Knowing God in the Midst of Our Pain

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:

  1. Recognize it;
  2. Accept it;
  3. Offer it to God as a sacrifice;
  4. 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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I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Suffering Is Never for Nothing, simply click on the title here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a very small commission at no extra cost to you.

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Jim and Elisabeth Elliot: A Deep and Delighted Love

He said:  “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.”

She said:  “The deepest lessons come out the deepest waters and the hottest fires.”

And all the world still takes note, for Jim Elliot was a courageous missionary pioneer and martyr. Elisabeth Elliot was a superior writer and a sought after Bible teacher. Both are remembered as spiritual giants.

He also said:  “I didn’t know I would get this way, Betty, but I am lost, utterly lost without you. I love you, my darling, and sometimes just have to stop where I am and heave a sigh.”

She also said:  “I love you madly, and think their just isn’t anyone else to compare. Are you sure you’re not perfect? I think you must be mistaken, because I just love everything about you.”

But of course these words were private, addressed to each other, and sent by mail from separate South American mission outposts in the days leading up to their wedding. Valerie Elliot Shepard has combed through her parents’ letters and journals and the resulting treasure is Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. While the story of their courtship has been told in Elisabeth’s classic Passion and Purity, it is now possible for readers to trace the unfolding romance from love’s first stirring at Wheaton College in the late 1940’s all the way through the birth of their daughter Valerie.

A Persevering Love

When Jim and Elisabeth (“Betty”) landed in classical Greek classes together, the love that grew between them surprised them both. She was serious and studious; he was a visible presence on campus (and something of a character) who was quite vocal about his intentions to embark upon a career as a single missionary.  Nonetheless, through crisscrossing postmarks and star-crossed years of separation by circumstances and geography, their love persevered and survived five long years of waiting for a green light from God. Journal entries and letters document a growing devotion to each other alongside an expanding desire to follow unswervingly the will of God, even if it meant giving up all hope for a future together.

Listen in:

From Elisabeth’s journal (116):

“Oh, the joy which has come in knowing that I am one with Christ . . . oh, the marvelous, unspeakable interchange of joy–He my joy, I His joy–He my satisfaction, I His satisfaction. For I am accepted in the Beloved. . . I am In Christ–may He be seen in me.”

And from Jim’s journal (31):

“Prayed a strange prayer today. I covenanted with my Father that He would do either of two things–either glorify Himself to the utmost in me, or slay me. By His grace I shall not have His second best. . .”

A Persevering Faithfulness

Just as young adults in 2019 cannot conceive of a relationship conducted entirely by snail mail, it is also likely that few can visualize a love in which each seeks his greatest satisfaction not in the beloved, but in the Savior. Because they allowed their vision to be shaped by Truth, Jim and Elisabeth were able to maintain an astonishing degree of clarity about their callings while still acknowledging the depth of their longing for one another. When the Bible says, “In Your light we see light,” this is not a promise of an uncluttered and pain free life, but rather an assurance that while “faith does not eliminate questions, faith knows where to take them.”

Valerie Shepard’s stated purpose in unpacking and sharing this trunk full of written memories left to her by her mother is that readers would discover anew God’s “unchanging, faithful, merciful, and loving character,” and be “fully moved in obedience to Him that we too might leave a lasting legacy of faith as [her] parents did.” (45) With mid-twentieth-century black-and-white pictures, images lifted from the handwritten letters, and a vintage feel to the book’s layout, Devotedly was a delight to read and to savor.

Readers can expect to be challenged by the laser focus of two young adults who took seriously their role as disciples–as followers of “Him who bore a cross.” As a mother and a grandmother, I want to let my prayer life be shaped by the knowledge that my most-loved people will not be exempt from disappointment, delay, or even confusion at times, for perseverance through difficulty is often the tool God uses in the shaping of a deeper devotion and a more faithful following.


Many thanks to B&H Publishers for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

“You are loved with an everlasting love. That’s what the Bible says. And underneath are the everlasting arms,”

michele signature[1]


P.S. I recently read and reviewed the book Elisabeth wrote about her days of waiting and wondering, while adjusting to life as a single missionary. Made for the Journey: One Missionary’s First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador is a beautiful account of radical obedience in a context of wondering what God might be up to.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Devotedly: The Personal Letters and Love Story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

Photo by Herrmann Stamm on Unsplash

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.