Ep. 070: How God Meets Us in Suffering
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One of the few topics in life that is always relevant is suffering. The fact is, suffering will continue until the day Jesus returns to earth. Because suffering is always nearby, we constantly need to be talking about it. Why? Because it’s in suffering that one of two things can happen. We either let the enemy and our own flesh bring us down, or we recognize God in the midst of it and grow closer to Him. This week on indoubt we chat with author Vaneetha Rendall Risner. She helps us understand how God works in our lives when it comes to suffering. Her own story is full of pain and hurt that you might relate to, yet it’s the suffering in her life that draws her closer to God.
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Vaneetha Rendall Risner. She’s recently authored a book called The Scars that Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering. Thanks for talking with me on the show today Vaneetha.
It’s great to be here.
I really want to give some time for you to just share your story. So why don’t we just do that – get right into it, and then we’re going to dig into some more specific questions. Tell us your testimony.
Okay. Well, I guess I’ll start from the beginning with my testimony, because it’s relevant from the very beginning. I was born in India to Christian parents, and when I was three months old I got polio. Now, polio had been practically eradicated by the time I got it, so the doctors had no idea what I had. I had a 105-degree fever – my parents took me to the hospital, and the doctors thought I actually had typhoid. So they gave me cortisone which lowers the body’s immune system but it also lets polio kind of go rampant.
It took down my fever, but by the end of it I was completely paralyzed.
I had had polio in just one leg, really not a severe case, but within 24 hours I was a quadriplegic. And then the doctors said “Oh my gosh, she had polio, but we didn’t know that.” And they said, “There’s nothing we can do.” So they told my parents that I should probably leave India if I had any chance of any kind of life. My dad, who was a professor in a university in India took a manual job in London installing telephones just so I could get good medical care.
I had my first surgery in England, and then we moved to Canada which is where I lived for the next 8 years. And I had, probably, nineteen operations in Canada. I lived in Montreal and was at the Shriner’s Hospital for a lot of it, which is a free hospital – because my parents really didn’t have a lot of money. At the time, that hospital was – you had to stay there and your parents couldn’t come stay with you. So my parents would just come see me on weekends. And I was there for months at a time.
How old were you at this time?
It started when I was three, and all the way up to when I was ten. When I was seven, I was actually in the hospital for a year straight, or nine months straight, in a body cast, flat on my back. At the time, I really didn’t think about how hard it was, but after I got out of the hospital, even when I was seven, I started dealing with a lot of bullying. It kind of surprised me, because I had lived in the hospital, watched TV, you know, that wasn’t on TV, and I just didn’t even know what to do with that. And so, my parents are believers,
but I just turned my back on God at a very young age.
because I thought, you know, my life isn’t like everybody else’s, and I really didn’t want to tell my parents what was going on. I was too embarrassed. It felt really weird to tell them, so I never did. I didn’t tell anybody.
Kids would make fun of me. When I was seven these boys who I didn’t know threw stones at me and they called me a cripple. I just remember thinking, “I want nothing to do with this God. If people tell me there’s a God, I want nothing to do with it.” But I really didn’t believe there was one.
So then I kind of went along that way, and then when I was in high school I got involved in FCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It’s pretty ironic because I was not a Christian or an athlete, so I don’t know what I was doing there. But all the cute guys in my high school went to FCA so that was the place to go. That’s why I went. My friend and I would sit in the back and we would talk about boys. We wanted nothing to do with God.
But she went away on a retreat, I guess they convinced her to go, and she came back and she said to me, “God is real.” And I remember just thinking, “Oh no, you are not going to want to sit in the back and talk about boys, you’re going to want to talk about God and I have no desire to do that.”
We started having a series of conversations, because she’d always want to talk to me about it. And I remember going home one night and just praying – “God, if you are real, show me.”
I got up the next day and I remember thinking, “Okay, well, maybe I should open the Bible, because maybe that’s what I do if I’ve asked God this question.”
Now I didn’t expect anything to really happen, but I kind of flipped open the Bible and I read Leviticus. And I thought, “You know, this is exactly what the Bible is about, it’s about ‘Don’t boil a cat in its mother’s milk,’ you know, I don’t know what this means. This is not relevant to me.” And then, you know, I just said to God, “Why? Why did this happen? Show me why this happened.” I said this in a very arrogant way, but I flipped open the Bible again to John 9 and I started reading. And it says that as the disciples were going along they saw a man blind from birth, and they asked Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents that he was born blind?” and Jesus said, “It is not that this man sinned or his parents that he was born blind, but that the works of God might be made manifest in his life.” And I remember just reading that thinking, “Oh my gosh, God is answering me.”
Like, here I was, arrogantly asking God “Why?” and He’s answering me.
It was a moment I will never forget. God really came off of the pages of the Scriptures, and He was right there with me – answering me. And I remember, I just got down on the side of my bed and I committed my life to God who I really didn’t even know, but I knew He knew me. I was sixteen at the time.
How does your journey play out from that point on? From conversion into greater spiritual maturity?
Well, I gave my life and kept maturing, but I wouldn’t say there was a period where I really walked away or fell away from faith, but I would say that the next ten years of my life were the most fun and the most fruitless. I went to college and was really involved with a Christian fellowship, but after that I started working. I had a great job. I lived in Boston.
Career and work and success became a lot of my life.
And you know, I was involved in Church, but I felt like I was kind of going through the motions at times. I had a devotional life, but God wasn’t the center of my life. That happened for quite a few years. I went to grad school, you know, career was everything. I got married – married a classmate from grad school.
And it was when I was twenty weeks pregnant with our unborn child, a son that we were going to have, that I found out that he was going to have a heart problem. And that sort of changed my world. I remember saying to God, “Doesn’t everybody just have one big problem?” Like, that was my theology. You know, everybody has the one big thing. I remember thinking, “I am so glad I got over my one big thing when I was young.” I still deal with polio, but I thought, “The rest of life was going to be great.” And everybody else doesn’t know when the shoe is going to fall.
I didn’t expect that at all – that I would have a son with a heart problem.
So we started doing a lot of research when we found out I was pregnant with him, what to do. We needed to have his surgery as soon as he was born for him to even be able to live. And he did that, and the surgery went really well. But seven weeks after his surgery we went in to see a doctor, just to get his prescriptions refilled and for a check up with a doctor that was not very familiar with his condition – he was a substitute doctor. And he said that we didn’t need any more, that he was doing great. He didn’t refill the prescriptions. And it ended up that he died because he really did need those prescriptions and that medicine.
And that was really pretty shattering for me. It was a time when I feel like, in some ways, right after he died I was very strong in my faith. I mean, in terms of, three days after we got up and talked at his funeral. But, you know, weeks after that I felt empty and just like, “God, I begged You not to take our son.” When we realized something was wrong, you know, I was begging God, “Please, please don’t do that.” And it felt like I really pulled away from Him because I thought, “I trusted You, and You did this?”
And it was really in this, finally surrendering to God and saying, “I want You to draw near to me because I can’t do this without You.” And just sensing God’s presence. Just filled me, and kind of overwhelmed me. I realized, “Okay, I want to walk with this God.”
After I lost my son, I can still have joy and see that knowing God is actually better than anything.
It seems kind of wild to even say that. It was a few months after our son died, but it was a pivotal moment for me. I would say that after that moment, I haven’t really wavered as much because there was this tangible, the worst thing I could have imagined happened, and God was there. So there was this love for God that I feel like I didn’t even have before.
You know, take us through that. Because you started saying that you had this feeling of begging God. And that does come from a wrong theology of our relationship with God and what God is for us and does to us. You even say that everyone has one big thing, you know? And that was your thinking, but then obviously through this tragic moment, within a few months you were able to come to this place where just knowing God is your ultimate joy and treasure. And that’s it. But, take us through that. Help us gain a better theology in a sense, of that. Going from begging God to then being content with just knowing God.
Yeah. A lot of it is, begging God because I thought I knew what was best for me and that, you know, I think I had a theology of bargaining with God. Like, “You do this for me, I’ll do this for You,” when it was all about, you know, “I’m going to go to Bible Study and do all those things and You kind of owe me.” And really seeing that
life with God is the gift. It’s not the things He gives us, it’s not even family, it’s not even any of those things. But it’s actually being with Him that’s the gift. And He’s not going to take that away.
That understanding has evolved. I mean, I’ve been through other suffering. I went through a really hard divorce when my husband left for someone else, and I really kept thinking, “This can’t be part of God’s plan for me,” I mean just really felt like, “If somebody sins against you, if there’s sin involved,” you know, “That’s – God can’t be in that.” And yet you look at Job and He is. Other people’s sin does become part of what God wants for you.
And ultimately what God wants is for you to know Him and be with Him.
And you see that even in Job. I feel like God, through my life, has been showing me each time something really hard happens and all I can do is beg God for it not to happen, I mean, I still do it every single time so it’s not like I’m this great spiritual person, but every time something hard is in front of me, my first thing is, “God, please no. No, no, no. I can’t do it. Don’t let me. Don’t make me.” But then, on the other side, in time times when God says, “No, you are going to go through this,” the joy that God gives me is like,
“Oh my gosh, God You do save good gifts for Your children. They just don’t look like what we think they’re going to look like.”
I remember being at a conference once and I was kind of stunned when everybody was going around asking “What was the greatest gift you’ve been given?” And somehow I thought of something else. The first words out of my mouth were, “The greatest gift was suffering.” And I surprised myself. And I kind of took them back, because they were talking about presents parents had given them, etc. Just as I was talking I wasn’t really even thinking about it, and I just thought that it is the greatest gift because it has boosted my faith. It’s shown me so much truth about God and yet it’s never been the gift I’ve wanted. I’ve always wanted to give it back.
I remember recently reading a sermon by Charles Spurgeon called “The Immutability of God,” and he has this illustration in there where – he’s talking about the promises of God and relying on God’s promises, and there’s this illustration of (this sermon was written in the 1800s where there was still slavery) a master who asked his slave, “Why are you always so content in the Lord, and I am always so anxious and worried?”
And the slave said, “Why master, you merely stand on the promises of God and you really have little to do with it. Whereas I lie prostrate on the promises of God.”
And that’s always stuck with me because it’s true, Vaneetha, when you say that about suffering, because, like James says, “Count it joy when you face trials of various kinds because that produces steadfastness.”
Every time a trial hits us, we are asked the question, “Do you have faith in God’s promises and God’s character?” And the more we’re acquainted with God’s promises and God’s character, I mean, we’re close to Him. I think that’s great.
Now when we talk about the question or the issue of suffering, we don’t always bring up forgiveness. Sometimes when you bring up forgiveness in regards to suffering, you might think, “What does that have to do with it?” But, how does forgiveness play a role in our suffering? And what did that look like in your life as well?
I think forgiveness plays a gigantic role in suffering. And I think because we live in a fallen world, and a lot of our suffering is because people have wronged us.
And I think forgiveness is what changes us through suffering.
I think, people suffer and it doesn’t always make them better, often it makes them bitter. And I think that a big part of the difference is forgiveness. When you hold onto the things people have done to you whether or not they were completely undeserved, I mean, I think we always think they’re completely undeserved, I think we can’t let God’s love and His presence – I don’t feel like they’re there in the same way.
I know I did a focus group for somebody once, and we were talking about forgiveness, and I could have divided the room up just by people’s faces and their joy and how they talked about what they thought about forgiveness. Because, half the people said that they didn’t think that forgiveness was that important, and there was pain and anguish all over their face.
And the other half said “Yeah,” and they had forgiven some pretty horrific things. And there was joy and freedom and I mean, you didn’t even have to ask. I could have just picked them out for you.
Forgiveness in my own life has been probably the single most important thing, besides coming to Jesus, in terms of changing me. So I’m pretty passionate about that because I think letting go and giving it to God and not feeling like we need revenge, there’s something really amazing that God does in that. I think part of it is even, you know, I’ve been writing a little bit on that – the idea of forgetting. Because some people say that we can forgive but we can never forget. But I think that God calls us to forget.
Not forgetting in a way that we can never remember, but I think about Joseph when he named his first son after all his suffering (his brothers sold him, and Potiphar put him in jail, etc.), and then he said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house.” And he didn’t forget, but he wasn’t going to rehearse it. He wasn’t going to let it make him become bitter because he had given it to God. So he could see his brothers and he could love them and in the end say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”
I think that’s true for all of our suffering. I mean, people do mean it for evil. Satan is our enemy; he means it for evil. But God means it for good. And if we can see that and forgive, there’s so much God can do in our lives.
You know, it’s so cool to hear that. Obviously when Christians hear you say that, the Spirit inside them resonates with that because they know that’s right, but, even when you look at everyone else in the world, there’s something about forgiveness that’s attractive. There’s something, because the law of God is written on our hearts, that just seems right.
I remember on the news, back during the horrific event that I think was in South or North Carolina, you might tell me where the young guy went in and shot and killed some people in a church down there. And I remember one of the relatives on the news forgiving him. And it was shocking for people to hear this. And it was just powerful, even for people who aren’t Christian or anything like that, something is beautiful there that can’t really be explained.
Forgiveness is powerful, thank you for sharing that.
It is. I remember somebody once say to me, “We are never more like Christ when we are willing to suffer for the sins of others.” That’s what forgiveness is, really, it’s being willing to suffer for the sins of others and not make them pay.
I want to finish with this Vaneetha as we wrap up. You emphasize the fact that God walks with us in our suffering. The subtitle of your book is “How God Meets Us in Our Suffering.” I don’t think we’ll have a lot of time to go into what all the Bible has to say, but, how does this work out in practical situations?
For people right now who are listening and they’re suffering right now, and they’re hearing your story and they’re like, “Oh, I wish I could be like that!” What could you tell them? How does this work in real, every day life?
I think walking with God is really just wanting to be with Him.
I mean, the Bible talks a lot about us walking with God. You know, you look at Psalm 23 which is probably the most well known psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” I think knowing that whatever we talk through, we don’t walk alone, is incredible.
I mean that is the joy of the gospel – it’s that God is with us and He’s never going to leave us.
That to me, if God didn’t walk with me through my suffering, I don’t think I could handle it. I mean if God was kind of up in heaven saying “Suffer for my glory, but I’m not in this with you,” I wouldn’t know what to do. Because that’s the blessing that we get in suffering – it’s that God is walking with us.
The interesting thing is, I’ve been kind of reading about Mary Magdalene, just at the tomb, and how at first she didn’t recognize Jesus. And so she didn’t have the comfort – God hadn’t opened her eyes. And then all of a sudden she knows it’s Him and she’s flooded with this overwhelming comfort.
So God is with us as believers all the time, but sometimes we need to ask Him to open our eyes to show us that He’s there, that He’s walking with us.
Because that’s when we really get the comfort. We sometimes pray, “God, be with them.” Well, God’s with them if they’re believers. But what we’re really praying is, “God, help them know that You’re with them. Help them to sense it.” And I think that that’s the joy of walking with God, it’s sensing, knowing, and feeling that God is there – that’s what makes the difference.
I think you would say that the two most powerful ways that you can grow in recognizing that is obviously hearing Him in His Word, and praying as well.
Yes, I mean, it’s funny, that’s what I always tell people. They’re like, “Well how do I get to know God better?” And you know, they want to go to a retreat or they want to go all these things, and I’m like, “Really, reading the Bible and praying. That’s it. That is the Christian life.” You know, there’s community, and all those things are important, but how do you get to know God?
How do you walk with God? It’s reading the Bible and praying. And it’s that simple. But that beautiful.
Vaneetha, if people are listening right now and they want to hear more about your story, we’ve mentioned your book, where can they go to access it?
I have a blog called danceintherain.com, and I write every other week usually about suffering. Not always, but I have a lot of articles there about suffering. And I do write for desiringGod as well. So if you put my name in there you can see – and for them I’m pretty much always writing about suffering, which, I know sounds like a real downbeat thing, but in some ways it’s really joyful.
It’s true! And the fact is that suffering is never going to leave, until Jesus comes back. So it’s always relevant and we always need to hear about how we can find joy and obviously God in suffering. And to our listeners, I’ll have all the links to her blog, her book, and even a little documentary that desiringGod made about Vaneetha as well, I’ll put them all on the episode page so you can hear more about her and her story.
Anyways, Vaneetha, thank you so much for your time and just sharing with us and being real with us. And I hope to have you back on the show soon.
I’d love to, this was great. Thank you so much Isaac.