I lost my mother to cancer last July. She was only 60.
She was first diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer in her adrenal gland in 2012. We were thankful then that the cancer was discovered early and had not spread, so surgery was a very hopeful option. But as with most cancers, especially aggressive ones like hers, it kept coming back.
Over the years, the cancer gradually spread to her liver.
Doctors told us from the start that the usual prognosis for cancers like hers was five years. But she beat that and survived eight, although it was heartbreaking towards the last year when we saw that she could no longer get out of bed, and was hardly conscious in her last few weeks.
I knew theoretically that life on earth is temporal and eternal life awaits those who believe in Jesus. I knew that suffering on earth is inevitable because of our fallen nature and that there would be no suffering in heaven.
But what I did not know was how different it is reading about Job and the trials he suffered in the Bible, as opposed to watching the trials play out in real life with a loved one.
It was made even harder because of how close I was to my mother — she cared for me not just physically, but also emotionally as well as spiritually. She was my confidante, prayer warrior and intercessor.
COMING TO TERMS WITH MY MUM’S SUFFERING
Having gone to church and known God for most of my life, I simply could not understand why God had allowed my mother to undergo such suffering.
Not just the physical pain of sickness, but also the emotional trials of a challenging marriage (my parents struggled a lot with communicating and relating to each other), the lost opportunity of enjoying her golden years, and, from my own perspective, the regret of having lived all her life for others but not herself.
In the weeks and months following her death, life went by in a bleary blur. I spent my days and nights ruminating about how much my mother had suffered, and how God could have allowed for it to happen.
Deep down though, I knew I could not stay that way for long. It was, after all, my mother’s dying wish for me to stay close to God and stay the course of faith even after her death.
The years I spent in Sunday School and my mother’s unwavering faith till the very end made it hard for me to imagine life without God.
But still I couldn’t help but ask, “Why, God, why?”
I decided to turn to the Bible for answers, for Jesus said in Matthew 7:7 “… Keep on seeking, and you will find…” As much as I was devastated, I committed my sorrow and uncertainties to God, and sought his wisdom in my search for answers.
While I cannot say that I have fully understood the purpose and depth of suffering my mother experienced, here are a few lessons I have learnt over the past months — some of which I have understood better, and others I am still grappling with.
1. Sin does result in suffering, but not all suffering is caused by sin
A nagging thought I had always harboured was whether my mother’s sickness and suffering was caused by sin.
Was it because my parents were “unequally yoked” (2 Corinthians 6:14) that this tragedy had befallen her? Or was there perhaps some hidden sin in her life that she was unaware of?
My logical mind desired a rational explanation. But God quickly corrected this misconception as I revisited the book of Job — a book my mother often spoke of and drew much strength and encouragement from in her sickness.
After being stricken with a series of trials by Satan, Job’s friends came to visit him and tried to rationalise the cause of his suffering.
They rationalised that Job’s suffering was caused by sin and he would continue to suffer if he did not repent of his sin. They were of the view that suffering is God’s judgement for sin.
But by the end of the book, God rebuked Job’s friends in their misrepresentation of suffering and sin.
God also did not directly answer Job’s questions on the reasons for his suffering.
Instead, He asked Job a series of questions about the mysterious workings of this world (Job 38-41) — questions that are inexplicable to the human mind, but which clearly pointed to a sovereign and almighty Creator.
These difficult questions left Job silent before God, quiet and no longer wanting an answer to his suffering (Job 42:1-6).
Seeing myself in Job made me realise that I was simply seeking an easy answer to a question that is truly beyond me and my God-given faculties. Rather than desire a logical explanation, it felt like God was reminding me to trust in Him for who He is, rather than what He does.
And while I may never understand the real cause of my mother’s suffering, I was led to my next lesson — that God can use suffering, even suffering caused by sin, for our good and His glory.
2. Suffering can be profitable if we look beyond ourselves and instead look to God and others
Earlier this year, by God’s providence, I managed to rejoin a group with Bible Study Fellowship in the study of Genesis.
Joseph’s story was one of long-drawn suffering and injustice — he was almost killed by his brothers (Genesis 37:18-20), then sold into slavery in Egypt (Genesis 37:26-28), and suffered years in prison for wrongs he did not commit (Genesis 39:6-23).
But his story is ultimately also one of victory and restoration — his suffering was not for waste, but was part of God’s plan.
God had placed him in Egypt and in Pharaoh’s favour (Genesis 41: 37-41) so that he could play a critical role in managing the great famine and ensure that his family would survive (Genesis 47: 27) — which was significant, because Joseph’s brother, Judah, was in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:2-3).
In God’s perfect plan, Joseph managed to reunite and reconcile with his family after all those years of suffering.
But reading the happy endings of Job’s and Joseph’s stories, I couldn’t help but wonder, what about my mother’s (and my) happy ending? Why did God not restore her the way he did Job and Joseph after all that suffering?
It was only in a recent therapy session that I realised how I have been so overwhelmed and fixated on my mother’s suffering, that I had forgotten how her suffering had produced its share of good fruit.
While working through a therapy exercise, I was reminded of my mother’s unwavering faith and strength — in spite of all her pain and suffering, she always clung onto God and thanked God for what she had instead of what she did not have.
It was also in the first few years of her cancer diagnosis that she drew much closer to God. She started attending Bible study regularly and even started serving and ministering to other cancer patients.
In the last few years of her life, during her frequent hospitalisations, she would always bring such joy to the patients and nurses around her.
Once, she even told me about how she shared about Jesus with her surgeon, and how he felt so ministered to by her!
I was reminded of how, at her wake, strangers came to tell me how my mother had prayed for them in their times of sickness, or ministered to them in their times of need.
Throughout her sickness and suffering, my mother showed me how she looked beyond her own circumstances and made good of it for God’s glory, reminding me of Romans 5:3-5.
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
Most importantly, I realised that my fixation on her suffering and physical death had also blinded me from the ultimate “happy ending” that God has given all believers — the gift of eternal life (John 3:16).
3. Jesus bore the ultimate suffering on the cross for us
As I pored over the gospels of the New Testament in my continual search for answers, and read about the life of Jesus on earth — how He was fully human yet fully divine — what struck me most deeply was Jesus’ plea to God on the night before His death at the Garden of Gethsemane.
Jesus first describes His sorrow to His disciples in Matthew 26:38: “… My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death…”
And then He cries out to God in verse 39: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”
Thinking about my mother’s suffering and her physical death truly crushes my soul with grief. Yet, how much more Jesus must have grieved! Knowing that He had to bear the cross and suffer a painful and humiliating death for our sake, despite being completely blameless himself.
But Jesus bore our sins and sorrows because He loves us.
His human self did not want to suffer, but His divine self knew that it was only through His death on the cross that we can be saved and have eternal life.
Ultimately, His obedience to God and love for us triumphed over His human aversion to suffering. His physical death, which put Him through unimaginable pain as He bled to death on the cross, ultimately culminated in His resurrection.
I still feel a deep ache in my heart every time I think of her, and I don’t know if this sorrow will ever ebb away.
But perhaps it is time for me to look up from my own pain of losing her, and make good of it for God’s glory.
This article first appeared on YMI and is republished with permission.
- What are your thoughts on sin and suffering?
- What does the Bible say about each of these issues?
- What are some biblical truths you can hold onto as you face suffering in the world?
- Can you think of someone you know who’s facing suffering right now? How can you minister to them and be a blessing this week?