of a maidservant who caught Monica tasting the wine and called her a wine-bibber. “With which taunt she, stung to the quick, saw the foulness of her fault, and instantly condemned and forsook it. As flattering friends pervert, so reproachful enemies mostly correct.… For she in her anger sought to vex her young mistress, not to amend her…. But Thou, Lord, Governor of all in heaven and earth, who turnest to Thy purposes the deepest currents, and the ruled turbulence of the tide of times, didst by the unhealthiness of one soul, heal another.”
Suffering creates the possibility of growth in, holiness, but only to those who, by letting all else go, are open to the training—not by arguing with the Lord about what they did or did not do to deserve punishment, but by praying, “Lord, show me what You have for me in this.”
The apostle Paul, a holy man, needed his thorn. He says so himself, “to keep me from becoming unduly elated by the magnificence” (2 Cor 12:7) of certain extraordinary visions and revelations granted him. He was in danger of spiritual pride, a deadly sin, and, understanding that God was sparing him this, he was not offended. He could have been, if he were not as in tune with his Lord as he obviously was. He could have been very angry at the sudden comedown-God had given him spiritual revelations and then zapped him with sharp physical pain. Instead, his spirit was one of humility and teachableness.
Referring to trouble that had come upon him and his companions in the province of Asia (note that it was when they were faithfully doing God’s work) Paul writes, “The burden of it was far too heavy for us to bear, so heavy that we even despaired of life. Indeed, we felt in our hearts that we had received a death-sentence.” Does he charge God with injustice? No. He has learned something: “This was meant to teach us not to place reliance on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor 1:8-9).
Suffering is meant for correction of the sufferer himself. Did the great apostle need correction? Of course he did. He was tempted like the rest of us to place reliance on himself.
Suffering is also meant to help somebody else. Like all gifts, the gift of suffering is not for ourselves alone, but for the sake of the body of Christ. “Indeed, it is for your sake that all things are ordered, so that, as the abounding grace of God is shared by more and more, the greater may be the chorus of thanksgiving that ascends to the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:15).
While Amy Carmichael, an Irish missionary to India, endured almost constant pain for the last twenty years of her life, she was confined to her room and mostly to bed. But during those years she wrote more than twenty books, books which I doubt she could have written if she had not been physically incapacitated. She would not have had time, for one thing. Beyond that, those books were unquestionably the very fruits of her suffering. One of them, Rose from Brier, was a book of letters to the ill.
She writes in her introduction, “Reading them through I am troubled to find them so personal and sometimes so intimate. It is not that I think the personal or the intimate interesting or valuable [oh that she had thought so—she might have given us even more!], but that I did not know how to give the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted without giving something of my own soul also. If I had waited till the harrow had lifted, perhaps a less tired mind would have found a better way. But then the book would have been from the well to the ill, and not from the ill to the ill, which I think is what it is meant to be—a rose plucked straight from a brier.”
She did not know then that the “harrow” would never be lifted. If she had waited for that we would not have had the comfort and consolation which overflowed for us. It is good to have a twentieth-century affirmation of what Paul had discovered in the first century:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the all-merciful Father, the God whose consolation never fails us! He comforts us in all our troubles, so that we in turn may be able to comfort others in any trouble of theirs and to share with them the consolation we ourselves receive from God. As Christ’s cup of suffering overflows, and we suffer with him, so also through Christ our consolation overflows. If distress be our lot, it is the price we pay for your consolation, for your salvation; if our lot be consolation, it is to help us to bring you comfort, and strength to face with fortitude the same sufferings we now endure. And our hope for you is firmly grounded; for we know that if you have part in the suffering, you have part also in the divine consolation. (2 Cor 1:3-7)
There is a fellowship among those who suffer, for they live in a world separated from the rest of us. When my husband Addison Leitch was dying of cancer he felt keenly the impossibility of my understanding his experience. “It’s two different worlds we’re living in,” he said, “and there’s no commerce between the two.” He could not help feeling that I did not care enough. I cared as much as a wife can care for a husband she adores and cannot bear to lose, but it was not enough. I did not know what Add knew. I had not been there. When we went to the waiting room of the radiation department at the hospital, however, we met others who knew-a little bald boy with red X’s on his temples, a man whose lower jaw had been removed, a police woman who was taking radiation without her husband’s knowledge, for he was paralyzed at home and “I can’t tell him my cancer’s back-he’d die if he knew.”
There is a much deeper fellowship into which the Christian who suffers may enter. It is the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. Christ’s cup of suffering overflows and we suffer with Him.
John the Baptist had to appropriate in his lonely prison cell the lesson of the flower’s letting everything go. It was the hour of his desolation, but he was not offended, he was blessed, which means in modem English, happy. May the “beatitude of trusting” be ours as well, even in such an hour. [77-82]