Nine and a half years ago my husband and I sat stunned, shaken by the news our unborn child had significant health issues. Even more rattling was the urgent advisement to abort him because of the trauma that potentially faced our unborn son. Six months later he was born full-term, 4lbs, 4 oz with a brain malformation that would impact his growth and development for a lifetime.
Five years later our ten-year-old daughter collapsed outside while playing with friends. An ambulance rushed us to the local children’s hospital where we learned she suffered a minor stroke. The symptoms dissipated, and she spent that week being observed as the doctors tried to identify the root cause.
Six days later the symptoms angrily returned, and we found ourselves pleading with God to spare her life as her brain swelled uncontrollably. Two brain surgeries later, with 35% of her brain tissue removed, our daughter was comatose in intensive care with left-side partial paralysis, vision impairment, and cognitive delay.
By God’s grace, both children have accomplished more than their doctors expected, and their lives are a testimony to the power and mercy of the Creator. However, struggle and hardship are a very real part of their daily lives.
God’s kindness has provided numerous doctors, occupational, and physical therapists that have educated us with helpful strategies and tools, but the Bible gives us spiritual wisdom that guides us as we bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). We must ask him in faith for the wisdom and grace (James 1:5) needed to parent our children well. The question that remains is how do you wisely parent the suffering child?
Teach Them a Theology of Suffering
We teach our children they are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and about his great love for us (I John 3:16). We teach them about the sin that separates us from him and the Christ who redeems and restores. (Rom 3:23-24). We teach them love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (Gal 5:22), pray the Spirit would change their hearts (Ezek. 11:19) so that their lives would bear these fruits.
Yet, reticence creeps in and we find it difficult to teach affliction and suffering. Maybe we fear to cause anxiety, stripping the innocence of childhood, or maybe we have not wrestled with and submitted to the problem of pain and suffering? However, a serious problem arises if we do not teach them the sovereignty of God in all things, including suffering.
Suffering has been a part of the created world since sin entered through Adam (Rom. 5:12-17). The Psalmist, Job, and the prophets suffered emotionally and spiritually, and physical suffering abounded in the Old and New Testament. Each instance was providentially ordained by our wise God for good. When we fail to address it with our children, we deny a part of the character of our holy God. We undermine the majesty of his person, goodness, wisdom, and power.
By not acknowledging his sovereignty and providence at work in the suffering of their lives, we paint a picture of an impotent and faithless God when the truth is, we are the faithless ones. A theology of suffering points our children to James 1:2-4 where they learn joy in trials can be theirs as God’s love tests and matures them. 1 Peter 1 encourages them to persevere and grow in genuine faith as they cling to Christ their living hope. The suffering they experience teaches them to yearn for something more than earthly things, turn to Christ, and pursue him as their greatest treasure.
Romans 5:1–5 has become one of my daughter’s favourite passages. She knows Christ suffered for her sake and that his death and resurrection give her peace with God. The suffering she experiences is not without hope because her hope is eternal and anchored in Christ alone through grace by faith.
Teach Them to Lament and Find Peace in Christ
It is heartrending to watch your children suffer. My heart aches as I watch my son sometimes choose isolation over friendship because of his physical and cognitive inability to keep pace with peers frustrates him. Anguish flooded my soul as I watched my daughter wake up to the realization she could no longer use half her body, and I could do nothing to diminish her grief, fear, or anger. Suffering children need real hope, gospel hope, not empty words or hollow promises of a better or easier future.
Well-meaning pep talks to try harder and persevere leaves them believing future success depends on themselves and their efforts. Suffering children need parents willing to cry with them. Parents need to enter into the suffering and share in their sorrow just as Christ, the Man of Sorrow, bore grief and man’s illness and disease (Is. 53:3–4).
Teach your child to pour out his sorrow to Christ, knowing he also suffered and draws near to the brokenhearted (Ps 34:18). Teach them to look to him for redemption from the power of sickness, sin, and death and choose to worship and praise their Creator and Saviour as they await his rescue.
Read the Psalms with your children! Psalm 142 models pouring out our complaint before God. Psalm 40 speaks of God hearing the cry for help and providing deliverance. Psalm 42:5 provides the path for healing and comfort as the psalmist reminds himself to hope in God and praise him for his salvation. Use the psalmists’ words to point your child to the True Singer and Sufferer.
Instruct them in the sufferings of Christ that were necessary for the glory of salvation. The cross is where they can cast their burdens and find hope for the future through the death and resurrection of the Suffering Servant. Teach them this suffering is momentary and preparing them for eternal glory (2 Cor 3:17).
Teach Them it is Not About Them
Man’s chief end is to glorify God (WSC, Q1). There is no exemption for the suffering, and yet sorrow and hardship easily tempt us to forget we were made for the glory and magnification of God. Suffering is designed to draw us to Christ or to draw others to Christ; in God’s kindness, both are often true.
Parents, teach your child their suffering is a gospel opportunity to remind themselves of the work of God in their lives and to point others to the cross of salvation. Our culture attempts to empower the sufferer by giving them a voice to express their needs, wants, and elevate personal truth as a credo.
We know the world views the cross, an emblem of sacrifice and suffering, as folly, but “to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).” True power is found in submission to the gospel, in salvation through Christ alone (Rom. 1:16). Those who suffer can endure and find grace and mercy as they draw near to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:6) where the risen King makes intercession for them. Just as Christ learned obedience to the Father through his suffering, so too can our suffering children. As they grow in their love and knowledge of Christ, they can proclaim his story and the glories of his name as they faithfully trust him for daily grace to endure to the end.
Children are a gift from the Lord, and those who are appointed to parent children called to suffering can ask the Lord for the wisdom to love, train, and serve them for the glory of God. For the child who does not know Christ personally, the parent can shine the light of Christ and the hope of the gospel into their sorrow. For the child who proclaims Christ as Lord, we have the privilege of walking with them as co-heirs in Christ.
We can exhort them with the Word and encourage them to endure in their suffering as Christ did, eagerly anticipating the glory we will one day share. Ultimately, parents can comfort their children in affliction with the comfort we have received by God through Christ (2 Cor. 1:1-5). Let us cling together to our unshakeable Hope.