[Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from chapter 21 of In the Hands of a Fiercely Tender God, Colleen Chao’s forthcoming book on suffering that provides thirty-one days of hope, honesty, and encouragement for the sufferer. Find it available for preorder today.]
Early this morning, while it was still dark and quiet, I lay in bed and thought about friends who have health and a full head of hair, older kids and longer marriages—and I said to God, “It’s not fair.”
Dangerous words, those.
When I was single in my late twenties and early thirties, my social circles consisted of friends who had married young and popped out beautiful, healthy babies, one right after another. I remember how easy it was back then to think, It’s not fair. But I learned that those three little words were a sneaky invitation to an epic pity party—and that party never ends well. (Think drunken envy and emotional hangovers.) So as quickly as I spoke those words this morning, I wanted to rescind them. Instead, I replaced them with a well-worn prayer: God, help me see from your perspective, through your eyes. Don’t let me compare my sufferings with others’. Help me trust that you know what’s best—and that you love me.
Look Up, Not Around in Suffering
I reminded myself that despite this terminal diagnosis, and all the physical and emotional suffering that comes with it, not everything is as it seems. In fact, I see dimly (1 Cor. 13:12). My ideas of “fairness” are contorted by my blurred, finite vision. I must stop looking all around and instead look up using my “faith vision.” I love Elisabeth Elliot’s wisdom in this regard. She wrote:
"It depends on our willingness to see everything in God, receive all from His hand, accept with gratitude just the portion and the cup He offers. Shall I charge Him with a mistake in His measurements or with misjudging the sphere in which I can best learn to trust Him? Has He misplaced me? . . . The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances. . . . We can only know that Eternal Love is wiser than we, and we bow in adoration of that loving wisdom."1
Can I “accept with gratitude” the portion God has given me—or am I “charging Him with a mistake in His measurements”? Do I demand everyone’s portion be equal and identical to mine? I remember the apostle Peter’s struggle with this. In John 21, we find Peter walking with Jesus, discussing Peter’s death of all things. Peter then pointed to John and asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
“If I want him to remain until I come,” Jesus answered, “what is that to you? As for you, follow me” (John 21:21–22, CSB). Peter would suffer a cruel death, and John would long outlive him. But both would know great affliction, both would glorify Jesus through their unique sufferings—and both would be integral to the birth and growth of the church.
Look to Jesus’ Example
I love the perspective of time. When I was single and aching to be married with children like my friends, I couldn’t yet see the many ways we would all suffer—and the privilege, even the joy, it would be to suffer together as we followed Jesus (as we compared ourselves to him, not to each other). My dearest friends have endured hardships I could not have. And as they’ve endured those hardships by faith in Christ, I’ve been encouraged to endure my own hardships with greater strength and joy. I’ve come to know and love Jesus more because of the way I’ve seen him through my friends’ sufferings. I am part of a precious “fellowship of sufferers.” And in this fellowship, there’s no room for elevating one friend’s suffering above another’s. Instead, we listen to each other, cry with each other, pray like crazy for one another, and laugh together.
So here is my strong encouragement today—for myself and for you: Don’t look left. Don’t look right. Look straight ahead and follow Jesus. Compare yourself to him, to the example he gave us in his death: “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2, CSB).
God’s Not Cheating You in Your Suffering
God knows we need to stay in relationship with a few life-giving friends, even when our pain threatens to build a chasm between us. Maybe no one in your life can fully understand what you’re going through right now; maybe others’ lives truly are “easier” in some respects—or shockingly “normal.” But we see dimly, and he sees perfectly—and he is not cheating you while blessing them. He knows what he’s doing, and he is pouring out his goodness on you today, even in these (humanly speaking) worst of circumstances. And there is joy waiting on the other side of this cross.
Dear sufferer, let me quickly add this: When you do speak those three little words, “It’s not fair”—out of a heart that hurts because others have what you deeply long for—he is gentle with you in your weakness and pain. He will draw you into his loving embrace and hold you and help you. And he will give you the eyes to see from his perspective again. He’s fiercely tender like that.
Meet the Author
Colleen Chao has written extensively about finding God’s goodness in the unexpected chapters of her life, including singleness, chronic illness, and terminal cancer. She’s worked as an editor and writer for global organizations and an English teacher to some of her favorite people on earth—teenagers. When she’s not wrangling words, she enjoys beautiful hikes, side-splitting laughter, and half-read books piled bedside. She makes her home just outside Boise, Idaho with her husband Eddie, their son Jeremy, and Willow the dog.