My baby is sick.
Her little body is hot, as white cells that I can’t see try to fight off the invasion of attackers that I also can’t see. It’s not serious—it’s inconvenient. She doesn’t sleep well, because of her nose flowing and clogging, and all the work I’ve done for weeks getting her on a schedule is undone in 24 hours.
I am up with her three, four times every night for a week. During the day I give up on getting office work done. My house begins to show signs of neglect. She wants to be held. My spirits flag on the third or fourth day, and I start to get angry.
It’s frustrating to be angry and to have no human scapegoat. I can’t remember which mom’s kid she was playing with last before the sickness hit—because of course, if I could remember that, little sighs of blame would escape my lips as I use a snot sucker on the screaming girl for the third time in a morning. How infuriating it is to have a whole week dismantled in this way. Which mom is responsible for this?
I haven’t remembered yet that I am actually sighing anger against God himself.
Because the same God who brought boils to Job’s body has brought a cold to our lives this week. He’s numbered the brown hairs on my daughter’s head and the white cells in her blood. He ordains the movements of the toddlers in the nursery and the passing of unwashed toys into little mouths. This means that if we have a cold this week, it’s because he said to the cold virus, “Thus far shall you come, and no further” (Job 38:11).
And now I’m remembering something else.
Just last week, I was reading the chapter on suffering in John Piper’s book Desiring God. In this chapter, Piper tells story after story of persecuted Christians who ‘filled up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body the church’ (Col. 1:24). He speaks of Richard Wurmbrand, who spent fourteen years in Soviet Red Prisons. Wurmbrand was tortured and sometimes kept in solitary confinement, coming out on the other side with damage to his feet and a joy that he credits to the prison years.
Then Piper talks about the Christianity of the lazy west, and suggests that many of us are only aiming for a dignified, moral life of comfort—and getting just what we aim for. He talks about hearing testimonies of Christians whose main point is that Jesus makes their lives easier. This is a Jesus whose function is to smooth out their behavior, their relationships, and their overall happiness levels. Piper calls this an indictment on western Christianity.
Then he cites Paul’s statement that “if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). Paul says this, according to Piper, because Paul’s life makes no sense unless he is placing his hope on something coming later.
Throughout my reading of this chapter, I experienced a familiar anxiety, icky and unsettling. Where is my suffering? I don’t see any. Should I be suffering more? Should I go to find the suffering? Is it social suffering (embarrassment) that I could be putting my neck out for, since physical persecution doesn’t seem to be available to me here in Hartsville, TN? Should I be moving to a more dangerous place? Should I be on the mission field, where the suffering is? Here, between a grocery store breakfast, a laptop-and-broom workday, a sweet baby on my lap, a few service opportunities in my church and community, and a husband to cook supper for, there doesn’t seem to be much room for suffering.
How can I know that I’m real if I’m not suffering? How can I grow without it? How can I strengthen my testimony without it? How can I reach the lost without it? So I prayed last week that God would ready me for suffering, would bring suffering as needed, and would deliver me through suffering. I prayed fearfully and probably half-heartedly, with laundry in the dryer.
Then this week, The Cold.
And now I’m making a connection between The Cold and the suffering prayed for.
No, no, I’m not going to try and use the word ‘suffering’ to describe my daughter’s cold with a straight face. Not after we just talked about Wurmbrand. What I mean to say is that the kind of discomfort I’m experiencing in my life may be an indicator of the kind of suffering I’m prepared to handle.
Here is the progression I’m imagining in my mind now:
- I find myself dealing with the inconvenience of a cold.
- I find myself complaining and arching my back under that inconvenience. I confess sin and try to believe on the gospel of Jesus Christ, asking for strength to do better with the next cold (or equivalent difficulty).
- The next cold, I behave just a little differently. I find some joy in the cold. I find joy in doing all the little things needed when Cold situations arise. I find joy in knowing that spiritual strength is available to me to draw on as needed.
- The goal, in all of this, is not that I should be better at doing colds. The goal is that eventually, I will get stronger, more prayerful, better at turning to God and glorying in my weakness because it puts his power on display (2 Cor. 12:9).
- Perhaps, someday, I will be considered worthy to suffer for Christ in other ways. Perhaps, if he prepares me through these lesser things (traffic stops and broken dishes and long nights), he will one day grant to me, for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but to suffer for His sake (Phil. 1:29).
The Cold is not persecution, and it seems like a stretch to call it suffering. But it is a training ground. Perhaps it’s simply proportionate to my current level of maturity. And it was ordained with complete specificity.
This is just what you would expect from a good teacher.
Paul seems to think that this is all a matter of course in the sanctification process. He uses the language of “discipline”—which is what parents do to children to teach them and what athletes do to their bodies to strengthen them.
“Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:9-11).
I want all the small pains of life, such as The Cold, to be profitable. God wants this for me. He wants a yield—the peaceful fruit of righteousness—and this is why he trains. This is why he orchestrates the movement of toys in the nursery. This is, in fact, what he is working all things for: my good, and his glory. The fruit of righteousness is what he intends to grow—for my good, and his glory. And when he brings true suffering to me, when the way of the cross finally intersects with the way of persecution, he will still ordain it with the fruit of righteousness in mind—for my good, and his glory.
This is what The Cold has in common with the imprisonment of Richard Wurmbrand: God ordains both for our good and for his own glory.
So I wipe that snotty nose again, at 3 am. I am running laps in the air-conditioned training ground of suffering, praying for help even with these laps, waiting for my legs to grow stronger. And I know they will (Heb. 12:1, Phil. 1:6). God intends, and he will do it.