The Seminary of Suffering

The Seminary of Suffering

As I write this, my two daughters are sick. My two precious girls have had seven surgeries and twelve “procedures.” Our family has spent more nights in the hospital than I can count. Each of my daughters takes 840 pills per month and has two-to-three breathing treatments per day. Their lungs are deteriorating. And according to every scientific “opinion,” my daughters will live half as long as most. I discovered these hard realities after my first semester of seminary.

Sadly, suffering is not unique to my family. There are unspoken hardships that every person experiences—some watch dwindling bank accounts, others watch as terminal diseases eat away at loved ones, others visit their loved ones in graveyards. In this fallen world, humanity is plagued with trial and tragedy. In the same way, all Christians experience trials. Charles Spurgeon said, “God had one Son without sin, but he never had a son without trial.” Trials will come. All kinds of trials. Trials that persist and plague homes, that linger longer than we ever would have imagined. Trials that demand every ounce of energy we have to offer. Trials that silence dinner tables and car rides. Trials that leave you weeping in the stillness of the night. And one of the hardest parts of trials is that we never know which corner they are around. The question is not if trials are coming, but how we will respond when they do.

I came to seminary to learn to study the Word of God, but God had also enrolled me in a different seminary—the seminary of suffering. A dear friend told me recently, “There’s something you learn in the trial that you can’t learn without it.” So I’m learning to write these lessons down, first and foremost for my own soul; second for my daughters, that they might one day see the grace that this trial has been for my own soul; and third for anyone else who also may be suffering silently. The first lesson I learned concerned the sovereignty of God.  

The Sovereignty of God and Suffering

Believing in the sovereignty of God is easy when life is good. That was true of my life. I was comfortable. Trials were minimal, at worst. But then my wife and I had to take our firstborn to the emergency room. It was not long before we were checked into the hospital and told that my daughter needed surgery. I watched—helpless—as my baby girl winced in pain. Then she was pulled from my arms. And for the first time in my life, I wondered if God was in control of this dark, confusing hospital room. Had His sovereignty skipped a beat?  

My daughter has a lung disease, and it will likely be the cause of her death. Why was, and is, a hard question to wrestle with. And it was in these moments that I realized how often I have let my circumstances shape and define my God. Without denying any orthodox doctrine of the faith, we can begin to view God through the stained glass of our trials, rather than viewing our circumstances from the perspective of the one who sits in heaven.

During this period of confusion, my pastor came to visit us in the hospital. He had just finished preaching through the book of Job. He shared something simple that shifted my thinking. He said, “God never gave a reason as to why Job went through sufferings and trials. He just said that He is God. Therefore, we can trust Him.” But God still let Job sit atop the ash heap and scrape his skin with potsherds. God remained silent as Job hurt. We all want to ask why, but that’s not the point.  

Job lost everything. When Job asked why, God did not give him the answers he wanted. Instead, God pointed Job to Himself. Job needed to seek Him more than he sought answers. In that hospital room, I was also asking the wrong question. I wanted to know why God would allow this to happen to me and my small family. But like Job, I didn’t need to know. I just needed to know the who.

The great I AM had not left His throne. The God who is “compassionate and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in faithfulness and truth; who keeps faithfulness for thousands, who forgives wrongdoing, violation of His Law, and sin” had not changed. A.W. Pink said that God is “influenced by none, absolutely independent; God does as he pleases, only as he pleases, always as he pleases.” God still sits atop His throne, even amidst crushing diagnoses. God’s glory is more important than my ease. That’s what I learned.

This didn’t make the pain go away, but it made His sovereignty more real to me in the midst of the hard moments. It became real to me that my daughters and my wife were not ultimately mine. I was not in control. And as the hospital visits and surgeries became regular cadences in my life, the sovereignty of God became the pillow upon which I rested my head, as Spurgeon so well said. I began to realize that my responsibility was to care for my family to the best of my ability, and to trust God when I could do no more. Then my heart began to say along with Job, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

After all, my life is called to be one of cross-bearing. I am called to pick up my cross and follow a Savior who suffered. A man of sorrows. A man who was crushed. A man who wept and whose body was broken. As I look upon the person of Christ, I find a Savior who can sympathize with my darker moments. He is good. May my life, and the life of my family, be one that sings His praises. All glory be to Christ.

Caleb Cunningham

Caleb Cunningham

Caleb works at Grace Community Church and serves in the college ministry. He is an assistant to Dr. Steven Lawson at OnePassion Ministries. He also attends TMS. He is married to Hayley, and they have two daughters.

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