A few years ago, I went through a period of physical affliction. I was not prepared for how that season would confront my pride by arousing an unfamiliar anger.
Anger in affliction is not uncommon, and not all of it is sinful. The limitations suffering imposes can righteously provoke the spirit God gave us. We know things were not meant to be this way; we feel it in our bones. We should feel offended by evil. But those afflictions also offend the sinful ego, and it lashes out. The proud person protests the apparent indignity of weakness. At least that’s what I did.
Suffering affects the whole person, though only certain parts of it are apparent to other people. The physical aspects of recovery can be measured — bones fuse, scars heal, fevers leave. But our spiritual, mental, relational, and emotional rehabilitation is often much harder to observe. These are areas where many who suffer tend to get lost.
Lost in Sufferings Loss
During my recovery, I read Wendell Berry’s short novel Remembering. As it often goes with good art, Berry’s story helped me see my own. The lead character, Andy Catlett, loses his right hand in a farming accident. Berry writes,
His right hand had been the one he reached out to the world and attached himself to it. When he lost his hand he lost his hold. It was as though his hand still clutched all that was dear to him — and was gone. All the world then became to him a steep slope, and he a man descending, staggering and falling, unable to reach out to tree trunk or branch or root to catch and hold on.
Catlett’s loss greatly complicated his life, and he became an angry man. He couldn’t dress himself without concentrating on the task. He couldn’t even write his own name without it looking like a child’s scrawl. He felt that his alien left hand knew it displeased him, which it did, and the two lived in conflict. He directed his frustrations most acutely at the people closest to him — in particular, his wife and children, whose presence reminded him of who he used to be.
Several months after his injury, Andy’s wife, who absorbed many of his angry words, told him that she and the children prayed every day he would become well again. But, she said, if he wanted to become well, one thing he must do is ask for her forgiveness for the way he treated her. How could he expect to live at peace and adjust to his new situation if every day he took out his anger on those who were trying to love him the most?
The rest of the story is the journey from his initial flash of anger that she would dare say such a thing, after all he had been through, to the realization that she was fighting for his heart with the truth.
Heart Disease Revealed Heart Disease
My affliction came upon me suddenly. A blood test from a doctor visit, due to what I thought was just a stubborn virus, landed me in the emergency room. I was in the early stages of heart failure and required urgent open-heart surgery.
It would be months before I would return to what resembled a normal life. A lot of the life I knew before I went into the hospital was either lost or changed once I re-emerged. I was not prepared for any of that. Who is? I found myself relating to Catlett, trying to adjust to a world that changed without warning. His story was mine. Maybe it is yours too.
God uses the fertile soil of suffering to produce spiritual growth and fruit. The apostle Paul said it this way:
We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3–5)
Don’t misunderstand, I will never make peace with suffering. We live in a broken world. Our afflictions are not merely some divine gimmick designed to teach us important life lessons and help us become better people. That would make too little of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But God does work all things together for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). And one way he does this is by using our suffering to show us truths we would not have seen otherwise and to bring up from the depths things we did not know were there.
In my suffering, I saw anger rise up — a defiant protest against my weakened state. Part of this protest came from my sinful ego. Like Andy Catlett, on my worst days, I would direct my anger at those who loved me most. I was suddenly disconnected from the life I knew and, like a lion whose mane had been shaved, I was looking for ways to make myself appear bigger. Ego demands that I stand alone as the hero of my own story. Heroes are strong. Heroes are needed, not needy.
But part this of protest came from my God-given spirit. On my better days, I would try to pay attention to my anger so I could understand what was behind it. On those days, I would wait for the fury to subside and then examine it. When I did this, here is what I saw: my heart rose to object that this was not how things were meant to be.
Growing in Character, Groaning in Hope
My ego was deeply offended by my affliction. But my spirit was too. This part of my anger was anchored in something true. It was a protest against suffering. It was a groan for life as God meant it — free from pain. It was an ache for the end of affliction and death. This is the hope of those who are in Christ.
The day will come when sorrow and death will be no more. Until that day, we will struggle with the limits of living in this broken world. And we will suffer. But our Lord uses our suffering to produce endurance, which produces character, which produces a hope that will not disappoint.
And part of this character is produced when God uses our seasons of affliction to dredge the floor of the heart to bring to the surface pride, which we would never confront and may not even see if we did not suffer.
This is his merciful continuing work in me. Perhaps you see him working this way in your life too. The Lord gives and he takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21).
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