I remember well the strange combination of excitement and fear that overtook me when my wife woke me up at 2 o’clock one morning to inform me that she was pregnant with our first child. After realizing I wasn’t dreaming, I was suddenly overwhelmed with joy and gratitude for such news and began to anticipate from that moment forward the day my child would be born. I couldn’t wait to show him everything, and especially to introduce him to my Lord Jesus. But I myself was but an infant in Christ, and one of the several big sins that still had its tentacles firmly embedded in me was anxiety.
Through the years, I have come to realize that there is no bigger fear for any parent than something happening to their child, but for me, it was more than a natural tendency; it was a monster that began to consume me. Even though there was nothing wrong with my wife or the baby, I would regularly be haunted by imaginations of all sorts of bad things that could happen to my little one. What if he got sick or injured…or what if (it’s hard to type it even now) he were to die?
Taking Yourself in Hand
Somewhere early along in my walk with the Lord, I was providentially led to the works of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who has since become one of my heroes of the faith. My first introduction to him was a book that was a printed version of series of sermons he delivered in 1954 entitled Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure. I remember being greatly helped by that book, and one of the lines that stood out to me then, and still strikes me today, is his admonition to the believer to “take yourself in hand.” In his exposition of Psalm 42, Lloyd-Jones said:
The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’– instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, 20-21).
I remember distinctly driving home one day with those nagging fears plaguing me once again and Lloyd-Jones’ words echoing in my mind. I remember consciously putting his counsel into practice by doing my best to “take myself in hand” and preaching to myself and questioning myself. I literally asked myself, as difficult as it was to consciously rehearse it, “What would you do if something were to happen to your child? If, heaven forbid, he were to die? Would you blame God? Would you deny Him? Would you walk away from the faith?” In that moment of truth, I had to answer “No” to all the above. I may have been young in the faith, but I knew enough to know that God is good, and His promises are true, and His sovereign hand rules over everything, working all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28).
So, the matter was settled—at least in my mind.
Facing Your Biggest Fear
Fast-forward sixteen years and four children later. All had been well…four healthy pregnancies, and almost nothing to speak of medically with our children except for the typical flu and first aid, along with a trip or two to the doctor for some stitches. That is, until the middle of 2022, when my youngest son, Joel, at just six years old, was diagnosed with Pott Puffy Tumor, a rare and potentially deadly abscess that forms under the skull as a result of a complicated case of sinusitis.
“I may have been young in the faith, but I knew enough to know that God is good, and His promises are true, and His sovereign hand rules over everything, working all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”
After being in the Lord for many years and forced through various circumstances to deal with my propensity to anxiety, I had indeed grown much in this area. My initial concern for my son’s condition was cautious and serious; I was concerned but calm. But when, after a series of tests, the doctors explained the situation and the need for immediate surgery to drill into his skull in order to flush the abscess that was putting dangerous pressure on the main vein serving his brain, the real test was on.
My wife and I cannot express how grateful we are to the Lord that He spared our son’s life. After a couple of weeks in the hospital…followed by six weeks of daily antibiotic infusions through a PICC line…in addition to oral antibiotics…and several more weeks of recovery from the effects of those antibiotics on his digestive system…he is fully healed and back to his normal self again.
Three Lessons Learned through the Suffering of Watching Your Child Suffer
I’m thankful that I have not had to suffer much in my life, and I certainly do not mean to downplay the real suffering of others. But I imagine every parent would agree with me that there is no suffering worse than watching your child suffer. I can’t count the times throughout that terrible ordeal that I sat or stood next to my little son’s side and desperately wished I could trade places with Him. While I have not experienced the loss of a child like some, and cannot enter into that experience, I can certainly come right up to its doorstep. It is a unique and intense form of suffering, and while I would never, ever wish to repeat it, I can say that I am genuinely thankful, not for the suffering itself, to be clear, but for what the Lord has taught me through it.
That may sound strange; it may even sound heartless. But I have learned through experience the reality of what I affirmed years ago: that, although God is certainly not the author of sin and suffering, He is sovereign over them. In other words, it’s not God’s fault that people get sick and suffer, but in some mysterious way, He works through these tragic circumstances to bring about His good purposes.
There are too many lessons to enumerate, and I’m sure that over time I will realize that I haven’t yet understood the half of what the Lord has been teaching me thus far. But there are three lessons that stand out above the rest.
#1: I’VE GROWN IN CHRISTLIKENESS
While the fact that I’m thankful for what God has taught me through the suffering of watching my child suffer may sound strange, to say that I’ve grown in Christlikeness through it may sound both arrogant and ridiculous. But I’m only repeating what God’s Word says and what I and others around me have experienced to be true. When Romans 8:28 says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” the very next verse identifies that good purpose as God’s predetermined plan for all who belong to Him to “be conformed to the image of his Son.” The “all things” in v. 28 is not qualified, meaning that it includes absolutely everything–both good and bad, both blessing and suffering. In fact, if one were to claim that it is qualified, the context is the very theme of the believer’s present suffering.
So suffering is, without a doubt, included in the “all things” that God works together for the purpose of making His children more like Jesus.
I’m hesitant to point out some huge leaps and bounds of growth in Christ; to be honest, I’m still feeling a little foggy and numb. But one thing I know for sure is that, whereas in the past I would have been uncontrollably anxious and distraught when facing my biggest fear, I now had a sense of peace and calm control throughout most of the ordeal.
I say most of the ordeal because after we were done with the six weeks of antibiotics, I thought we were done. In my mind, my son was healed and not only would he be back to normal, but so would my life. Little did I know what sort of havoc the amount of antibiotics he had been on for a prolonged period had done to his digestive system. The next several weeks would prove to be some of the most difficult, and I had not prepared my heart. I finally had to face the reality that I was angry, and not because my son was suffering but because my world had not gone back to normal as quickly as I thought it should.
I’m “airing this dirty laundry” in order that I might not give the impression that I’ve reached some level of perfection through this ordeal. But nevertheless, had I been the person I was just years ago, my sin would have been a lot uglier.
Spiritual growth doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over the long haul, and though I’m far from where I wish I was, I’m not who I used to be. God does, indeed work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.
#2: I’VE EXPERIENCED THE PEACE OF GOD
As a pastor, I can’t count the times I’ve prayed Philippians 4:6-7 over someone who is suffering in some way:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
I’ve memorized those verses and meditated upon them many times myself in the past regarding anxieties of various sorts. But nothing had ever tested me like watching my little son suffer. Those verses had certainly been echoing in my mind from the moment we realized the seriousness of his illness, but as we sat in the waiting room while the neurosurgeon performed surgery on his head, I experienced the promise of God’s peace.
Just like I can’t explain God’s work of regeneration in my heart, I can’t explain the peace I felt at that moment and throughout the trial—which is why it is called “the peace which surpasses all understanding.” My heart and mind were guarded from all the “what ifs.” I just trusted the Lord, knowing He was in control and whatever the outcome, His will would be done.
That’s not a peace I was able manufacture in my own strength; it is a peace that came from outside of me, directly from the God of peace. I’ve learned that it’s one thing to pray the promises of Scripture over others; it’s another thing entirely to experience them yourself.
#3 I’VE SEEN THE GOODNESS OF THE LORD THROUGH HIS PEOPLE
Just like I’ve prayed the promise of Philippians 4:6-7 over others many times without ever experiencing it to the degree I did through the suffering of watching my son suffer, I’ve preached many times about the fact that the church is the body of Christ, urging fellow believers to live out the reality of our union with Him. I have impressed upon them the need to excel in our love for one another and to show that love in tangible ways. I’ve called others to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:12). I have had the blessing of watching as people responded to those exhortations and were there for others in their suffering, and however imperfectly, I have been blessed to come alongside others in their times of need myself. But I had never really been the one in need.
“Spiritual growth doesn’t happen overnight; it happens over the long haul, and though I’m far from where I wish I was, I’m not who I used to be.”
Through the suffering of watching my son suffer, I witnessed an army of saints pouring forth their love and affection. Cards, texts, emails, and phone calls flooded in. Visits were made by several in our church family, including a police officer and his partner who went out of their way and showed up in uniform just for Joel. All sorts of gifts and care packages for both our son and our entire family were personally delivered or mailed to the hospital. Offers for the use of private residences were extended for my wife and me so that we could stay close to our son (although the hospital graciously allowed us to stay in his room).
Beyond all this, and most importantly, countless prayers were offered on our behalf, many from people we don’t even know. Even as I recall this tremendous display of love, I am overwhelmed with emotion at the goodness of my God displayed through His people.
Our Father’s Unfailing Love
Watching my son suffer has reminded me of just how much my Father in heaven loves me. He “shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). In other words, my Father loves me so much that He willingly endured the suffering of watching His only, unique Son suffer in my place in order that I might be reconciled to Him.
The price that was paid for sinners like me was priceless. It is an inexpressible gift that is the ultimate expression of love. This is why the Apostle John exclaims, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God…” And because the Father loved us in this way, this love is unfailing. The familiar words of Romans 8:37-39 that nothing “in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” is a precious promise, and God gives us a greater glimpse into that promise through the trials we face in this life.
God is good and He loves me, and I’m thankful that the breadth and length and height and depth of that unfailing love has been driven that much deeper into my heart by His wise and sovereign hand through this season of suffering.
‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus
And to take him at his word
Just to rest upon his promise
And to know, “Thus saith the Lord”
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him!
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er!
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus
O for grace to trust him more