The Benefits of Suffering

One of the toughest questions Christians have to answer is, “If God is all-loving and all-powerful why does He permit so much suffering in the world?” There is no simplistic answer to that question. We probably won’t fully understand it until the Lord unfolds His master-plan in eternity.

Mike Graham 1943 – 2017

While I don’t have a clear answer to why the Lord permits pain I’ve recently observed some very positive results of suffering in the life of my friend Mike Graham. He and I served together in ministry for over twenty years. He joined our ministry team in 1988 as an executive pastor but when health issues limited his ability to serve he continued on staff as a stewardship director, a Bible teacher, and later as a pastoral counselor. After Mike retired three years ago, he frequently volunteered as minister on call. He passed away on Friday, December 29, 2017, at age 74.

I can’t think of anyone I know who suffered as much physically for as long a period of time as Mike Graham. Thirty years ago he was diagnosed with stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and doctors predicted he had six months to live. For some reason, the Lord answered our prayers and extended Mike’s life for three decades. However, in addition to the side affects that follow chemo and drugs, Mike went through horrible pain and prolonged discomfort.

He had back surgery and the constant agony that follows. He had surgery on his head five different times. Two brain tumors were removed. The incision got infected, and doctors had to reopen it several times to clean it out. Then Mike developed a swelling in his face and discovered since his resistance was so low he had MRSA flesh-eating bacteria. He went through that gruesome experience five different times. Once his head swelled to the point he was barely recognizable.

He battled Strep A, another deadly bacteria. Doctors had to slice his face with thin razor cuts around 70 times to let it drain. There were so many IV’s, antibiotics, treatments, pills that they can’t be enumerated. Mike lived with daily discomfort, and his appearance became grotesque, yet he kept going. He had the strongest constitution of anyone I’ve ever seen.

Mike Graham, 1943-2017; Photo by Stephen Powell/The Southeast Outlook

Through it all, he kept serving others and maintaining his sense of humor. After a dangerous brain surgery, his wife Sharon was by his side praying his mind would remain alert following such a precarious operation. When Mike started coming out from under the anesthesia, she whispered, “Honey, it’s me, Sharon, your wife.” Mike opened one eye and teased, “ I have a wife?” She knew then he was okay.

Sharon said Mike never really complained. His daughter Michelle said he looked upon his illness as an opportunity for ministry. His doctor, Mike Veal, said he was a model patient who kept a positive attitude, in part because he knew where he was going when he died. Dr. Veal added, “I don’t always see that…even in Christian people. Many get bitter about their situation and blame God. But Mike accepted his lot in life and made the most of it.”

A few years ago after Sharon’s dad died, Mike insisted they bring her mother and special needs sister into their home. Sharon was working at the time, and though Mike was less than 100% healthy himself, he became a care-giver to his mother-in-law and a sister-in-law who was totally bedfast. Mike maintained there was one qualifier, “I don’t do diapers,” he said. “That’s where I draw the line.” A few months later when Sharon had back surgery, Mike erased that line. They kept the two extra house guests for four years.

I would estimate there were over 700 people at his funeral this past Friday. Hundreds of others attended the visitation the day before. There were scores of stories of how Mike had ministered to people with cancer, how he came home early from a vacation to do a funeral and how his perseverance in suffering had inspired others to keep going.

It illustrated for me how much God had used Mike’s pain to assist others and advance the Kingdom of God. Second Corinthians 1:4 says that God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

Mike’s suffering softened his own heart and made him sympathetic to others. His perseverance enhanced his credibility and enriched his relationships. His incredible endurance inspired others to keep going. His struggles helped him appreciate the pain that Jesus endured on the cross. His example motivated non-believers to accept Christ as Savior.

When the Apostle Paul prayed that God would remove his thorn in the flesh, God told him no, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Paul accepted that explanation and stated that he would delight in weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties because, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

Mike Graham was also made strong in his weakness. If he had lived a pain-free life and died instantly of a stroke, there would not have been seven hundred people at his funeral. There wouldn’t have been testimonies about how Mike had inspired them or ministered to them. In his suffering he became powerful, and Christ was exalted.

I anticipate one other benefit of suffering; those who endure great pain in this life are going to receive a greater reward in heaven. We all suffer, but we don’t suffer equally. We all face temptations, but some temptations are more demonic than others. I think those who overcome severe trials and temptations are going to receive a much greater reward than those of us who have had it relatively easy.

From now on when someone asks me why God permits so much suffering I may not even try to give a detailed answer. I may just give a two-word explanation: Mike Graham.

“So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).

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