Delivered April 11, 1998 by Pastor John Piper, who has been one of my greatest spiritual role models, and my doctrinal guide on the topics of suffering and joy.
Question: What has God said that would encourage our hearts and strengthen us in view of Patty’s great suffering and death – especially her suffering, and especially her suffering at the end of her life?
An Urgent Question
The reason this is such an urgent question is twofold: 1) she did suffer in the last hours very much; and 2) many of the explanations that we often give for why suffering can be turned for good don’t seem to work when suffering is leading nowhere but to death.
For example, if I were to go to Hebrews 12, where Patty took us in her video that many of us watched, I would read in verse 10 that God chastises his children that we might share his holiness, and that suffering patiently endured by faith yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
But what about the suffering in the last eight hours before death? What holiness of life and what peaceful fruit of righteousness is that designed for? Death ushered Patty into everlasting sinlessness – and would have, with or without that suffering. So the explanation of discipline for holiness doesn’t seem to apply to the last hours.
So the pressing question that we need the most help with is the question of great suffering experienced by God’s redeemed children in the final hours of life. What has God said to us to help us with this?
The Texts Patty Chose
Patty chose these texts:
For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: but we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead: who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us; ye also helping together by prayer for us, that for the gift bestowed upon us by the means of many persons thanks may be given by many on our behalf. (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)
For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:15 – 5:8)
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit. Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (for we walk by faith, not by sight:) we are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:1-8)
The Comfort of Knowing Christians Suffer
The first thing that God says to help us is that the people of Christ suffer terribly at times.
We were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life . . . (2 Corinthians 1:8)
The main statement here is “we were pressed.” The word is of a weight pressing down, like a car rolling over on you or a beam from a collapsed building that is smothering you.
Then he gives three phrases to characterize the intensity of it:
1. “We were pressed out of measure.” The weight was excessive. It was huge. It was so heavy that there was no way to measure it adequately. It could not be described.
2. “We were pressed out of measure, above strength.” The weight crushing us was beyond our strength. We could not endure it. It was more than we could bear – even with morphine.
3. “We were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life.” The weight was not the pain of a severed arm or a blinded eye or a broken back. It was the weight that takes away life. It was a suffocating weight. Life was virtually lost. It was so heavy and so immeasurable and so beyond strength, that what was at stake was not a lifetime of disability, but having another breath.
That’s the first thing God says: the people of Christ suffer terribly sometimes.
The Comfort of Knowing the Comfort of Christian Suffering
The second thing God says to help us is that this suffering is purposeful, and not capricious or whimsical or meaningless or left only to the hand of the enemy.
But we had the sentence of death in ourselves that we should not trust in ourselves but in God which raiseth the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
This is not the purpose of the devil. He has his purposes and they are the exact opposite of this – to destroy faith (1 Thessalonians 3:5). This purpose is God’s – “that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead.”
This is what Patty believed with all her heart, if I understood the video that she made and a couple of letters that she sent to me. Her cancer was not a divine blunder, nor had God surrendered his sovereign control over all things.
This does not mean that Satan had no hand in her suffering. I don’t doubt he did. He is vicious and cruel and murderous. But this very book, 2 Corinthians, shows in chapter 12 how a thorn in the flesh can be called a messenger of Satan and still be ordered ultimately by God for the good of his child.
So the question now becomes: If a daughter of God can suffer so much, and if it is purposeful and not capricious or meaningless, then what possible purpose could there be in it when it happens in the last hours of life?
I think the larger text gives two answers. We will take them one at a time.
Suffering Makes Us Rely On God Alone
The third thing God says to help us is that he allows disease or persecutors or Satan to knock every comfort and dependence out from under us so as to throw us onto God alone, so that we will trust not in ourselves, but on the God who raises the dead.
But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:9)
The proving and refining of faith is God’s purpose in suffering. Faith is so valuable to God that he will seek it at the cost of great suffering.
That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ . . . (1 Peter 1:7)
But here’s the problem: If, in God’s reckoning of life, it was Patty’s time to die, then there was no time after last Tuesday’s suffering for Patty to live out this greater faith – this refined faith. No, there was no time afterward, only during the suffering.
And so I ask: What does proven and successful trust in God look like in such suffering, rather than after it? For if God’s purpose was to prove and refine Patty’s faith, it would have to show itself in the suffering, not after. There was no after, until there was sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
When Faith Looks In the Face of Death
What does faith look like when suffering leads to death?
What does faith look like in that kind of suffering? Two answers: one from Job and one from Jesus.
1. In the midst of his suffering, Job’s wife said, “Curse God and die” (Job 2:9). This is the voice of Satan over every suffering saint. I think in the midst of suffering, when you cannot even speak, but only groan or cough or shriek, not to curse God is a triumph of faith. Not cursing God defeats the devil and magnifies God, your only hope. So faith may look like agonized curselessness. Groanings, heavings, shriekings – but no cursing God.
2. The other form that refined and proven faith may take in that kind of final suffering is the form it took on the lips of Jesus: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This is faith? This is trust in God?
It is. When Jesus said “My God,” he meant My God. God was still his God and his Father. Jesus looked nowhere else. He had no other God. He had no other hope. This was Psalm 22:1, and it overflowed from his heart:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel. (Psalm 22:1-3)
What This Prayer Means
You see that the cry does not mean the psalmist has ceased to trust in God.
What then does the cry mean? “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
It was not a request for information. The brain screaming with pain can scarcely process anything.
It was an expression of agony at being given over by God to the curse and the enemy, death. God did not cease to love Jesus on the cross. He loved Jesus because of the cross. John 10:17: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life for the sheep.” Here is one of the most profound things in the universe – and it relates to dying saints: the Father loved and blessed the Son, because of the very suffering which was the Father’s curse. Yet it is agony to be loved in this way.
And so it was, not identically, but similarly, last Tuesday morning: God gave Patty up to be consumed by the curse of death, and it is not unbelief to feel the full force of that kind of forsakenness and to cry out, My God, My God where are you? It is a cry of agony, but not of unbelief in the heart of God’s child.
In the final hour of pain, uncursing agony, in hope for the unfelt God, is the faith that overcomes the world.
This final pain has a purpose beyond death in working for Patty an eternal weight of glory.
The Meaning of the Weight of Glory
We take time to look at one more thing that God says in Patty’s verses to encourage us and help us understand.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
This is an amazing shift of wording from 1:8. There the suffering was a terrible weight. Here the reward to come is a great weight of glory. There the suffering was called “out of measure.” Here the very same phrase (in the original) is applied to the reward: “a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” And to our dismay, the suffering that was called “heavy” and “out of measure” and “above strength,” is called here “light” and “momentary.” To the apostle, It is all a matter of comparison.
But the point is this: Patty’s suffering was working for her an exceeding and eternal weight of glory. This is the purpose of it all beyond this life.
And if you ask: Will her reward be greater than mine because she suffered more? My answer is: I don’t know all the factors that go into God’s reckoning of ever-increasing eternal joy. What I know is this: last Tuesday morning, Patty’s suffering was working for her an eternal weight of glory. That is what God says.
* * *
There is so much more that could be said. For example, I have said nothing about the pain in Glen and Char and hundreds of you that Patty’s pain has caused. God has much to say about that, if we had time. But I have been listening – to prayers and to comments and to E-mails, and from just this short distance I can say: even apart from all I have said about God’s purpose in her faith and in her glory, Patty has not died in vain. God is at work in you.
* * *
At her bedside Tuesday morning about 3 hours after she died, I commented to Glen that this was an awesome week to meet Jesus. I said something about Jesus’ last Thursday and Good Friday and Christ’s being able to empathize with great suffering. And Glen said, “I think she suffered as much as he did.” I said, “Perhaps. And if so, when their eyes met three hours ago they didn’t have to say much.”
But if the Lord had said to Patty as she beheld him, “Patty, is it worth it?, she would have said (I believe, on the basis of God’s word), “This would be worth a thousand deaths. Whom have I in heaven but thee . . .” (Psalm 73:25).
©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.
By John Piper. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org