I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard Gloria Sloan-Castellanos’s story. It was more than a decade ago. I was sitting in a training session for overseas missionaries. If I’m honest, I don’t remember that day’s topic. But I’ve never forgotten the image painted by the speaker of Gloria on a beach in Mexico, standing over the bodies of her husband and her 11-year-old daughter who, along with two student summer missionaries, had just drowned in a riptide.
Gloria wailed in agony, as any mother would. What came up from her soul was a cry for help from God—to survive that moment, yes, but also to fulfill the purpose for which she’d come to Mexico. As she stood next to their lifeless bodies, her words were astonishing. She looked around at the gathering crowd and explained in a cracking voice:
Our lives are so fragile. It’s like this mist that rises up in the morning and, all of a sudden, it’s gone. We didn’t get up this morning expecting to have a death. But here we are. But I know that these people here gave their lives to Jesus. They have received the gift of eternal life and right now they are in the presence of their Lord and Savior. But what about you? What if you were laying on the sand and not them?
Recently, Gloria personally shared that moment with me, a moment forever etched in her memory of that warm June day in 1999. Listening to her story, I was again struck by her amazing testimony, but also by her profound joy. As I’ve had the chance to listen to her and other missionary widows, they’ve taught me something about what it means to suffer.
Suffering Is Part of Following Jesus
Even though I’d heard the story of missionary widow Elisabeth Elliot when I was growing up, I assumed her life was the exception rather than the rule. I internalized a gospel that promises earthly blessing if you walk the path God puts before you. I assumed I would have a certain kind of life—one with everything Christian culture in the American South has to offer, including a husband and children and safety.
As I grew older, God graciously surrounded me with Christians who followed Jesus for him and nothing more. Those false pictures of prosperity began to fade as Jesus asked me to follow wherever he led. Then, when I was training to serve overseas, I heard Gloria’s story. It began to click. Taking up my cross requires letting go of other things. God calls us to hold our dreams and loved ones with open hands.
Taking up my cross requires letting go of other things.
Gloria’s story shows what it means to see Christ’s worth with such clarity that in the moments of deepest loss, you can know what matters most. Standing on the beach that day, what mattered to her was the eternal destiny of those around her. It was Christ receiving glory as she stewarded her grief. And I began to see it should be the same for me too. Suffering is expected for any follower of Jesus—and it’s worth it.
Suffering Gives You a Hearing
Of course, not everyone will suffer in the same way as Gloria. But as Staci Powers—a missionary to Zambia whose husband, Jeff, died of pancreatic cancer in 2014—told me, if we’re going to experience the power of Christ’s resurrection, we also must share in his suffering (Phil. 3:7–10). In fact, we should consider it joy when we face these kinds of trials (James 1:2). As we spoke, Staci talked about how present affliction prepares for future glory (2 Cor. 4:17), but she also noted how our sufferings bring blessings in the present.
In the wake of losing her husband, the people she served began to listen to her differently. Zambians experience suffering in daily life, she said, but they don’t often see missionaries walking through similar grief and trials. As she observed, her loss became a bridge.
Years earlier, Staci and Jeff had counseled Zambian church leaders as they faced persecution. Their church had been burned, and the ashes were still fresh when Staci told them that walking through suffering makes your faith stronger. She explained how it draws you to depend on God at a deeper level, and that God would bring glory through their suffering. At that moment, they heard her. But later, when the dirt was still fresh on her husband’s grave, Staci repeated those same words. This time they landed differently.
Suffering Is Never for Nothing
“Suffering is never for nothing.” Those were the words of Elisabeth Elliot, the woman who in the late 1950s stayed in Ecuador to serve among the people who killed her husband, the woman who eventually saw many from that people group come to know Jesus. Only someone who knows the greater worth of Christ could do that.
‘Suffering is never for nothing.’
Gloria stayed too. The day after the drownings, dozens of people came to the beach, unable to shake the message they’d heard. Eventually, a church was planted, and more church planters have gone out from there.
We might not know what the fruit of our suffering will be. But we do know this: God has a purpose in it. Our suffering will not be wasted. It changes us to be more like Christ. It draws us into more dependence on him. Our suffering also introduces us to a grace deeper than we’ve ever known even as it prepares for us an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). And God may use our suffering to draw others into that glory too.