Sorting out the Purpose of Suffering

When my kindergartner went to Vacation Bible School last summer she learned several new songs. As my daughter was singing the lyrics “He’s [God] got the power to heal the broken hearts,” she stopped saying “Wait! That doesn’t makes sense! If God has the power to heal broken hearts how come He didn’t heal Ian’s?”

I thought that was a pretty good question. Father Jairo, our priest friend, had told us to pray hard and expect miracles. I think we conservatively had over 600 people praying for our little baby boy with half a heart in the womb. But Fr. Jairo also indicated to us that if we didn’t get our miracle that it would not be a fluke, it would be because God has a greater purpose to use this cross as part of a greater plan for our lives and the lives of others.

How many times have we asked God why this or that bad thing has happened? Let me take a crack at answering that. What day was the mostly heavily attended of religious services across all denominations? The weekend after 9/11 is the answer. Sadly, some- maybe even many- people only seek God in times of trouble. Much like a college kid who hasn’t been heard from in months calls home when she has car trouble. It takes a trial for some of us to turn to God, whether we seek consolation or meaning we find Him. Bad things in the world aren’t from God, but He allows them. He respects the free will he gave man enough not to interfere in some cases. In other cases, He can see the big picture and can see where the path of suffering may lead, such as to heaven. Perhaps, the spiritual benefits that will come if/when we turn to Him and succumb to Love Incarnate will outweigh a physical or emotional pain. Luckily, my husband and I have a strong foundation of faith so when we got the devastating diagnosis of our son’s major heart defect relying heavily on God was natural.


Sometimes is takes suffering for us to surrender to God and His will for our lives. We have to hit rock bottom, before we fully trust the Rock. But when we do trust the rock, we find stability, security, and refuge in it. Which in stormy times that kind of strength and peace shouldn’t be possible, yet it is with our God. And all sorts of truths about God we’ve understood with our minds we now understand with our hearts and souls. For example,

“Those who carry Christ’s cross, find the cross carries them.”   Imitation of Christ

When surgeons operate on muscle tissue the swelling is delayed so in the case of infant open heart surgery they have to leave the chest wound open for several days to a week. This is called “delayed sternal closure.” Our son Ian had this with his first and third open heart surgeries. They look terrible post-operatively, as you can’t imagine, I’ll spare you the picture: giant drainage tubes for the lungs and heart, the gaping chest (they cover it with a translucent bandage), multitudes of sensors, IVs, etc.

307It is painful for them to move much, so there is no holding; even talking and singing is barely tolerated as it could agitate them. So you do what you can do pray, hold your husband’s hand, watch the numbers especially his oxygen, and look for any little sign of improvement, hope that you can cling to (oh and keep pumping milk around the clock!). And little by little by little that Little-Train-That- Could is able to be sewn up, get the drains out, get extubated, etc and finally after 5 long days of helpless waiting you can hold him again. And your heart explodes with joy. And you cherish every moment like it could be his last, because it could. Throughout so much of this HLHS journey we have not been able to see the path ahead. Walking by faith, not by sight is kind of scary. A game of trust with God!

I remember reading pro-life articles about parents of children that have chromosomal defects and they would say how difficult it is, but how they wouldn’t change it for the world. I always questioned the sincerity of that. I could understand coming to terms and finding joy in any situation, but to say you wouldn’t trade it for normalcy? I think that from the outside it is really pretty hard to understand, but inside what they fail to express is an inner transformation that shakes your core and leaves you with a new perspective you couldn’t have attained via normalcy.

What I know is this: I habitually ask in prayer for God to strengthen my marriage and increase my faith, to use me as He sees fit in whatever plan He has. And although I wasn’t asking God to give my son a congenital heart defect, I’d have to be blind not to see the intangible gifts this hardship has brought with it. After 11 years of marriage I love my husband more than ever. Being able to share in the ferocious love for our little heart warrior through all the ups and downs, twists and turns has bonded us even tighter. baseballjesusAnd part of that was because we leaned on God together. When Ian was delirious from the pain meds and going through withdrawals during his most recent surgery we wondered if we’d ever get the little boy we knew back. Scott popped on ESPN and a feature started about a 10-year-old boy with HLHS (same rare heart condition) playing baseball in Little League and meeting his favorite MLB player. The timing can only be explained that God just wanted to give us a nudge and a wink, to let us know He’s still right beside us and our trust is NEVER misplaced when we put it in Him. He was telling us it is okay to dream in color for Ian’s future.

As we sort out the purpose of suffering we have to bear in mind suffering brings opportunity. An opportunity to offer up your suffering for a greater cause, an opportunity to let go and let God hold you close forever deepening your relationship with Him, and lastly an opportunity (and a privilege) to be a witness for the Faith. So would I change it if I could? Well, it seems childish to say ‘yes’ I want a heart-healthy kid, and reject God’s plan that continues to unfold.

“Suffering brings opportunity.” ~Regular Joan

Recently at church we sang the hymn “The Summons” and it was so touching, I hadn’t heard it in a long time. They lyrics really seemed to fit my reflections on suffering.

“Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?”

Beautiful. Other parts of the song really fit what we do in the pro-life movement. If you answer ‘yes’ to this “summons”, I dare say prepare yourself for some suffering, but what do I know?

I know Ian is one special kid, he was conceived on Father’s Day. My husband and I found out I was pregnant with him the same day we ran a half marathon. We stopped at the drug store before Mass to get a pregnancy test to be sure I was safe to celebrate with hot tub and alcohol. So I took the test in the church bathroom of Sts Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Grangeville, Idaho on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul! There is a plan and a purpose to this life. Ian was born in the beginning of Lent (March 2nd) and he was healthy enough to be transferred to Boise from LA on Easter Monday. The night of my 33rd birthday, when he was only weeks old in the ICU; he crashed and we experienced a deep agony. The medical team had to paralyze him using drugs to stabilize his oxygen thus preventing him from moving and getting too agitated. It absolutely horrified me that that had to be done to keep our fragile little fighter alive. Was this suffering a gift? Christ died at 33, so did Sts Catherine of Siena and Faustina Kowalska.  As a person who ponders, I remember wondering in my youth if there would be some sort of turning point in my life at that age. I got my answer. I was given a cross. And through my suffering I didn’t so much change directions, but go deeper. Suffering can cause transformation. Perhaps that is why it seems at the end of our lives we suffer so much as our bodies deteriorate; to prepare our immortal souls for eternity with Christ Jesus.

For those of you holding out wondering what I told my 5 year old about why God didn’t heal Ian’s heart, I told her, “I have the power to let you eat ice cream for dinner, but I don’t because I know that’s not what’s best for you.” Time to wrap this up with a bow and close with this quote I stumbled upon by St. Ignatius.

“If God gives you an abundant harvest of trials, it is a sign of great holiness which He desires you to attain. Do you want to become a great saint? Ask God to send you many sufferings. The flame of Divine Love never rises higher than when fed with the wood of the Cross, which the infinite charity of the Savior used to finish His sacrifice. All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ. That is, hard and painful things endured for Jesus Christ and with Jesus Christ.”
–Saint Ignatius of Loyola

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2 thoughts on “Sorting out the Purpose of Suffering

  1. Beautiful, Em. “All the pleasures of the world are nothing compared with the sweetness found in the gall and vinegar offered to Jesus Christ.” Powerful stuff here. Thank you for using your gift of writing in this way. “The Summons” really speaks volumes.

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