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Lessons Learned in Suffering (Fred Zaspel)

Many times during the years of our daughter’s suffering we were asked what lessons we have learned from it all. It was usually somewhat an awkward moment for me because I have to say that in the heat of it all we didn’t generally think in those terms. We turned to the Lord for strength in many ways, but sitting back in reflection to spell out what we learned just was not part of our regular routine. For this and several other reasons, when asked to speak on the subject of “lessons we’ve learned,” I always declined.

But there are lessons that have stood out. For example, considering the “big picture” beyond our own situation we have recognized more keenly the awfulness of suffering on the part of fallen humanity generally. And with that has come on the one hand a heightened sense of hope, an attending awareness of the brevity of life, a deeper appreciation for Christ and his saving work, and an increased longing to see and be with him. And on the other hand we have sensed a growing compassion and empathy for others who suffer and a deepening sense of the urgency of gospel ministry. And we have learned the value of friends and mutual encouragement, and so much more. But for now I will highlight just two lessons that most stand out in our minds.

First, we have learned the importance of a gospel upbringing. I remind parents now regularly, “Bring up your children for Christ. It really is everything.”

I have often counseled that to gain a right perspective on life and on what is important we should try to view life from the standpoint of the grave and of eternity, to see life from a larger point of view. I feel this counsel now not only in reference to myself but in reference to my children also. We must think in big picture so that we are careful to focus on things most important.

I do not claim to be the model Christian parent, and often the wonderful parenting I have seen in others has made me see how I should have done better, and I regret my failures deeply. But for whatever inconsistencies there have been, concern for the eternal well-being of our children has always been uppermost for my wife and me, and all parenting revolved around it. God gave us two children, and from their earliest days they have heard of Jesus Christ the Lord from heaven, the only Redeemer. They have heard, from before they could understand words, of his glory and of his death for sinners. Above all else we wanted our children to be right with God. Now that we have seen them grow to adulthood, we are grateful more than we can say that they both rest in a righteousness not their own but in a righteousness made theirs in Christ. And since Gina’s passing what gives us greatest joy is the knowledge that she is with Christ today, rejoicing in his presence. We are happy that her long suffering here is over, but it is our joy that she is safe in Christ.

Of course we recognize very keenly our utter dependence on God’s grace in these things. Only God can open the heart and bring us to faith. And yet we also recognize that God uses means to accomplish his decreed purpose and that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. And we recognize today more deeply than ever the singular urgent importance of bringing up our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord — for God’s glory and for our children’s unending good.

I’m sure I will never forget that August evening when Gina was about 14, when after hearing a gospel sermon in a little country chapel in rural Canada, she came almost running to me as I was leaving and said, with such urgency — “Daddy, I need to talk to you.” We went out alongside that old wood-frame little meeting house, and with a heart deeply torn open she came running to Christ. I’m sure I will never forget how God had broken her and how he drew her so obviously to Christ in humble faith. And I’m sure we could never forget the next 15 years of her glorying in the gospel, finding in the midst of such awful suffering her only encouragement in daily fervent reminders of Christ. God had made her his, and it was evident.

I have tried to make it a regular part of my worship of God to thank him for saving my children. In the wake of our daughter’s death that now comes all the more quickly and all the more easily.

So let me say it again — Parents, bring up your children for Christ. It really is everything.

Second, perhaps more than anything else, we have learned the indispensable value of revealed truth. The deep suffering of a loved one can shake your whole world, and the many years of Gina’s struggles culminating in her death brought pain we could never have imagined. And yet in it all we have never had to struggle on the deepest levels.

I recall many years ago it occurred to me that it is part of the pastor’s responsibilities, inevitable as suffering is, to prepare God’s people for it. I said this to our congregation as part of my introduction to a rather full series of sermons on the subject. In these sermons I tried to cover the major bases — a healthy understanding of the book of Job, subjects such as suffering and the sovereignty of God, suffering and the wisdom of God, suffering and the goodness of God, suffering and the justice of God, and so on. And I remember distinctly one day in my study thinking, “I have had a pretty charmed life; I wonder when I will need this stuff.” We speak from experience now in affirming that it is divine truth revealed in Scripture that anchors the soul.

“Truth” has fallen on hard post-modern times, of course, but it strikes me that in times of suffering we all still desperately want it. What we want and what we need is a truth so massive that nothing can shake it, some grand “meta-narrative” that encompasses all of life and eternity and makes sense of it all. This of course is what Christianity boasts. It begins with the declaration that God has spoken, and it is the distinguishing blessing of the Christian to know and have heart and life shaped by his Word. As my wife recently remarked as we were reviewing various aspects of Christian teaching together — “And some people say doctrine is not practical!”

I am happy for people to remind us, in our suffering, of “the encouragement only God can give.” Yes — yes and amen! But we have learned that this encouragement that God gives is not merely a mystical or non-cognitive “experience.” The encouragement God gives is specifically a gospel-informed encouragement, an encouragement grounded in and shaped by revealed truth. Revealed truth is the “stuff” the Spirit of God uses to strengthen our mind and heart so that we are prepared to stand in the evil day.

That is to say, the joy we have is not a mere positive feeling — it is a gospel-informed joy, a joy shaped by truth we have embraced. And we do not have hope, merely — we have a hope that is well-grounded. Thank God for revealed truth.

Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary  and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.

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