By Simon Presland
Josephine, 56, reaches out her hand. “Come on TerriAnn. It’s time for your breathing treatment.”
The two walk together with Josephine—or Jo as she’s often called—leading the way and TerriAnn duck waddling down the hall toward her bedroom. TerriAnn has cerebral palsy and brain stem dysfunction caused by premature birth, as well as BPD, a lung disease. Every evening she must go through a breathing regiment with tubes to clear out her lungs.
Twenty minutes later, Jo joins me in the kitchen of her warmly decorated two-bedroom condominium while TerriAnn, 28, is fast asleep. I’ve known Jo for about five years. Medium height and full figured, with light brown eyes that are always smiling, her low key and warm personality endear her to everyone she meets.
A History of Suffering
When I first thought about those in my immediate circle who might have a unique perspective on suffering, Jo came to mind immediately. She was emotionally and physically abused through her teenage years. At age 30 she became 1-year-old TerriAnn’s nanny. When TerriAnn turned 7, Jo became her foster mother, because her parents no longer wanted her. So she set up a home for the two of them and in 2010 Jo finally gained legal custody of TerriAnn. Selflessly, Jo has given up her personal dreams and goals in order to give TerriAnn the quality of life she might not otherwise have had—one full of personal attention and love.
“I don’t talk about my personal life very much,” says Jo, “But I know many people feel I’ve gone through a lot of suffering.” She continues,
However, in comparison to TerriAnn’s life, I’ve really been blessed. First of all, my trials while growing up have brought me to the foot of the cross and the unconditional love of Jesus. The way I view life, all suffering on any level has the ultimate goal of bringing us to Jesus as Savior and deepening our understanding of his love.
Even though TerriAnn cannot speak, she can understand and communicate in her own way. She suffers on a daily basis more than I have my entire life. But she also knows that Jesus loves her, and that I love her, too.
Tribulation and Distress
The Greek word for suffering refers to tribulation, something that causes distress. It can range from everyday minor annoyances to major disasters that come unexpectedly and leave us devastated.
When I became a Christian, I instinctively knew that suffering was the gateway to personal growth. Personal growth is akin to discipleship and becoming Christlike, which is the ultimate goal in our lives as Christians. In all suffering we are brought to the cusp of a decision: we can either live depressed or we can choose to believe God when he said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. So we say with confidence, The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid’ (Hebrews 13:5, 6). I don’t want to minimize the suffering others may be going through, but I truly believe these words from the book of Hebrews and I live by them daily.
Many people think God is the author of suffering. This sentiment is as old as the book of Job. Job suffered without knowing why, yet he never cursed God, nor did he accuse God. He simply didn’t know why he was going through such heartache.
“In most cases, we have no idea why we go through our trials and tribulations,” says Jo.
So we must learn to see God in every facet of life, good and bad. We must allow life to draw us closer to him, to open our hearts to him, to allow him to pour in his love and healing. Life can be tough, but we always have choices. When it comes to suffering, forgiveness and acceptance are the keys to growing in grace.
As a child, I had a neighbor who made up for my mom’s shortcomings. I also had an aunt who loved me for who I was. Even though I went through some horrendous times as a young girl, when I look back, I can see that God was still with me, working through people like these ladies.
Purpose in Suffering
During times of testing or tribulation, we often feel that God is distant or disinterested in our troubles. We allow our emotions to override our trust in God because we live life based on our feelings instead of God’s truth. We are more focused on relieving our suffering than we are on what God wants to do in our lives. The apostle Paul, however, gives us insight into why we sometimes suffer. Speaking to the Corinthian church he writes,
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
The apostle Peter gives us another view.
In all this [our new birth, our inheritance] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6, 7).
“It’s easy to focus on the negative, on the dark side of suffering,” says Jo.
But if we want to have a positive attitude, then we must keep our eyes on the Lord, not on our circumstances and feelings.
I’m not saying we should never feel down; we all go through times of despondency and despair. But if we allow our feelings to dictate our life’s direction, we’ll miss the goodness of God in the midst of our suffering.
Looking to Jesus
Recently, TerriAnn had to be rushed to the hospital. Jo thought she might lose her and was distraught over the thought. But she chose to focus on Christ’s sufficiency during this ordeal. She says,
When I first started reading the Bible, I never understood how the apostle James could tell us to be joyful in our trials. But as I’ve grown in my faith, I’ve learned that joy doesn’t come from the trial, but by focusing on God through the trial. When my eyes are on him, then I can remain peaceful and I remember once again that he is with me.
When TerriAnn was in the hospital, I maintained my prayer focus and an attitude of praise in my heart. If God chose to take her, then I would accept that he knew what was best for her. Thankfully, she is still with me, but I cannot dictate to God or demand that he do what I want him to do. However, I know that God will see me through whatever I am facing and that truth is what brings me joy. I may not know how he will carry me through; I just know he will.
While at the hospital with TerriAnn, Jo was able to share God’s love with others. She gave one lady a Gideon’s Bible (she always has one in her purse); another lady asked her to pray with her; and Jo handed out some bulletins from her church to a couple of families.
Jo reminds us,
God is always reaching out to others. But if we remain caught up in what we are going through, we may miss hearing his voice or what he wants to do through us in the lives of others. Throughout the New Testament we are exhorted to focus on God, not on ourselves. When trials come, we can focus on our suffering or we can look for the blessing. That’s a choice we all make.
Throughout her life with God, Jo has learned that when God says, “I’ll be here for you,” he is true to his word. When our faith is firmly established in him, we can trust that he’s with us and that somehow, he will work all things together for good (Romans 8:28).
Simon Presland is a freelance writer in Clinton Township, Michigan.
Facing Your Own Trials
• What can you learn from Jo and TerriAnn’s story? How can you focus on the positive in negative situations, as they have done?
• Is there someone you know who exemplifies similar faith during suffering? How can you encourage and support that person?
• How do you deal with suffering in your life? How can you find comfort in 2 Corinthians 2:3-6 and 1 Peter 1:6, 7?