My health went downhill in my mid-20s. Sleep problems, mental health issues, a major shoulder injury and surgery, and a rare migraine condition came at me in rapid succession. These struggles dominated five years of my life, and at times it seemed I’d never recover.
I began that season with a hopeful outlook. I was praying, trusting God, and seeking community. But a few months in, I began to break. Whether I was screaming angrily at God in my car at 4:00 a.m. or hiding under my blanket wondering how I was going to face the day, I felt lost in misery.
Looking back, I see that my biggest problem was spiritual exhaustion and confusion. Some of this resulted from my circumstances, but much of it was due to insufficiently applied theology. I’d intellectually adopted a Calvinistic understanding of salvation years prior to my season of suffering. However, I hadn’t yet applied those truths in real-life situations.
I still operated under subtle falsehoods that crippled my ability to suffer well. The foremost was believing it was my responsibility to cling to Christ and not lose my faith—that I had to suffer in a way that was “good enough” to keep my standing with God.
Certainly, the Bible has numerous calls to endure to the end, remember God’s goodness, and look forward in faith. But my hope was in my ability to be faithful rather than in Christ’s faithfulness. I’m far from a Calvin scholar, but even a simple understanding of his teaching exposed my flawed thinking and eventually brought me great hope. Here are just two of the many doctrines I found helpful amid suffering.
My hope was in my ability to be faithful rather than in Christ’s faithfulness.
God has the power and authority to do whatever he decides. This was critical: Who was I to tell God what he can and cannot do? Who was I to judge God as cruel? I had the entire witness of Scripture to explain his character. I also had the promises that he would work mercifully for my good and that he’s gentle with sinners.
In my darkest moments, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty stung more than it comforted. But it was a trusted wound from a friend (Prov. 27:6). Without his sovereignty, my suffering lacked purpose, and that’s a far worse fate. Acknowledging his sovereignty meant accepting he willfully permitted, or even caused, my pain. That was difficult.
Yet submitting to God’s rule and calling him good amid pain turned out to be the path of hope and joy. Insisting that God order my life according to my will made me angry and doubtful unless he did what I wanted. But accepting all circumstances as God’s will freed me. My trials no longer held the power to “disprove” God’s love and power. Instead, I discovered that every hardship was ultimately for my good, purposed to make me more like Christ (1 Pet. 1:3–9). Rather than being swayed by every up and down of life, I found God’s sovereignty to be my stable ground.
Perseverance of the Saints
As a child I was implicitly taught that we’re saved by grace but we have the responsibility to sanctify ourselves. I believed it was up to me to stay strong in my faith and that it was possible to lose my salvation. Later, amid my medical problems, I was angry and discouraged, even to the point of wanting to run from God. I worried I was in danger of losing my position in God’s family since my faith felt weak.
But Calvinism pointed me to the sweet doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Once you’re saved, you will always be saved. This is closely linked to a few other ideas, including unconditional election (I contribute nothing to salvation except my own need) and irresistible grace (if God has called me, he will save me). Put together, these doctrines mean that salvation is not at all dependent on how I feel or how much belief I can muster. I’m secure despite my wrestling and doubt, because my security is found outside of myself.
Salvation is not at all dependent on how I feel or how much belief I can muster.
Of course, I should seek to nurture my faith and cling to Christ during tough times. But my security isn’t in my ability to suffer perfectly—it’s in the only One who suffered perfectly in my place. My anger and doubt became less scary knowing they couldn’t pluck me from God’s hand (John 10:28–30).
Partway through those awful years, my prayers and worship changed. I understood experientially that Christ saved me from my sin, including the sin of not trusting him in suffering. I recognized more fully that faith and salvation, from first to last, are irrevocable gifts. And I realized that even in my struggle, Christ’s strength was magnified in my weakness.
I hope I’ll weather future trials with more patience and trust than in the past. But my greater comfort is knowing that even when my faith is lacking, the Lord still holds me. I, and all the elect, have been given to Christ by God the Father. My perseverance is guaranteed, not by my performance but by Christ’s. This dulls the blade of suffering because, as Paul says, nothing “shall separate us from the love of Christ”—not even our own doubts or trials or sin (Rom. 8:35–37).