“God’s presence with me was not Jim’s presence. That was a terrible fact. God’s presence did not change the terrible fact that I was a widow. . . . Jim’s absence thrust me, forced me, hurried me to God, my hope and my only refuge. And I learned in that experience who God is. Who he is in a way I could never have known otherwise.”
Few things fortify the soul against Satan’s deception like watching another Christian suffer with persevering faith. When we watch others walk through the valley of the shadow of death with purpose and joy in God, through ups and downs, their faithfulness and endurance inspire fresh hopefulness and vigilance. Elisabeth Elliot has been that kind of person for me (and countless others).
She and her husband, Jim, married on the mission field in Ecuador in 1953. Just three years later, Jim was speared to death, along with four other men, by the Huaorani tribe he was trying to reach with the gospel. Elisabeth received the news while caring for their 10-month-old daughter, Valerie. She writes,
God’s presence with me was not Jim’s presence. That was a terrible fact. God’s presence did not change the terrible fact that I was a widow. . . . Jim’s absence thrust me, forced me, hurried me to God, my hope and my only refuge. And I learned in that experience who God is. Who he is in a way I could never have known otherwise. (Suffering Is Never for Nothing, 15)
She married again after sixteen years, only to lose her second husband, Addison, less than four years later, to cancer. Some have suffered more, to be sure, but not most of us. And few have championed the precious good God can do through the terrible facts in our lives like Elisabeth did. Her testimony reminds me of another sufferer, the apostle Paul, who endured sorrow after sorrow with great joy and enduring faith.
Suffering Is Not a Detour
Prison was no detour for Paul. While anyone, even Christians, might have been prone to pity him, he saw the startling potential in his imprisonment. The worst hardships, he knew, were often the greatest highways for the gospel. He writes, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me” — wrongfully arrested, incarcerated, and left for dead (Philippians 1:20) — “has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). The gospel did not survive his imprisonment, but prospered while he suffered — no, because he suffered.
None of us naturally responds this way to suffering. Unexpected turbulence in life does not naturally overflow in bright hope and selfless love. Apart from grace, suffering makes us impatient, selfish, and despairing. We withdraw, turn inward, and are less concerned with (or even aware of) the needs of others. We often cannot see beyond the darkness we feel.
But the grace of God goes to work to create the opposite impulses, especially in suffering. Suffering was not a distraction, inconvenience, or detour for Paul, but a breakthrough for what he cared most about: the spread of the gospel and the glory of Jesus.
Suffering Reveals What We Treasure
How did the gospel run while Paul sat alone in a cell? He tells us in the next verse:
It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:13–14)
Suffering faithfully catalyzes the gospel in at least two great ways. First, suffering reveals our purpose and treasure like comfort and security do not. Everyone knew Paul was in prison for Christ (Philippians 1:13). Many were only exposed to his love for Jesus because he was mistreated and confined. If he did not suffer, they would not have been so powerfully confronted with his joy and message.
Many in the imperial guard, for instance, may have never heard the gospel at all if Paul had not been locked away there. Many will not be curious about the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15) unless we suffer something that requires hope (1 Peter 3:13). Satan may still believe that a thick fog of suffering will obscure the faithfulness of God (Job 1:9–11), but faithful suffering brings his glory into greater, more compelling clarity. When you suffer, think about the people watching you suffer, and what they’re learning about Jesus.