Suffering Nails Truth to the Heart

It was the night before Easter Sunday (arguably the best day of the year) and I was planning to prepare my heart to celebrate the Lord’s resurrection the following day. Instead, I ended up lying in a hospital bed hooked to an IV receiving the usual cocktail the doctors give me for migraines. In the past, that would have been the opportune moment to hit play on my usual “woe is me” self-talk. But during those long hours in the emergency room, as I came in and out from the tranquilizing effects of the medications, something rather astounding happened—I began to preach the gospel to myself. The following three gospel truths particularly ministered to me that night and have become regular tracks that I play over and over as I learn to preach the gospel amidst my suffering.

Three Gospel Truths

1. I am not being punished

In the midst of pain there is a very real temptation to believe that God is punishing you. I’ve wrestled with debilitating migraines for seven years and my immediate response is to frantically search my life for some secret sin I’ve committed. I fall into the trap of believing that if I’m good I’ll be rewarded and if I’m bad I’ll be punished. In my legalism, I equate pain with God’s punishment. Yet, I’m missing an essential component in my religious equation—the gospel. The gospel tells me that I don’t simply do “bad things”; rather, apart from Christ I am bad. Scripture is clear on this point. I was “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds” (Col. 1:21). I was “dead in the trespasses and sins” in which I once walked (Eph. 2:1-2). By my very nature I was a child “of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). I was under God’s just condemnation and there was nothing I could do to work my way out of this death sentence “for by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (Rom. 3:20). Theologically speaking, if I think migraines are a just punishment for my sin then I have fully underestimated the gravity of sin. In terms of punishment, I don’t simply deserve migraines—I deserve death and hell.

But it doesn’t stop there. The gospel is good news for a reason.

God put Jesus forward as the propitiation for sin so that we might be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). This means that though I was alienated from God he has now reconciled me to himself “in his (Christ’s) body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:21). Though I was dead in my sins deserving of God’s punishment, he made me “alive together with Christ” (Eph. 2:5). Do you see what Scripture is proclaiming? Christ came as our substitute and suffered the penalty of our sin so that we no longer experience the punishment of God’s wrath. Though God disciplines those he loves (Heb. 12:6), he poured out his punishment conclusively upon his Son at the cross. If you have been united with Christ, you no longer bear the punishment for your sins for “he himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24).

You will never be punished because Jesus was punished in your place.

Therefore, pain is not punishment from God, nor is it a sign of his disapproval. In Christ you have unconditional acceptance and approval before the Father. This has significant ramifications for believers as we suffer in this lifetime. Whether it is migraines or cancer or panic attacks, we stand on the truth that God is not punishing us. Because of our union with Christ, God is for us (Rom. 8:31) and nothing (not even pain) can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

2. I am not alone

Pain can be terribly isolating leading to feelings of loneliness and despair. I do not fully understand it nor can I rationally explain it, but when I suffer physically I inevitably suffer spiritually and emotionally. Were it not for Jesus, I think pain could result in feelings of total defeat. But the gospel reminds us that Jesus shared in our physical and emotional pain. His suffering was certainly more than that (i.e. absorbing the wrath of God), but never less. Jesus left the glories of heaven to take “the form of a servant” and be “born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). He shared in “flesh and blood” and “he himself partook of the same things” that we endure (Heb. 2:14). He was “made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest” (Heb. 2:17). Jesus is able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15) because he knows what it is like to suffer in the flesh. Hebrews 5:7 says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death . . . ” Jesus understands what it’s like to cry out in agony in unmitigated pain.

How many times have you prayed “with loud cries and tears” to the Father for relief and yet your pleas seemed to ring hollow? How many times have you thought to yourself, “God is able to take this from me and he chooses not to”? How many times have you felt abandoned by God in your suffering and wondered where he was? Those subjective feelings can seem so real in the moment, but the objective truth is that God through Christ has drawn near to us. We can be sure that God hears our cries because we have an intercessor in heaven that identifies with us (Heb. 7:25).

Because of this, we are never alone in our pain. Our sufferings can be a means by which we draw nearer to Jesus, our great High Priest, as he intercedes on our behalf (Heb. 4:14-16). There seems to be a sweet closeness with Jesus for those uniquely qualified by pain. I’ve been a Christian for twelve years and have joyfully celebrated Easter every one of those years, but this year I savored Christ’s sufferings in a new way. I was richly comforted by the fact that my Lord had walked the path of pain so that he might become my merciful High Priest before the throne of God. It gave me peace to know that Jesus didn’t only suffer for me, but he also suffered with me.

Think about that—we have a God who left heaven to come alongside us and suffer among us.

3. I have the hope of the resurrection.

Pain has a way of shrinking perspective. It can cause us to fold in on ourselves. We become so obsessed with feeling better (physically or emotionally) that we lose sight of the bigger picture. The gospel reminds us that pain is not the final word for those in Christ—resurrection is! Our ultimate hope is not in this world or in finding temporary healing for our mortal bodies; it is in the re-creation of all things, including our bodies and minds. God did not create us for sickness and pain and mortality. Death and pain came through Adam’s first sin (Gen. 3) and now “in Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22). But the gospel declares that Christ defeated Satan, sin, and death and in his resurrection we see the first-fruits of what is to come (1 Cor. 15:20, 23)—a bodily resurrection. The Bible testifies that those “in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22) on that final day when the “perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:54). Christian, this is our greatest hope.

Full redemption is coming!

This doesn’t mean that we don’t do everything within our means to relieve and alleviate severe emotional and physical pain. But to put all of our hope in temporary healing is to lose eternal perspective. There’s greater glory still to come. We must realize that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Beware of preaching a gospel that is too narrow in its scope. The gospel message isn’t simply “get saved and go to heaven when you die.” Instead, the gospel declares that in Christ God rights all wrongs. He renews all things. A new heaven and a new earth are coming. And on that new earth we will live in our fully redeemed, resurrected, and glorified bodies.

Then, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). That’s what we really desire, isn’t it? We “who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:23). There’s a sense in which I have come to see my migraines as my body’s way of groaning for full redemption. Chronic pain and disease and anxiety are all a part of this groaning. This isn’t the way life was supposed to be and our bodies know it. Thus, pain points us forward towards that final day when death will be swallowed up in victory and all things will be made new. In many ways, pain has taught me what it means to cry out with so many saints throughout history, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Partner—GCD—450x300So What Do Migraines Have to Do With the Gospel?

I find that it’s quite easy to believe these gospel truths on a “good day.” But then migraines come and render me powerless. It’s illuminating to see how insecure and anxious I become when I cannot produce. It reveals that much of my confidence comes from my performance and not from Jesus’ finished work. When I cannot physically perform I’m confronted with the dissonance between the theology I affirm and the theology I practice. Consequently, migraines have become one of the means by which God takes my good theology and drives it into my heart. It’s an opportunity, if you will, to really believe the truths that I confess. This certainly isn’t limited to migraines. Maybe you, like me, struggle with chronic physical pain. Or perhaps you have wrestled with panic attacks your whole life. Maybe you have to live with food allergies or suffer from an autoimmune disease. Or possibly you’re battling stage four cancer and all my groaning about migraines seems minor league. Pain and suffering, physical and emotional, come in all sorts of packages. Each person will suffer differently in this lifetime, but in every instance pain presents us with a unique opportunity to believe the glorious truths of the good news of Jesus Christ in a deeper way.

I have found that we can play the woe is me audio all day long (please realize I’m not diminishing the reality of suffering!), which leads to despair and discouragement. Or we can choose to rehearse the gospel to ourselves, which leads to life and godliness. It’s in those raw moments, the ones that are truly beyond our limitations, that we are provided with some of the most fertile soil to plant seeds of gospel truths in our hearts. And it is those seeds that fuel our affections for Christ and supply us with the foundation for a long life of faithfulness. I’m not saying I like migraines, but I am saying if there is anything in this world (including suffering) that can help train my obstinate head and hard heart to better understand what God did for me in Christ during that great exchange on the cross I want to welcome it with my entire being. And so, in that sterile hospital room on Easter’s eve, I chose a different path amidst my pain and preached these truths to myself. As it turns out, come Sunday morning, my heart was more prepared than ever before to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.

Whitney Woollard has served in ministry alongside her husband Neal for over six years. She holds an undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies from Moody Bible Institute and just finished her Master of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Western Seminary. She is passionate about equipping disciples to read and study God’s Word well resulting in maturing affections for Jesus and his gospel message. Neal and Whitney currently live in Portland, OR where they love serving the local church. Follow her on Twitter @whitneywoollard.