It’s one thing to read a person’s take on suffering who has a solid grasp of the Bible’s teaching on the subject. It’s another thing altogether, and a far better thing, to read an author whose personal experience of deep suffering complemented her deep knowledge of God’s Word.
Meet Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015), a wife, mother, missionary, conference speaker and author of more than twenty books. Her first husband, Jim, was murdered in Ecuador by the very people he was trying to reach with the gospel. She lost her second husband to cancer. Yet, she admitted, “It was in my deepest suffering that I learned the deepest lessons about God.”
Suffering Is Never for Nothing, released in 2018, is based on a CD series of conference messages she gave on the subject of affliction. It is not a new release of an older publication. Over 1400 persons have given this book a 5-star rating on Amazon, which reveals how well her teaching resonates with readers.
Here’s a snapshot, far from an exhaustive list, of insights on suffering that I gleaned.
- She addresses the inevitable question, “Where is God in my suffering?” Without oversimplification, Elisabeth approaches this question from the perspective of Jesus’ cross. She sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as the ultimate example of how God redeems suffering. “The very worst thing that ever happened in human history turns out to be the very best thing because it saved me.” She insists that we will never understand suffering unless we grasp the love of God that resulted in the sacrifice of His Son in our place. She declares, “Why doesn’t God do something about our suffering? The Christian answer is, He did. He became the victim, a lamb slain before the foundation of the world.”
- She stresses that God doesn’t usually offer explanations for pain, but He lavishly offers His own presence. “God, through my own troubles and suffering, has not given me explanations. But He has met me as a person, as an individual, and that’s what I most need.“
- Elisabeth points to Job’s severe trials, citing his “howls and complaints” to show the value of honest lament. “God is big enough to take anything that we can dish out to Him.”
- The sovereignty of God enabled her to trust Him even when she couldn’t understand why. God’s answer to her, as it was with Job, was simply, “Trust me.” She wrote, “My faith had to be founded on the character of God. God loves me, yet He allowed awful things to happen to me. I had two choices: He is either God or He is not. I am either held in the Everlasting Arms or I’m at the mercy of chance. I have to either trust Him or deny Him. Is there any middle ground? I don’t think so.”
- Jesus served as our High Priest, who is touched by our infirmities because of His own experience of affliction (Hebrews 2:17-18; 4:14-16). Elisabeth quotes Richard Baxter, who said, “Christ leads me through no darker rooms than He went through before.” Because Jesus identified with our humanity and pain, we’re prompted to cry out to Him in ours.
- She discusses at length two attitudes that should mark us as Christ-followers: acceptance and gratitude. She tells how to keep these traits from becoming glib, superficial responses to suffering.
- In a chapter titled “Offering,” Elisabeth explains and illustrates how God uses our suffering when we offer it up to Him and allow Him to increase our sensitivity to others who hurt. In this context, she quotes Ugo Bassi: “Measure your life by loss and not by gain, not by the wine drunk, but by the wine poured forth. For love’s strength stands in love’s sacrifice, and he that suffers most has most to give.” Elisabeth goes as far to say, “There is no redemptive work done anywhere without suffering.”
Additional Noteworthy Quotes
Here are a few statements that I underlined.
There have been some hard things in my life, as there have been in yours, and I cannot say to you, “I know exactly what you’re going through!” But I can say that I know the One who knows.
If we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be very careful never to love anything or anybody.
We often hear Job called a patient man but if you read the book of Job, you won’t really find a lot of evidence that he was patient. Yet he never doubted that God existed and he said some of the very worst things that could possibly be said about God. And isn’t it interesting that the Spirit of God preserved those things for you and me? God is big enough to take anything that we can dish out to Him. He even saw to it that Job’s howls and complaints were preserved in black and white for our instruction. So never hesitate to say to God what you really think and feel, because remember that God knows what you think before you know and He knows what you’re gong to say before you even think it.
I have never thanked God for the cancer that took my second husband. I have never thanked God specifically that Indians murdered my first husband. I don’t think I need to thank God for either cancer or murder. But I do need to thank God because in the midst of every situation, the world was still in His hands.
Who are the people who have most profoundly influenced your life? Without a doubt, those who have most profoundly influenced my life have been ones who suffered. It was in that very suffering that God refined the gold, tempered the steel, molded the pot and broke the bread that made the person into something that feeds a multitude, of whom I have been one of the beneficiaries.
I don’t know any simpler formula for peace, for relief from stress and anxiety, than this practical, down-to-earth word of wisdom: Do the next thing! That has gotten me through more agonies than anything else I could recommend.
A principle for handling suffering is that of the cross: Life comes out of death. I bring God my sorrows and He gives me His joy. I bring Him my losses and He gives me His gains. I bring Him my sins, He gives me His righteousness. I bring Him my deaths and He gives me His life. But the only reason God can give me His life is because He gave me His death.
Features of the Book that I Appreciate
Bible centered. Elisabeth cites numerous texts that deal with suffering of God’s people. In addition to her reflections on the book of Job, her citation of these texts ministered to me: Psalms 46 and 91; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Isaiah 58:10-11; Hebrews 11; Philippians 1:29, and Revelation 7:16-17. Her commentary on Isaiah 55:22 is especially meaningful: “Cast your burden on the Lord and He shall sustain you.” She wrote, “To my amazement and delight I discovered that the word burden in the Hebrew is the same word as the word for gift. This is a transforming truth for me. If I thank God for this very thing that is killing me, I begin to dimly and faintly see it as a gift.”
Quotes from Other Authors. Throughout the book, Elisabeth intersperses her own reflections with statements from highly respected writers: C. S. Lewis, F. W. H. Meyer, Samuel Rutherford, Richard Baxter, Amy Carmichael, Fanny Crosby, George Mathison, and Corrie Ten Boom among them. In some cases, Elisabeth shares anecdotes about those writers which show their own experience of suffering.
Transparency. Elisabeth discusses the hard questions that roiled around in her mind and tells how the truths that comforted her were learned the hard way. You don’t get the impression that she’s offering cursory, unenlightened counsel.
After reading this book, Joni Eareckson Tada said, “Although our friend (Elisabeth) is now in heaven, we have a collection of fresh, insightful words from her that nourish us. This book is a wonderful portfolio of her ponderings on suffering, and as you peruse each page, imagine Elisabeth looking over your shoulder from the grandstands of heaven, encouraging you to embrace the Lord Jesus in your afflictions.”