Elisabeth Elliot offers the most durable definition for suffering I’ve ever heard:
Suffering is Having What You Don’t Want —
This covers everything from cancer to a flat tire.
Or Wanting What You Don’t Have —
A spouse, a child, a new job.
Life on a fallen planet includes suffering of all types and intensities, and it’s one thing to have a snappy definition for it, but what about a theology of suffering?
- What does God have to do with our pain?
- Are there lessons to be learned or is suffering just a thing to be gotten through so we can continue with the business of life?
- And what about suffering in the life of the believer? It’s clear we’re not offered immunity or exemption from the world’s woes, but search the internet for five minutes and you’ll find teachers who would say otherwise and support their claims with Scripture.
In her long career as an author and speaker, Elisabeth Elliot lingered long on the topic of suffering. Widowed as a young mother, committed to a missionary calling, widowed again in middle age, and then, finally, subjected to the indignity and disappointment of dementia at the end of her life, Elisabeth spoke from experience, but more than that, she spoke from a sinewy faith that God does not abandon us in the midst of our pain.
Published nearly four years after her death, Suffering Is Never for Nothing has been adapted from a six-part series Elisabeth taught and which was recorded on CD at a small conference. Readers familiar with Elliot’s message will recognize her voice in the printed page as she asserts that it has been through “the deepest suffering that God has taught the deepest lessons.” (1) “And let’s never forget,” she continues, “that if we don’t ever want to suffer, we must be very careful never to love anything or anybody.” (9)
“In Acceptance Lieth Peace”
Beginning with lessons drawn from the life of Job, Elisabeth Elliot challenged believers to rejoice in the possibility of presenting our “whys?” to God, and to be ready to receive God’s answer in the form of His presence with us in our misery–the answer we need more than any other we might have sought.
Then, taking her cues from her lifelong mentor, Amy Carmichael who said, “In acceptance lieth peace,” Elisabeth shared that leaning into what she knew about the character of God released her from the notion that when we suffer, we are “adrift in chaos.” (44) By doing the next thing, giving up our notions that we deserve a happy ending, and then saying “yes” to God, we are empowered to take the cup of suffering that God offers, in faith that He knows the end of the story.
While it seems ironic (or even masochistic) to thank God for suffering, that is exactly the advice Elisabeth offers. We do this, trusting the wisdom of the Giver who knows and attends to what we need; and we give thanks because it honors God. During her second husband’s battle with cancer, God gave Elisabeth a testing ground for putting all her theories into practice, challenging her in regard to their shared suffering to:
- Recognize it;
- Accept it;
- Offer it to God as a sacrifice;
- Offer yourself with it.
Deliverance in Suffering
While it makes for a much better story line for someone to be delivered or rescued out of their suffering, the truth is that often God chooses to save His people in or through their trials. The psalmist outlines this miracle:
“He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me; to him who orders his way aright I will show the salvation of God!” (Psalm 50:23 RSV)
Suffering sets the table for salvation.
Receiving the gift of suffering is the first step. Offering it back to God is the next step, and it’s an act of total obedience–the highest form of worship. Loneliness, sorrow, loss, or weakness of any kind can be offered back to God like a bouquet of smashed dandelions in the clenched fist of a tiny two year old. “It means everything in the world because love transforms it.” (83)
The paradox of suffering linked to glory is a theme that runs through Elisabeth’s writing and teaching because it runs through Scripture. “The wilderness into pasture. Deserts into springs. Perishable into imperishable. Weakness into power. Humiliation into glory. Poverty into riches. Mortality into immortality.” (104)
A biblical theology of suffering finds God there in the midst of the pain, always present, always active, as He makes beauty from ashes, because our suffering is never for nothing.
Many thanks to B&H Books for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Thankful for a God who meets us in the midst of our pain,
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47 thoughts on “Knowing God in the Midst of Our Pain”
Michele, what a wonderful review of this powerful book, love this quote, “A biblical theology of suffering finds God there in the midst of the pain, always present, always active, as He makes beauty from ashes, because our suffering is never for nothing.”
I also find great encouragement from the poem, “Do The Next Thing,” from which Elisabeth Elliot’s maxim originates:
Do The Next Thing
From an old English parsonage, down by the sea
There came in the twilight a message to me;
Its quaint Saxon legend, deeply engraven,
Hath, as it seems to me, teaching from Heaven.
And on through the hours the quiet words ring
Like a low inspiration—”DO THE NEXT THING.”
Many a question, many of fear,
Many a doubt, hath its quieting here.
Moment by moment, let down from Heaven,
Time, opportunity, guidance, are given.
Fear not tomorrows, Child of the King,
Trust them with Jesus, “DO THE NEXT THING.”
Do it immediately; do it with prayer;
Do it reliantly, casting all care;
Do it with reverence, tracing His Hand,
Who placed it before thee with earnest command.
Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing,
Leave all resultings, “DO THE NEXT THING.”
Looking to Jesus, ever serener,
(Working or suffering) be thy demeanor,
In His dear presence, the rest of His calm,
The light of His countenance be thy psalm,
Strong in His faithfulness, praise and sing,
Then, as He beckons thee, “DO THE NEXT THING.”
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I love that poem, and the message from it has been with me through most of my mothering years. Elisabeth is an inspiration in so many ways, but, for me, I think her incredible self-discipline was the most inspiring.
Elisabeth Elliot and my mom used to write one another – EE’s address was in my mom’s addy book and I actually dropped her a note when Mum went to heaven. I believe her husband’s name was Lars. Not too many years after, Elisabeth entered the gates and I do believe they enjoy tea on their porches overlooking the Crystal Sea. When Jim Elliot and team were killed in the early 50’s I was a child but I remember because at Chapel we mourned and rejoiced at the same time – I believe Jim and Elisabeth were part of the Pilgrim Brethren Assembly as we were. A lot of personal history between Mum and EE. I just ordered the book for a friend. xo
Wow, that’s such a great story and connection. I think you are right about the PBA connection, and I’m sure your friend will be blessed by Elisabeth’s thoughts.
This is so tough to swallow for me. I would love to say that I easily accept that God may no indeed deliver me “from” but deliver me “in.” I’m learning to lean in and understand from God’s perspective, but I’m not quite there yet. He’s still working on me.
OH, this is why I need to read books like this one. Deep down, I cherish all kinds of prosperity gospel teaching. I want my kids to make every team and ace every audition. I want our cars to run for 200K miles without a breakdown, and I want to be healthy, wealthy and wise. When my reality doesn’t fit my wants, I go through a wrestling match with God over it, and slowly I’m learning to accept His good plans–even when they don’t look very good to me.
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God does not promise us a life free from suffering, but He does promise to be with us through everything life throws at us.
‘a sinewy faith’
yes, yes. That’s what I’m aiming for. And oh there’s so much truth in the reality that ‘in acceptance lieth peace.’
for sure …
Isn’t that a great statement?
And it does my heart good to know that Elisabeth was looking toward another seasoned mentor in the faith to strengthen her own resolve!
What a blessing Jim and Elisabeth Elliot were to the community of believers! I find her definition of suffering to be spot on.
I think it all boils down to Romans 8:28. Do we trust Him to bring good out of our situation, or not?
Oh, so true, Jerralea. Whether I like it or not, suffering is part of our trajectory on this planet, and God folds EVERYTHING into his plan for our good. At the very least, when things don’t go right in this world, it heightens our longing for the next.
So, so beautiful. I am in the final pages of “Devotedly” and you were so right–I don’t want it to end. There are such nuggets of the early shaping of Elisabeth’s views on suffering and waiting on God. It is so beautiful to read here the words that she had found to be so true throughout all of her life. May I learn more of the blessedness of offering everything up to God. My 2 year old Granddaughter pulled out my copy of Amy’s “Toward Jerusalem,” and it was such a blessing to re-read her words also:
“O Thou Who art my quietness, my deep repose,
My rest from strife of tongues, my holy hill….”
Thank you, Michele, for the beautiful sharing you offer here.
That young woman who was being formed in the time period of Devotedly comes shining through with beautiful grace in the words of the older woman who inspired this latest book.
Amy Carmichael was a soldier and her prayer/poems certainly reflect that!
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Wish I could just buy her entire library of books!
She’s written so many good things!
I’ve heard so many of these bits and pieces through her newsletters and other books and an email devotional of hers that Back to the Bible used to send out. How great to have it all in one volume. I’m putting this on my wish list.
Yes! I saved all my copies of that newsletter, and I keep meaning to sit down and re-read the whole collection.
Thank you, Michelle, for sharing this book with us. It sounds like another one for my wish list. Suffering is a common topic because we all have to experience it at some point in our lives. It’s how we act, or react, to it that matters and that will help us through it as we surrender it, or simply make life more miserable if we fight it. It takes a lifetime of learning and making mistakes in and through our suffering that brings us into a place of obedience and surrender. God bless.
Yes, and so often it seems as if the church is reluctant to address the reality of suffering because we don’t know how to “explain” it. We cave to the cultural notion that our lives are supposed to be rosy all the time or “something’s wrong” with the way we’re doing things.
I find this in my own heart and mind all the time and continually need Scripture’s reset button.
This looks like an amazing book.
I love EE!
She has had such a great influence on so many! What an amazing life!
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It sounds like a very interesting book, and it’s always good to remember that our suffering is not Gods fault.
Excellent point! We get into real trouble when we start the blame game.
I got to see Elizabeth Elliott at one of her last speaking engagements. It was an incredible experience! I love reading anything she has written. Its challenging, but grace filled as well!
Oh, that’s incredible. She was such a wise and articulate woman.
Oh yes, Michele … a biblical theology of suffering opens the door to peace like nothing else. I LOVE the title of this book … and I’m sure would soak up the contents too.
Yes, you would. And I know that your mind and heart are greatly impacted by what you know to be true about God.
Great review! Elizabeth’s book made a sweet surprise landing on my porch and I cannot wait to read it!
That’s amazing! What a great surprise!
I, too, have the utmost respect and admiration for Elizabeth Elliot and the other wives of the five martyred missionaries. They did indeed allow God to turn their suffering into glory, and hundreds (thousands?) of young people dedicated themselves to serving God in honor of those missionaries. As a young girl I read Elizabeth’s book, Through Gates of Splendor, not knowing that less than ten years later, I would go to HCJB in Quito, Ecuador as a short-term missionary. I remember sitting in a living room with Rachel Saint, sister of Nate, listening to her jungle tales and being filled with wonder!
What an amazing experience. Don’t you feel as if we are privileged to have been born during the time in history that allowed us to know, at least a bit, some of those pioneer missionaries?
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Look like a great book!! Thanks for sharing and thanks for stopping by!!
Blessings to you, Debbie!
Wise words & good review thanks!! In everything give thanks!!
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I did not know about this book! Wow, so cool that it was edited after her death. I’m thinking now of how Emily Freeman shared that she remembers Mrs. Elliot ending her radio show by saying, “You are loved by God, and underneath you are His everlasting arms.” (My paraphrase.)
Oh, yes! That was the soundtrack of my early mothering years. EE was a huge influence in her day, and now her wisdom is being made available to another generation.
Thank you for sharing at #ThursdayFavoriteThings. Pinned and shared.
Blessings to you!
Beautiful refreshing! Bless you, Michele, for sharing! “God does not abandon us in the midst of our pain” – No! He does not!
Great to hear from you! Thanks for reading!
Once again, Michele, you’ve done a beautiful job of sharing the heart of a book. So many people have misdirected ideas about suffering; thanks for offering this much-needed reminder of God’s goodness and presence.
Thanks so much for joining the Grace at Home party at Imparting Grace. I’m featuring you this week!
Thanks, Richella! You never fail to encourage me.
That is quite an insightful definition of suffering by Elisabeth Elliot. Wow. It can apply to so many areas of our suffering. I’ll watch for this book. Thanks, Michele!
I never fail to be inspired by Elisabeth Elliot, and even just the few things you shared in this post have done that for me tonight! Thanks for sharing this at Booknificent Thursday at Mommynificent.com this month!
I still miss her voice. Very thankful that her wisdom has been preserved in written form.