We live in a society that is petrified of suffering. Each day starts with a thousand moments of flinching at pain — at our alarm clocks, at the shower’s cold water, at missed emails that threaten loss and tragedy. We resent suffering and what it could mean for us. Job bewails that suffering looms with the shadow of divine disappointment: “I become afraid of all my suffering, for I know you will not hold me innocent” (Job 9:28).
Last night, I bolted onto the football field to face the Miami Dolphins. I was eager, surging with life, energy, and strength. It was the last preseason game of my third season in the NFL. The ball snapped, and with a snap of his fingers, God mercifully showed me how small and weak I am compared to his grand and glorious sovereignty over all creation.
As I was hit from the side in my knee, I felt the pop, fell to the ground in excruciating pain, and knew my year was over before it had even begun.
In the NFL, it’s easy to publicly thank God when we win, when we are victors, when we feel like gods. I want to take the opportunity to thank God when I am afraid — I want to thank him for three things:
- His promise to care for me in the midst of threatening pain;
- His meaning, which he spins out of the thread of suffering; and
- His joy, which resonates most beautifully when superficial pleasures fade.
God’s Sovereign Care
A few wrong angles, and I was hit, falling to the ground in pain. All of a sudden, five people ran out to me. My flesh and Satan would have me believe a thousand stories in that moment. “You’re done.” “You’re worthless.” “You’re going to lose everything.” “You can’t keep up.” “You’re pathetic.” But the more real story echoed through my heart. As I lay on the field, God’s Spirit through the word whispered in my ear, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
That verse was a promise to me. God works all things together for good. It was like the Holy Spirit was repeating it in my heart, over and over again, with each surge of pain through my knee, “For those who love me, I work all things together for good.” God cares for his people. We can’t bank on prosperity gospel promises. They can’t stand the test of God’s curse over the world. But God promises to care for us better than any worldly shepherd.
When we trust in the richest powers of the world, God says through Jeremiah, “All your lovers have forgotten you; they care nothing for you” (Jeremiah 30:14). But God still works to move the gospel into our lives through people who delight in Christ: “I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:4).
“Neither shall any be missing.” Not even me. Not even when I fail. Not even when I have nothing to offer. “Declares the Lord.” It’s his decree: Garrett shall not be left outside his care. Praise Jesus.
God’s Meaning-Making Sovereignty
In that moment of pain, I had a strange “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I had heartfelt assurance that everything was going to be okay. But I was assured of something more important:
This season of suffering, this injury, is a gift.
Not only was I reminded of Romans 8:28, that all things work for good, but also that what happened was a gift in so many ways. Suffering is always another opportunity for God to be glorified and for his satisfying gospel to be made known. King David holds the two in clear tension: “The Lord upholds all who are falling and raises up all who are bowed down. . . . You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:14, 16). David isn’t saying that God will never let us suffer. He is saying that God fulfills the longing which our suffering brings to the surface.
God makes meaning out of our suffering, because he is sufficient in it. Through suffering, I see in my own heart these desires given to the throne. That’s God’s biggest gift in suffering: to have something taken away from you, and still find joy. A family member. A job. An idol. God satisfies us, not in spite of our unwanted circumstances, but in and through them.
God’s Joy Deeper Than Worldly Pleasures
How does God satisfy us in suffering? Through joy.
If God’s existence has ever been affirmed to me, it has been affirmed in suffering. Like we said above, when God gives us peace, it is peace that transcends understanding. But when God gives us joy, it is “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10–11). The suffering that we experience with Christ is not the searing pain of a physical experience. It is the emotional pain of suffocating our parasitic idols — the labor pains of joy.
Our natural inclination is to experience fear. Our hearts by instinct respond to suffering with fear, frustration, and questioning God’s sovereignty.
That’s what God is already showing me in this and through this. He is not only showing me peace, but delight and joy. It’s a gift, and it shows me the joy of an intimate and loving and compassionate God.
Sufferers, Wait for God
Return with me to Job. We saw him in Job 9, on the ropes, getting beaten up, wondering whether God was the one wearing the gloves. But James called him steadfast. That’s an odd description for Job. How was Job steadfast? He hung in there long enough to joyfully rest in God’s love for him. “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).
Sufferers, wait for God. More than that, wait with me for him. Let’s see what the Lord’s purpose is for us, the one who is compassionate and merciful to his sheep whom he will not forget.
Originally posted at desiringgod.org on September 5, 2015
Garrett Gilkey (@gagilk73) is a center and guard for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the National Football League (NFL). He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft.