Years ago, Denise Walters was running up her high school stairway. Near the landing, her knees suddenly felt weak and she collapsed. Within hours her whole body felt weak. She left school early, went home, and took a nap. When she woke, she was paralyzed from the waist down.
Within months Denise had lost her sight, became paralyzed from the neck down, and could barely talk. She was diagnosed with a rare form of multiple sclerosis with a rapid escalation.
Eighteen months after Denise’s hospitalization, Joni Eareckson arrived and was Denise’s ward-mate for a year or so. Then Joni left and became world famous. She wrote a bestselling autobiography, authored forty other books, started a world-wide-influential ministry, and even starred in a movie that was about her life. Joni saw suffering as a way to testify to God’s glory.
Denise remained in the hospital eight long years. She lay blind, almost motionless, in a hospital bed, in a rehab center, week after week, month after month, year after year. Mostly alone. The stream of visitors dried up; it was too difficult for others to see her suffering.
Denise’s mother, however, visited daily. They were Christians. Her mom read Scripture to her and prayed. Denise knew she was dying, but death didn’t come mercifully quick, and most hours of the day she was alone, unable to watch TV or even look out the window. Mostly alone.
Five years after Joni left the hospital, Denise died. The news hit Joni hard. She wrote,
[Denise] was a person who loved Christ, and who never complained, but whose suffering seemed to be completely pointless. Nobody saw her. Nobody ever told her “I want the kind of faith you have. How do I get it?”
Her suffering seemed senseless.
God Can’t Tell Us
At the beginning of the Book of Job, Satan says that Job doesn’t really love God; that Job only loves the gifts God gives. Satan says, stop blessing Job and he “will curse you to your face.”
For the next thirty-six chapters, Job asks, “Why?” Why this? Why me? Why now?
We all think if we could understand suffering, it might make the pain bearable. Maybe others will be inspired, or maybe we’ll meet the love of our life in the hospital. Please God, Just Explain Why!
And God can’t tell us because it is necessary that we do not know the answer.
Have you ever been invited to a party only to find the host wants you to sell vitamins; or had someone end a “friendship” because you couldn’t get them the job; and many women know of men who end a relationship when she won’t sleep with him.
We all hate to be used.
If God had said to Job, “Hey buddy, I just want you to know that people will be talking about your greatness for thousands of years,” if God had done that, Job wouldn’t have loved God for who God is; Job would have loved God for the fame God was granting him. Job would have been using God, just as Satan accused. Job would have become a mercenary.
That’s why God can’t tell us the “Why?” of our suffering. The only way He can make us great—where we love Him just to love Him—is when our service gains us nothing. We can’t know the reasons for our suffering, or we’ll never find the greatness that the suffering can turn us into.
When Joni Eareckson heard of her friend’s un-lauded death, Joni was inconsolable. No one had seen how nobly Denise handled her suffering. No one had cheered her. No one had noticed. One day a friend read this verse to Joni:
I tell you, there is rejoicing among the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:7)
Her friend said, “Can you imagine? Scripture says angels find inner joy, excitement even, as they witness our lives.”
That is why the writer of Hebrews says,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…
In ancient Greek, the audience in sports arenas were called a “cloud of witnesses.” Scripture says there was a cloud of witnesses cheering Denise on, watching with bated breath, shouting and whooping in eager expectation, and dancing when Denise finally came home.
We can’t know God’s purpose in our suffering, but we can know that He never leaves us alone, and that He is with myriads of angels, eagerly cheering our progress.
We are never alone, and our suffering is never senseless.
Wow. I’m going to have to digest this one for a while. Thank you Sam.
I understand. I’ve been thinking about this story for about 30 years.
It’s the first time I’ve written–or even talked–about it.
God bless you Lori, keep growing in hope!
John P DeWitt
Suffering, even when we know the reason for it, is difficult. Suffering, when we don’t know the reason, or even worse, when the suffering seems pointless, is almost unbearable… your comment that the angels are cheering us on while we plod ahead In what can appear to us to be a pointless journey… is very consoling.
Yes, suffering when we don’t understand IS almost unbearable.
But … that is sort of the point.
And I always appreciate your comments,
This breaks my heart for Denise. The answer for her suffering is still not there, however. It’s a bit maddening. Knowing that angels rejoice over a sinner repenting is not comparable to them watching over a person suffering for years and not being able to do anything about it. Where’s the glory to God from this? If she was able to do even a small part of what Joni did, then I could see a purpose to it. Otherwise, I am completely stumped.
Of course this is a difficult subject. I’ve been thinking of her story for 30 years, but honestly, I am moved by the beauty of her worship of God as LORD–completely LORD of her life.
The issue is complex and confusing, but it is also simple:
In the book of Job (probably the best book on suffering in the history of humanity), Job keeps asking, “Why? If you tell me why, I can bear it.” In effect, Job JUDGES God over and over. In fact God says to Job:
We always try to justify our understanding, and God says that when we do, we are judging Him!
In the end, God NEVER tells him why. God just reveals Himself to Job. And Job says he is more than satisfied with that “simple” revelation.
But God also shows Himself to us in the Job story. In the verse above, God asks if we would condemn Him in order to justify ourselves; and that is exactly what God allowed on the cross; he let Himself be condemned in order that we be justified.
When I think of Him, the only truly innocent sufferer, taking my suffering and shame, then I know my current suffering never means an absence of His presence or an absence of His caring; and then I worship.
God wants our hearts to worship him. That is the real meaning of suffering. And I am moved by Denise’s response to her suffering. I can’t wait to see her in heaven.
That is really a strange story and one I have to reflect on long and hard! There are lovely Christians I know who are now living in nursing homes. They were once very bright and active for the Lord and now they don’t know anyone or anything. I often ask myself why are they allowed to live like that for so long and yet others are taken so young who could have done so much for the Lord if they had remained alive. I am looking forward to meeting God in heaven one day and asking him such questions! Today I have been reading the story of Moses and his killing of the Egyptian and I had to ask myself the question – why? Yes Moses was wrong in taking a life and the very fact that he looked both ways before doing it shows he definitely was outside of the will of God. Thankfully God is the God of second chances and whilst Moses had to spend another 40 years reliving what he had done day in and day out, God came and spoke to him again and showed him that now was the opportunity to bring the Children of Israel out of Egypt. Timing was everything and we cannot do anything outside of God’s will. Perhaps in letting Denise live for the length of time she did God was showing her things we will never know about but also maybe she was a living example to people like Joni of God’s own faithfulness to his child Denise.
I really love your story of the older missionary couple.
I DO think God was showing Denise things we will only see in the future kingdom.
Corrie Ten Boom suffered things I can barely imagine (in a WWII concentration camp where her sister died). She wrote: “You will never know God is all you need until God is all you have.”
I really think there is a huge blessing in finding that God is all we need. Who knows. Maybe when we get to heaven, we will find that Denise Walters felt sorry for us, because we still depended on other things besides God.
In reading this story, I am struck by the fact that there are angels who rejoice with great anticipation as they wait for the arrival of those who have lived their lives to the glory of God. Yet scripture also teaches that one-third of heaven’s angels chose to reject God so they could follow satan. What I don’t understand is how they could have made their horrendous decision, all while being in the holy presence of God. Has God created angels with a free-will to choose between good and evil?
I always love your thought-provoking comments.
I think God has always wanted a people who love him freely; not for what we get but for who He is. And that had to involve making beings who could choose another “god” (which is always just choosing ourselves).
But we are made to choose Him.
In reading your comment about, “why others are taken so young,” I remembered this scripture in Isaiah 57:1-2 (NLT)
Good people pass away;
the godly often die before their time.
But no one seems to care or wonder why.
No one seems to understand
that God is protecting them from the evil to come.
For those who follow godly paths
will rest in peace when they die.
I hope this is helpful.