I contracted polio long after it was supposedly eradicated. The doctor misdiagnosed my symptoms because she had never seen polio before. And the wrong diagnosis led to widespread paralysis. With a childhood spent largely in hospitals, marked by painful surgeries.
Over thirty years later, my infant son died because the substitute doctor was unfamiliar with his heart condition. The doctor took him off his life-saving medicine. Within two days, my son was gone.
How could I possibly reconcile these losses? They were unspeakable. Preventable. Unexpected. And in the face of such catastrophes, my natural question was “Why?” Why did this happen? If God was in control, why did he allow it? Why didn’t he stop it? Why? Why? Why?
That question haunted me for years.
That Elusive Explanation
I was certain that if I had an explanation for my trials, if I could understand God’s purposes in them, if I just had a reason, then I could have accepted my losses with more grace. And I’ve heard countless others say the same thing: If they only knew why, they would be able to move on.
Knowing why seems to be the elusive key that will somehow unlock all our pain. The key that will bring clarity and peace. Freedom.
Not knowing why, having to trust God in a senseless situation — when the world feels like it has exploded and we are left picking up the splintered fragments of our life — seems impossible.
Trust Him in the Dark
God is asking the unthinkable. To trust him in the dark. To accept his will when we don’t understand. To submit to his sovereignty in the midst of uncertainty. To believe he has a purpose when nothing makes sense. Unthinkable as it is, God keeps asking me to trust him.
This invitation is not what I want. I want to understand. I want to see. I want to agree. Accepting God’s invitation takes faith, which I possess in great measure when I’m not in the furnace. But that faith wavers when the flames envelop me and my dreams fall apart.
My son’s death, my failing health, my shattered marriage — each brought inexpressible agonies. After each loss, I resolved to trust God implicitly, but fresh losses inevitably brought in new pain and brought back old questions. Are you good? Do you love me? Why is this happening?
Each time it took time to come to the place of release and trust. But as I saw how my questions only fueled my agitation, I eventually surrendered my demand to understand. And paradoxically, it was this surrender that held the elusive key for which I had been searching. This trusting, accepting, submitting, and believing is what transformed me in my grief.
True Freedom Is Trusting God
The process of relinquishing my demand to understand is what freed me.
While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.
He has a reason for my pain. Many reasons. Even when I am at a complete loss to name even one. John Piper says, “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.” We may see a few things God is doing, one or two ways He is redeeming our pain, but we will never see the full picture on earth. Often all we can see is our loss.
But if we could see what God sees, we would be stunned. There is much more taking place in the heavenly realms than we can fathom.
Encountering God in the Grief
The book of Job gives us a unique glimpse into this unseen world. We, the readers, are taken backstage to the throne room of God. We are privy to much of what Job cannot understand about his tragedy.
Job’s initial response to his unimaginable trials was acceptance and worship. But as the days and weeks wore on with no relief, Job began arguing with God, lamenting his situation, questioning why his life had been torn apart despite his faithfulness.
Then Job encountered God personally. And once again, his response was acceptance and worship. Now Job no longer needed to know. He repented in dust and ashes for questioning God. For accusing God of injustice. For demanding an answer.
Job learned that the Lord had a purpose. God had unequivocally demonstrated that all of his actions were intentional. From determining how far the ocean could go, to commanding the morning, everything God oversaw was perfectly orchestrated. Nothing in all of creation was random, or escaped his watchful eye.
After God revealed his incredible power to Job, Job declared, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” Job 42:2. But remarkably, Job had no idea what that purpose was. God never gave Job any explanation for his suffering. Instead the Lord demonstrated his absolute wisdom and power. And that was sufficient for Job.
“God doesn’t defend himself,” says Ron Deal about Job, “he just defines himself. And somehow, in this response, Job’s faith is transformed.” Deal goes on to say, “Suffering had invited Job to ‘see’ God in a way he never had before. . . . Job learned that he could trust God with the things in this life he would never have the privilege of understanding.”
And so it is with us.
The Answer Is God
As we trust God with the things in life that we may never understand, we are transformed. We may never know why we are going through trials. But we can take comfort in knowing there is always a reason for our suffering — 10,000 reasons. Reasons that are bigger and more magnificent than anything we can imagine.
One day our faith will be as sight, and we will see all of God’s glorious purposes in our trials. But for now, as we wait, we must trust him.
There is always a “why” to our pain. We may never understand it in this life, but this we can know: As we surrender our questions to him, God will answer us with nothing less than Himself.
*First published at Desiring God, December, 2015. **Republished with permission.
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Vaneetha Rendall Risner
Vaneetha writes and speaks about meeting God in suffering. She is the author of The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering and her memoir, Walking Through Fire. You can find her writing at Desiring God and Vaneetha.com. Vaneetha lives in North Carolina with her husband Joel. She has two daughters, Katie and Kristi. Watch Choosing Joy in Suffering from Diamonds 2019.
PRAYING & WRITING PSALMS
Vaneetha Rendall Risner
Twenty-one surgeries by age thirteen. Years in the hospital. Verbal and physical bullying from schoolmates. Multiple miscarriages as a young wife. The death of a child. A debilitating progressive disease. Riveting pain. Abandonment. Unwanted divorce. Vaneetha begged God for grace that would deliver her. But God offered something better: His sustaining grace.
Many of us believe in grace, yet we live as if we still have to earn God’s love. We picture God hanging His head in disappointment, tallying our successes and failures on a score sheet. We assume we have to do more, or be a different person, for God to be pleased with us.