For many of us, the natural instinct when suffering is to say, “Why me?” Suffering so often feels like an aberration from normal, from what we expect, even from what we think we deserve. Despite the inevitability of trials in this fallen world, rarely do we respond, “Why not me?”
Veneetha Rendall Risner has dealt with more than her share of trials, which she recounts in her new book, Walking Through Fire: A Memoir of Loss and Redemption (Nelson Books). She opens up her thought process for a raw look at the emotional and spiritual wrestling of suffering. She writes:
When I was younger, I thought I understood the way God operated. I believed that God gives each of us some suffering, but that if we love Christ, the suffering will never be too great or for too long. My view of faith was transactional: I’d been good, and so God owed me a good life.
Vaneetha joined me on Gospelbound to discuss anger toward God and the reason for suffering, among other sensitive matters.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin Hansen: For many of us, the natural instinct when suffering, is to say, “Why me?” Suffering so often feels like an aberration from normal, from what we expect, even what we think we deserve. Rarely do we respond, “Why not me?” Despite the inevitability of trials in this fallen world, Vaneetha Rendall Risner has dealt with more than her share of trials, which she recounts in her new book, walking through fire, a memoir of loss and redemption published by Nelson Books. She opens up her thought process for a raw look at the emotional and spiritual wrestling of suffering.
She writes this quote: “When I was younger, I thought I understood the way God operated. I believed that God gives each of us some suffering, but that if we love Christ, the suffering will never be too great, or for too long. My view of faith was transactional. I’d been good. And so God owed me a good life” end quote. A life without polio, a life without bullying and sadness, a life without the death of a child, a life without divorce from a spouse’s infidelity, all of which has been a part of Vaneetha’s experience. All used by God, somehow, for good. And she joins me on Gospelbound to discuss anger toward God. The reason for suffering among many other sensitive matters. Thank you, Vaneetha, for joining me.
Vaneetha Risner: It’s great to be here, Collin. Thank you for having me.
Collin Hansen: Vaneetha, what’s the best way to help someone who’s suffering?
Vaneetha Risner: I would say the best way is to just show up and be there. I think a lot of us feel like we need to bring something, do something, say something super profound. And I think the people that came and walked along with me and were pretty quiet were the most helpful. And I think the people that wanted to give me a reason, maybe offer some deep theology, they sort of felt hollow in the end because all I wanted was somebody with me. So I would say that is the number one thing to do. And then to just ask, “Can I do something very specific?” I find a lot of people say, “What can I do? Tell me how I can help any time I’ll be there.” And I never called those people, but the people who said, “Can I do your laundry tomorrow at noon?” That was easy to say, “Well, noon doesn’t work, but maybe four o’clock works.” So, I think very specific questions for help are really helpful because people know you really do want to be there.
Collin Hansen: Vaneetha, was there a time for deep theology or reasons, or was it just not that time, or is that just not really helpful?
Vaneetha Risner: I think there is a time. It just depends on where the person is. Personally, and I do this myself constantly, but I want to be the one to bring in the word of truth that’s going to change somebody’s depression life. And I think we often are looking for a response from someone that they understand what we’re saying. And I think that’s where we go wrong. If we feel led by the Lord to share something, I think expecting someone to respond well is where the problem starts. But I think there is a place to speak, especially after the kind of the freshness of the suffering has worn off. I think it’s a really good thing to do that. One thing that I did recently with a good friend of mine who has ALS, and she’s in my small group, and we didn’t really know what to say. I mean, this is a really hard thing to go through and there were two ways to go.
I mean, there’s the one way in which is, this is horrible. I can’t believe this. This is awful, which kind of leaves the person hopeless in the end. And then there’s the God is using this, God is sovereign, which makes the person feel minimized and at some points. And so lament is a beautiful bridge between that. And one of the things we did is we just took a song and we lamented through it together as a group. And so we read a few verses and then we offered our own, “This stinks. We can’t stand this for you. We wonder where God is in this.” And then we came to praising God together, and it didn’t feel trite, and it didn’t feel like a hammer, like you need to do this. And so that was a really good way for me to enter into somebody’s pain without preaching.
Collin Hansen: Here’s another question that I get pretty often from people about suffering. Is it ever okay to be angry with God?
Vaneetha Risner: Hmm. Okay is a hard word. I think God wants us to bring our full selves to him. And so I think if we’re angry, we can tell God that, that is sin in a lot of ways. So, I’m not saying like be angry, but at the same time we sin all the time and God understands that. And he meets us in that. So I don’t encourage people to get angry, but I encourage people if they are angry, to be honest with God, I think sort of like in a relationship with people, sometimes we’re mad at our friends or spouses and we shouldn’t be mad. It’s not really their fault for the things that are going on sometimes. But I think just saying this really upsets me, that’s what draws us to people. So, okay, meaning no, it’s not sinful, I would say it is sinful, but at the same time, I think if we feel that way, it’s better to say it than to bottle it up.
Collin Hansen: How do you distinguish between what is anger toward God in a sinful way and the biblical category and pattern of lament?
Vaneetha Risner: I actually think some of it has to do with our attitude towards God in it. I think with lament, we are looking to God and trusting him feeling like he has answers, and he’s the only one we can go to. Whereas I think sometimes sort of complaint and anger that is really unrighteous is really telling God why, talking about God and being angry with him, but not really looking to him for the answer. And I think through the pattern in Scripture, it’s looking towards God and saying, “This is how I feel,” versus looking away at God and kind of yelling over your shoulder like, “I’m mad. I can’t believe you’ve done this”, and walking the other way.
Collin Hansen: I like that. Looking to, as opposed to looking away. You’ve already mentioned this subject of how we know if our suffering has a reason. It seems as though, as you write in this book, that we should not necessarily expect that. And yet, sometimes we do learn that reason, or we discern that. So how can we know if our suffering has a specific concrete reason?
Vaneetha Risner: Well, I would say, all of our suffering has a reason that God does not make us suffer. There’s no unnecessary suffering. And we talk about that, he talks about that in 1 Peter, if necessary, you have to go through these trials. So all of it has a reason, but whether we see it in this life or not, I think maybe 50/50, maybe even less. I mean, there’s a lot of things I don’t see, but I believe, by faith, that God has a reason for it. And for me, if I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be able to handle it thinking it just sort of happened. But I love this quote by John Piper. He says, “God is doing a thousand things and everything he does, and most of which we know nothing about.” And so I think we may never see a lot of the reasons, but we can trust there is one or more.
Collin Hansen: Yeah. It seemed like, let’s talk about your experience a little bit in the loss of your child. It seemed as though you began to think at first that the reason was your testimony, your demonstration of faith, at least that was some aspect of it. There was a ministry outcome, but that weighed heavily on you. And it seemed as though that ended up bringing a great deal of turmoil to you. How did you process that theological conundrum with that lived experience?
Vaneetha Risner: Yeah, it’s funny when our son died, at the funeral, I felt like I needed to be strong for everybody else. I remember saying God never makes a mistake, and I really believed that. I feel like God carried me, but then weeks months later, I just wanted to pull all those words back because I felt like I was living my faith in some ways, so that other people would have a strong faith. And I think people in ministry, it’s a real trap that we sometimes read the Bible because of what we could teach somebody. And we live our lives based on what we think other people are going to get out of them.
And that can lead to a huge disconnect. And it was for me, I had been teaching Bible study. I was living so that other people would see that God is good. And I realized, God doesn’t need my defense. I just need to be real. And it was really when I was able to do that and cry out to God in a real way and say, “I feel distant. Help me”, that God really met me. Whereas I would say at Paul’s funeral, God carried me. But my experience with God was not nearly as deep as when I was willing to own how I felt and let God really heal me.
Collin Hansen: There are only so many options within suffering about God’s role in it. We can find comfort. Some people find comfort. I don’t agree with this, but some people find comfort knowing that our suffering has no reason or that God is not sovereign in it. We’ll hear often that God is weeping over this, but he’s not responsible for it. He has no control over it. Simply what happens here in a sinful world. And of course, other people insist that God is in control. Are there any other options that we’re missing there or how do we find comfort in, I guess one or the other? It seems as though some find that comfort in God being in control and some seem to find a comfort in knowing that it can’t be God’s fault. How do you help people think through that?
Vaneetha Risner: I find no comfort thinking God is not in it, because that seems like it’s senseless and purposeless. And that to me is the most frightening thought, to think my son died, and there was no purpose to it is really hard, but I think it also makes me think that people who believe that in my opinion are thinking that God is really not in charge of this world. So maybe Satan is in charge and God is Satan’s cleanup board, that’s what Johnny says. Either God rules or Satan sets the world’s agenda and clearly God sets the world’s agenda. And there is meaning. And I think that’s one of the greatest things that we have in suffering is knowing that God is going to use this.
God is going to use this for good, for our good and for his glory. And I think if that wasn’t part of my suffering, I honestly don’t think I could handle it there. There’s probably three things that comfort me in suffering. One is knowing God is with me, two, is knowing that God is using my suffering. And three is knowing that my suffering is going to end. It might end in this life in the land of the living, which would be wonderful, but it’s going to end because happily ever after is a promise for those in Christ. So those three things get me through suffering.
Collin Hansen: I want to talk a little bit more about Paul’s death and the shame that you began to feel that is a very difficult combination. The shame with the grief at the same time, what ended up being the antidote so that you could move forward, trusting God and accepting that love of God?
Vaneetha Risner: Yeah. I think I felt shame because I really felt that people who loved God didn’t have those things happen to them. And I had a lot of people say to me before Paul was even born because he had a heart problem when he was born, that if I had the faith, he would be fine. And so there was this sense that he wasn’t fine because I didn’t have the faith. And so there was a lot of just turmoil with that. It wasn’t really my theology and yet people kept bringing it to me. So I kept thinking, okay, this is somehow “If I pray the right way, if I do the right stuff.” And so when he died, there was this feeling of kind of being embarrassed, like somehow my faith wasn’t enough. And then I was embarrassed when I pulled away from God, because I wasn’t strong enough as a believer and I should have been praising God through the whole thing.
And so lots of different points of different types of shame. And yet God, it really came together with this experience when I was in the car, just crying out to God, just saying, “Help me.” And it was probably the greatest experience of just sensing God’s presence of my life. And I felt like that sort of overshadowed everything. And I saw that there was joy in the midst of this suffering. And so no matter what other people said about it, I could sense God in it. And so that really took away the shame. I didn’t feel like I had not measured up. And that’s why this had happened.
Collin Hansen: That’s what you call the purest moment of your life. Is that right?
Vaneetha Risner: Yes. Yes.
Collin Hansen: Tell us more about that word pure. What do you mean by that?
Vaneetha Risner: Yeah, it was just this moment where there was nothing in the world that mattered. My son had just died. You’d think that there was just all kinds of things in my mind and there had been, but it was this moment of pure joy that I don’t actually think I can even use words to describe, but it was felt like heaven were nothing mattered, but being in the presence of God and there was just, I was so overcome with happiness, joy, laughter. It was just this moment that I am super not describing well, but I would take… That was the best moment of my life. I mean, and I’ve had great moments, but there was nothing that even comes close and that moment made me think if heaven is even a little bit like this, ” Wow, I can’t wait.” Like that makes everything worthwhile and puts everything in a different perspective.
Collin Hansen: Wow. I don’t think I’ve thought about it that way, but sort of that window into heaven being opened a bit for you to be able to anticipate that. You’re probably familiar with an incident from the last couple years where a child of a ministry family had died and the church spent a great deal of time praying for the child to be resurrected. And they believed fully that this would happen. Eventually, of course, it did not happen. I think it could be easy for us to, to judge and even to be upset. I think those were a couple things that went through my head watching this play out and just wondering in a sense how, I guess, people could be this foolish.
I mean, I think God could do that. I’m not against that. I don’t think that’s incapable of God to do, but it seems so presumptive, and therefore I felt almost just almost abusive, to the family, and to the people, praying to lead them in that way. That was my reaction to it from a distance. You can relate to it more intimately, and I wonder how much you talk to people in that situation in a way that would help them to understand that would help them to process as opposed to simply mustering some of my reaction of judgment against them.
Vaneetha Risner: So, you mean the people that are hearing it are the people that were in this situation?
Collin Hansen: Yeah. I think the people in the situation let’s imagine you were invited to come, be able to talk to this congregation about what had happened there. I mean it would be easy for me to simply stand up and say, “What are you guys thinking? This is so presumptive of you. You’ve simply made the situation worse. You’ve made things harder on the family. You’ve made these promises that God never made to you.” And that’s really inhibited grief, which is an inevitable part of life. It kind of provokes a little bit of that frustration for me, or even an anger there, because I see people suffering as a result, but I’m not imagining that’s necessarily the most helpful way. So, let’s imagine you were given that opportunity to talk to this congregation. How might you steer them in a more beneficial, godly direction?
Vaneetha Risner: I think I would say, one, I’m glad you have that faith because God can do this. I mean, God could raise this child from the dead. God can do anything. And so that’s a great part of their faith, but the part is expecting God to do it. And I think part of what I would say is something that I struggle with is when do we hear from God? And when do we not? I’m assuming that somebody felt that they’d heard from God, this word. And honestly, there are times when I think God is telling me something, quote unquote, and it doesn’t come to pass. And there are other times that I think God is telling me something and miraculous things happen. And so Paul Miller has this great quote where he says, “Satan, God, my conscience, the world, everything comes in on the same channel.” And so we have to get discernment to know who is actually speaking to us.
And so I think I would say to them we don’t know this side of heaven if God is actually saying something to us, we can confirm it with scripture. We can ask for it. But to stake somebody else’s future on it is sometimes dangerous because we don’t know, we don’t hear perfectly clearly just like 1 Corinthians 13, we see in a mirror dimly and we hear through a dim microphone or we don’t hear clearly. And so that I would say was really the error of the people in that churches they might’ve heard. I don’t know, but they couldn’t be so sure. And so when we put our faith in that and have other people put our faith in something that we think we heard that can be dangerous because God could do it, but God doesn’t owe that to us. And I think this idea, and a lot of people have had that through politics and all kinds of things. Our God is going to do this. God owes this to us. And we don’t know the mind of Christ.
Collin Hansen: Except for what’s been revealed in his word. I mean, and so far as we know that, then we can move forward in confidence on that. It’s interesting that you alluded to politics, because this same congregation, its leaders prophesied that President Trump would be reelected. Of course he was not. And then had to issue an apology, which then led to all kinds of controversy there about that. So it certainly seems to be a pattern. And even though I certainly do believe God can reveal these things, it would be foolish to limit God. It seems very presumptive and very dangerous to get into that. I wondered as you recount, I think people are going, I would encourage people to read the book and to follow along with all of your ins and outs through the different experiences, the suffering and as the reader, I feel for you.
I mean, it is a painful situation and you really peel back the curtain on other people’s bad moments, your bad moments, things you said that you should not have said, things other people said to you that they should not have said it can be agonizing. That’s why I said in the introduction that the book is raw. I wondered, is it ever hard for you to write in such detail about intimate feelings and circumstances? I mean, we really get to know you pretty well in the book, I mean, amid the divorce, the arguments with your girls, your own angry outbursts at them. How do you think about just putting yourself out there like this and other of your family members out there like this?
Vaneetha Risner: Yeah, it is a great question. It’s funny. My pastor read the first draft and he said, “Do you really want to say this to the whole world?” And I said, “That is a great question.” And I struggled with whether to put it in there, but I think it’s helpful for people to see that Christians are real and we struggle and we make lots of mistakes. And I did have my girls read it. They both read it, every section that they were in. And they both got to read the whole book before it went to even the first manuscript to the publisher, because this is their story too. And I did not want them to feel that I had revealed things that they were not comfortable with. So, that was really important to me. So actually everybody that I mentioned in the book in any kind of negative light, I really tried to have look at the book.
Vaneetha Risner: I have prayed every day that God would use this and it wouldn’t hurt people that were in the book. And so that has been something I debated before I even started writing the book, Collin.
Collin Hansen: I got to say, this book is refreshing because it strikes me as more true to life, certainly, than what you’re going to see on Hallmark Channel or a lot of Christian movies. I mean, when you talk through the difficulties of marriage and all the complications, the difficulties of parenting, it really is just raw and real, but in the end, it’s hopeful. So I hope people get that impression as well. And certainly, I think they’ve heard that from you here, but you could tell this as an ongoing process that I’m sure there’s more things that you will learn and you will grow and your family and all of that.
And so it doesn’t feel like there’s a happy bow necessarily on everything either. This is sort of an ongoing ellipsis and we don’t necessarily reconcile in life with all of the people who have heard us or even get a chance for us to reconcile with the people that we have hurt either. One last question here about, before we turn to the final three is going back to that church, I had mentioned earlier, I think a lot of people with similar perspectives on suffering tend to think that the way we demonstrate faith to the world or the believability or reality of Christ is through triumph. It’s through victory, it’s through the spectacular, I’m guessing you do not hold to that view if I’m right, why not? Wouldn’t it be better to say, look, you guys should believe in Christianity because look at all the spectacular things God does. Why wouldn’t you want to believe in Him when he does all these amazing things?
Vaneetha Risner: Yeah. I would say that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. So it’s really not what we can offer, it’s what Jesus offers. And I think we have this treasure and earthen vessels to show the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. And so I think the weaker we are and the more we can’t do it, and the more we rely on Christ, I think that’s a much bigger witness then survival of the fittest and we’re super strong and we’ve health, wealth and everything else. I think that is the way of the world. That’s what the world wants to glorify. But I think the cross is the opposite. It’s we are weak, we are needy. I think the biggest thing we bring to God is our neediness and our lack of self-sufficiency, it’s our dependence.
And I think there are a lot of Christians, though, that I think it’s a lot about how much money you have and how successful you are. And those are “God’s blessings,” but I don’t think in the Bible God’s blessings look anything like that. I mean, there are some passages maybe in Deuteronomy that talk about the blessings and the curses that have to do with material things. But I would say the New Testament is predominantly, if not solely, about the blessings we have in poverty and in loving God.
Collin Hansen: Deuteronomy, specifically, are within the context of a covenant with God’s specific people, Israel, at the time and within a context of a geography as well. So there’s some clear distinctions between those promises and those covenants to blessings and curses. We see in Deuteronomy from what we see in the New Testament as well. Okay. So we’ve been talking here with Vaneetha Risner about her book, walking through fire, a memoir of loss and redemption. So, Vaneetha, we’re going to jump into the final three. Ready?
Vaneetha Risner: Ready.
Collin Hansen: Okay. What’s the last great book you read?
Vaneetha Risner: The last great book. I would say the book Suffering by Paul Tripp. I just re-read it. So I read it, I got to endorse it a few years ago, but I re-read it. And it’s just so profound about how the way we suffer has to do with what we think about our suffering. Just as much as what’s physically happening to us. And that resonated with me so much because I think after the divorce, a lot of the suffering was telling myself that the future was going to look horrible and that nothing was going to be good. So, that book continues to resonate with me.
Collin Hansen: Well, it helps also to explain that there are many people in this world who suffer way more than we suffer in the West. And yet in many cases, they don’t ask the same questions.
Vaneetha Risner: Right.
Collin Hansen: Which helps to speak to what you just identified right there. That suffering is not just what is circumstantially happening to us, but also our expectations and our outlook on it. Those are major factors as well. Second question. What brings you calm in the storm?
Vaneetha Risner: The Bible.
Vaneetha Risner: I go to my daily reading, honestly. So I love having a Bible-reading plan. I am like a huge evangelist for that, because if you just flip open the Bible, certainly God will speak to you anywhere, but there is something about systematically reading through the Bible. I mean you get new stuff every day, like yesterday I was reading Psalm 19 and was just blown away. I’d never seen this before and or thought about it before, but it says, it talks about how God’s word is sweeter than honey, honey from the honeycomb. And it made me think how amazing it would be to get honey straight from the honeycomb and how sweet that would be. And it just reminded me of how sometimes we rely on other authors, pastors, teachers who are all wonderful to hear about God, but there is something so different about hearing about God from God. And I think getting honey from the honeycomb is probably way better than buying honey in a jar, so.
Vaneetha Risner: I just feel like the Bible just speaks to us in these incredible ways. And so I don’t have, I mean, I love Isaiah. That’s really one of my favorite books, but I just love having a daily reading, and I just go to the reading that day and I believe God has something for me.
Collin Hansen: He does. He always does. Plug here for TGC’s Read the Bible plan. You can follow along with the M’Cheyne plan and Don Carson’s devotionals For the Love of God. Okay. Last question, Vaneetha, where do you find good news today? You already used the Bible so you got to come up with something else.
Vaneetha Risner: Good news. Well, I could say my daughter just got engaged this weekend. Yeah. So that was really good news. And I find good news often through just conversations with friends, just seeing what God is doing in their life. That’s one of my favorite questions to ask people is just, “What’s God teaching you?” And it just takes the conversation to a whole different place, which often we just don’t talk about, or I don’t, maybe some people have super-spiritual conversations with their friends all the time, but it really is an intentional thing for me because we can talk about a million things. But when I ask “What is God teaching you?” It’s been incredible all the kinds of conversations I’ve had.
Collin Hansen: That’s real simple. I think I can use that more. That is a consistent challenge even in church leadership. I don’t often know how to engage people at deeper levels. I don’t know how to make that transition, but that’s a nice little effective way to do it. And it’s not scary either. Just what’s God teaching you. And it forces people to kind of put their circumstances and their thoughts through that biblical theological grid. Vaneetha, been great talking with you again, my guest on Gospelbound has been Vaneetha Rendall Risner author of walking through fire, a memoir of loss and redemption. Vaneetha, thanks for sharing your story with us today.
Vaneetha Risner: Oh, thank you, Collin. I loved being here.