God's Purpose in Suffering
By Gil Ahrens
Author of Shattered, Shaken and Stirred
Q: On a crisp autumn evening in 2002, you and your family were violently thrust upon what you call “an unplanned, inevitable journey.” Can you tell us what happened?
Ahrens: We were on a weekend trip to Denver in order to attend my cousin’s wedding. My wife had just given birth to our first (and only) child, and although she was still recovering from her C-section, we used the occasion to introduce our daughter to my extended family. We left the reception early because the baby was getting a little...fussy. On the way back to our hotel, our car was hit head-on by a drunk driver going about 95 mph. We were going about 60 mph. The driver of the other car was only 18. One of the passengers in his car—his best friend, we later learned—was killed instantly. My wife suffered a broken neck that has put her in a wheelchair.
Q: In the book, you often mention the “Dragon.” To whom are you referring, and how did you learn to wage war and finally win the victory against him?
Ahrens: While the Dragon is an obvious metaphor for the Devil or anything evil, it ultimately refers to my own inner demons. These are all the selfish things that I want to do, rather than what I know God wants from me. Essentially, it’s all those little demons that conspire to separate us from God so that we feel more in control.
Even if you don’t believe in the Devil or evil, the Dragon represents the inner part of us that serves our selfish interests at the expense of our best interests. The Dragon’s primary objective is to separate us from the relationships we need most: with God and those who love us. It will use any and all resources to do so; including making us believe that it doesn’t exist. The truth is - the Dragon exists inside all of us.
It’s easy to say, “There’s only one God, and it’s not me,” but it’s another thing to consistently think and act that way.
Q: How would you answer the millions of people who question how a loving God could allow such pain and suffering as what you have experienced into our lives?
Ahrens: I believe that God suffers more than we can imagine because we – as human beings generally, and as individuals to varying degrees – have disconnected ourselves from the God, our father, who created us and loves us. We tend to worship anything and everything else, other than Him.
Because God loves us, His greatest desire is to be close to us and for us to love Him. God uses every circumstance in our lives as an opportunity for us to draw closer to Him. But because we are innately selfish, we are vulnerable to every self-indulgent distraction. Before long, we’ve become completely disconnected from God. Suffering has no purpose unless it draws us – or those around us – closer to God, which I think is why He allows it and created it in the first place.
And yet God created us in a way that, even at times of our deepest suffering, provides us with some protective features. For example, my wife has no recollection of the actual accident in which her body was severely damaged. That experience is not unique, as we’ve learned from others who’ve had similar accidents and injuries. God made us in such a way that we often forget the most painful circumstances.
But He also created hardship not as a form of punishment per se, but as a means of bringing us closer to Him. Furthermore, it is quite possible that He uses one person’s trials as a way to reach and connect with others. I can’t imagine God takes any pleasure from our suffering, but I think He allows it – and even promotes it – as a means of reaching as many people, His children, as possible.
Every hero in the Bible suffered at one point. And who suffered more than Jesus? If Jesus suffered, which he did voluntarily, God surely suffered, as well. But that is the process of redemption, and it's how bad situations can and do serve the higher purpose of witnessing and receiving God’s grace, which is His gift of unconditional love.
Q: Few people expect to find themselves in a crisis or severe adverse event. But crises of all varieties do indeed happen all the time. What are some suggestions that you can offer, based on your experiences, to those who unexpectedly find themselves in a crisis situation?
Ahrens: Knowing that we’re not alone is really important. Pain and adversity of any kind can be very debilitating and exhausting. As it wears at our resources, it’s easy to withdraw from others, be it physically or emotionally, and it can become isolating. When we realize that we really aren’t alone – that so many others have been already, are currently, and will be eventually – traveling on this heavily trodden road called "adversity," it helps ease the burden and lift the pressure.
I call it “piercing the veil.” It’s when you see this entirely new world that co-exists alongside the one you were in prior to your adverse situation, but before which you could barely see and certainly not comprehend what it all meant. Piercing the veil is very traumatic because it’s initially so uncomfortable, and you realize that you can never go back. But eventually, being there starts to give you a perspective about how the world works and how it should work. Things like justice, mercy, compassion, and our relationship with God and others become much clearer.
The other two things may appear to be somewhat contradictory. One is the concept of surrender: of admitting and accepting weakness. I learned that I needed to share the burden and to not think that I could do it all by myself, no matter how wounded or challenged I may have felt. I had to tear down the fences that I instinctively erected to protect myself. Instead of grabbing frantically any weapon I could use in self-defense, I had to lay down my arms and surrender first to God and allow Him to wage the battle on my behalf.
But the other thing, in addition to that, was to move, engage, and be proactive. Surrender should not imply suddenly becoming a helpless and wilted wallflower. It means letting go of the unnecessary baggage of self-importance. With that burden lifted, we’re then much lighter and able to move more freely.
Movement and action are critical. We can’t just sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, so any kind of movement is essential to getting on with getting on. Moving a mountain begins by activating whatever we can—mind, body, or soul—to initiate motion which, ultimately, results in transformation. But the real key to this apparent contradiction is to actively surrender control over the final outcome. God’s in control, not us.
Q: What do you believe is the difference between bravery and courage? Why was distinguishing this difference so important to you after your accident?
Ahrens: Bravery implies an attitude of toughness and taking a stiff upper lip regarding potential consequences. Such bravery is good, but it is different from courage, which implies a greater awareness of the consequences, ones that are willingly endured, if necessary. More importantly, courage implies that I may not necessarily be all that brave, but that I will persevere in spite of my weaknesses or fears, of which I am fully aware.
To me, bravery involves denying fear, or at least overcoming it by drawing one’s own inner strength and determination. Courage, on the other hand, involves acknowledging fear and then overcoming it by drawing on an external strength to carry on regardless. In my case, that external strength comes from my faith and trust in God. It is my complete and utter conviction that God is good. If I trust that I will ultimately end up with Him, I can tolerate or endure anything that might happen.
Q: What is the most important lesson you have learned from the suffering and hardship you have endured as a result of the accident?
Ahrens: Going through challenge and adversity has made me a far better man than I would have been otherwise. That’s primarily because I leaned so heavily on God to help me get through it. I can’t imagine where I’d be now if God had not been intimately involved in the struggle and the process of getting through it.
Of course, I am still prideful, self-indulgent, manipulative, condescending, and hurtful to others. And I still far too often put myself ahead of God. Those are character traits that were in me long before the accident, and I’m sure they’ll always stay with me. Which is exactly why, frankly, I’m so grateful that He allowed me to experience this adversity; to be overwhelmed, despairing and, indeed, broken. I have a much better understanding of those unsavory character traits than I did before. I can more easily recognize them and allow God to help heal me of them so that I don’t inflict as much pain on others. My empathy is greater and my willingness to live and act for the benefit of people or things other than just me is infinitely greater.
Had I not surrendered and been broken, and really allowed God to reside in me, I’d be a totally different and utterly wretched person. I’d be angry, bitter, and vengeful. Though life now is certainly more difficult that before the accident, I’m grateful for what the experience has given me and for what it has taken away.
Q: What is the primary message you hope readers will take away from the reading of your book?
Ahrens: It begins with embracing faith, hope, and love. When our hearts are softened, we realize that we’re not alone. Adversity can be very isolating, which compounds the various practical challenges. Once someone enters the road of adversity, they never leave. They may recover, but they stay on the road in order to help others.
Most important is that God is there. Of course, He is everywhere, but He is really in those places where we hurt and struggle and confess that we need Him. It is very difficult to connect with God when we feel able, strong, and self-reliant. And, because we’ve become such self-centered, pleasure-seeking little zombies, we’ve grown incredibly disconnected with God. It is often only in our brokenness, weakness, and insufficiencies that we allow ourselves to be open enough to let God in. We feel God more fully when we allow His strength to work through our weakness.
Faith, Hope, and Love shift our focus away from ourselves and toward God and others. In that state, we are better positioned to make the necessary, ongoing reconnection with our maker.
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