By: Dr. Johnny O. Trail, LMFT — They had just placed membership, but were very infrequent at church. I wondered what the situation was with this family that had just moved into the community. After some investigation, I learned they moved into the Middle Tennessee area so they could be closer to Vanderbilt Hospital.
The father of the family, Greg, had a terribly bad and rare disease called, Syringomyelia, which was best treated at Vanderbilt Hospital and by their specialists. “Syringomyelia is a condition characterized by a fluid-filled cavity or cyst known as a syrinx that forms within the spinal cord.” Up until the time of his death, he was in the hospital for approximately eight months solid being treated for this condition. As the evangelist in the church they worshipped with, I would make regular visits to Vanderbilt Hospital to offer words of encouragement and support. Little did I know that I would be the one edified by this family who was about to endure the suffering of the family patriarch.
I have made many visits over thirty years of preaching, but what I learned from Greg and his wife Katie was more valuable than any support I could offer. My interaction with Greg and Katie happened after I had been involved in ministry for about seven years. It became clear that Greg’s condition was continually deteriorating. Even so, Katie and Greg’s family held out hope. Quite simply stated, it the worst cases of suffering I had ever witnessed and remains so to this very day. I have never seen any other human being endure as much pain as Greg had.
There would be times when I would be waiting outside of the hospital room, because the nurses would be changing Greg’s bandages. Unbeknownst to Katie, I would often overhear her conversations with the doctors and the nurses. She would always tell them how blessed they truly were. It was ironic to think that this woman could talk about her blessings in the face of her husband’s indescribable pain, but that was exactly what she did.
Moreover, she would mention the fact that members of the churches of Christ helped them move into the area so her husband could receive treatment. Katie told the people serving her husband that the “Lord had blessed them so much.” In the midst of suffering, this family was glorifying God. No person could enter Greg’s room without hearing about Christ, the church, or the good, charitable members of the body of Christ. Unbeknownst to Katie, her attitude and love of God in the midst of such terrible suffering was an inspiration to me and others that I have shared her story with over the years.
One might ask, “How could a gracious, loving God allow such a terrible thing to happen?” In my estimation, we sometimes blame God for things that He is not accountable for having done. Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden brought about human misery and pain. Genesis 3:16-19 says, “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Humankind was created with the freedom of choice, and the ancestors of humanity chose disobedience. In essence, Satan and humankind’s decision to disobey God caused the suffering that happened in the Garden of Eden down to this very day.
When suffering people chose to glorify God, it demonstrates that good things can come from the most horrible sorts of circumstances. The Apostle Paul understood this in regards to his suffering with a “thorn in the flesh.” He says in II Corinthians 12.7-10 “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”
In our suffering, God’s people are drawn closer to Him. When Christians are on their knees praying to the most powerful Creator, they are at their strongest. In the life of Job and God’s faithful, one sees perfect trust and confidence in the face of suffering. Job 13:15-16a says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him: but I will maintain mine own ways before him. He also shall be my salvation…”
Accomplishing good in the face of unmitigated evil circumstances is the ultimate statement of God’s ability to overcome evil. The life of Joseph exemplifies this concept. Even though Joseph’s own flesh and blood committed atrocious evils against him, he understood that God was using him to accomplish a greater good. Joesph says in Genesis 50:19-20, “…Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.”
While the ability to freely choose disobedience led humankind to destruction, the ability to choose God and thereby glorify Him in the face of our torment or tormentors is the ultimate statement of good overcoming evil situations. Conversely, people who use this argument (i.e. evil in the face of a loving and gracious God) to prove that there is not God believe they have provided an argument that cannot be refuted. In reality, they have underscored a way in which many glorify God.
I preached Greg’s funeral in April of 2001. I think about Katie and how she glorified God through her husband’s suffering every time I write or preach on the subject of human pain and suffering the face of a loving and gracious God. Her stories and similar ones bring encouragement and comfort to those who deal with human suffering and pain.
 The names of the people used in this article have been changed to protect their identity.