The Ministry of Suffering
“Over the years, as my joints have come apart, I’ve been stapled, screwed, bolted, plated, and tied back together.”
Rebekah Howe has undergone 34 major operations to reconstruct her joints. But instead of viewing her suffering as an inconvenience, she shares a different approach—“I have a ministry inside doctors’ offices and inside the operating rooms.”
A Difficult Diagnosis
Rebekah grew up in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, where her parents served as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Her childhood was filled with visits to doctors—her thumbs would dislocate when she set a volleyball, her knees would dislocate when she fell, and doctors would treat the symptoms rather than the underlying problem.
A crisis struck when Rebekah was practicing for a handbell concert with her church. As she played, eight of her fingers suddenly “went in a direction fingers aren’t intended to go.” A surgeon was able to fix her fingers, but he warned her there was a deeper problem.
A year of testing, researching, and investigating unearthed the problem: Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a condition affecting connective tissues. Rebekah was born with a finite number of movements her joints could endure—every movement she makes could be the one that dislocates her joint.
When she was first diagnosed, Rebekah viewed this physical impairment as a loss. It meant she couldn’t do things “normal” people could do. Now, however, she views it differently, saying, “God has absolutely molded me through my physical experience of suffering.”
“God has absolutely molded me through my physical experience of suffering.”
Not only has God deepened Rebekah’s relationship with Him; He has ministered through her because of her suffering.
Watch Rebekah Howe’s Testimony:
The Comfort of Christ
Rebekah Howe came to realize her physical suffering is an opportunity for ministry. Her difficult circumstances enable her to have close relationships with nurses and doctors inside operating rooms who see her on a regular basis. Because of the amount of time she spends with them, she can pray for their needs consistently, checking in with them for updates.
God transmuted Rebekah’s suffering to bring comfort to those around her through her prayers for them. The apostle Paul wrote about this comfort in 2 Corinthians 1:3–5:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ. (NASB)
This comfort is given for those who are in any affliction. Out of her physical suffering, Rebekah ministers to the spiritual needs of medical personnel.
Our suffering enables us to sympathize and empathize with others, ministering out of the abundance of comfort we have in Christ. Although God has many purposes in ordaining various trials for us—whether persecution, infertility, mental health struggles, or, in Rebekah’s case, physical difficulty—one reason is so we can express His grace in a ministry stemming from suffering.
The story of Adolphe Monod, a little-known but influential French pastor in the 19th century, shows someone who received comfort from another believer’s ministry of suffering. Monod doubted his place in the pulpit and was considering quitting, leading to an intense personal crisis. His sister, Adèle Babut, was able to comfort him out of the comfort she received in the midst of her own suffering. She had recently lost her six-month-old daughter, but God transformed her perspective so she could comfort Monod in his affliction:
Dear Adolphe, if I am not mistaken, if my daughter in her death could preach to you with more eloquence and conviction than all those who have been seeking your good . . . I would thank God for all I have suffered.1
Notice the similitude of the ministries God gave Adèle Babut and Rebekah Howe. God used their particular trials and comforts as instruments to strengthen both their faith and the faith of those around them.
The Priesthood of All Believers
Ministering to others out of suffering is not an experience unique to Rebekah Howe or Adèle Babut. For nearly all the great heroes of the faith, personal suffering has led to flourishing ministries.
But this ministry out of suffering is not reserved for a select few. No one can avoid suffering of some kind in this life—and God calls all who believe in Christ to minister out of this suffering.
According to 1 Peter 2:9, we are a “royal priesthood,” modeled after Christ, our great high priest. As high priest, Christ suffered and became like us in order to minister to us (Hebrews 2:17–18). Because we are being conformed to His image, this ministry of suffering is part of the priesthood of all believers.
God calls everyone who follows Him—not just paid ministers—to be in full-time ministry. This ministry is manifested in “different spheres of influence (from the home to the marketplace to vocational ministry).”2 Rebekah learned this well in her own life—the time she spent in doctors’ offices became her sphere of ministry.
God calls everyone who follows Him—not just paid ministers—to be in full-time ministry.
Likewise, God has given each of us a role particular to our own trials. We are to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10b NASB), drawing close to God in order to minister after the pattern of Jesus, our sympathetic high priest.
The Ministry of Suffering Priests
The “priestly” role mentioned in 1 Peter 2:9 is for all followers of Christ. It involves practical ministry in two key categories.3
1. Representing God to People
We represent God to people by witnessing about the comfort and grace God offers. Our trials give us good opportunities for this type of priestly ministry. When God fills us with His love in the midst of suffering, that love overflows to those around us.
We love others best by pointing them to God’s Word—whether by speaking or writing or demonstrating it wordlessly through our actions. Rebekah does this not only through her interactions with medical personnel, but through her travels with her husband, a philosopher and apologist. Together, they defend the inerrancy of Scripture, pointing people to the comfort they can receive in God’s truth.
2. Representing People to God
We represent people to God by lifting them up in intercessory prayer, like Rebekah does by praying for the doctors and nurses she encounters.
Our own suffering can lead us to know how to pray for others in a deeper way, or it can open doors (hospital doors, in Rebekah’s case) that would not have been opened before. Even when we do not know how to pray, we can trust that God is at work—we are never alone when we pray because He faithfully intercedes for us and with us (Romans 8:26–27).
When we fulfill these two components of our priestly role, serving others and proclaiming God out of the abundance of comfort in Christ, “God will transmute the lead of suffering into the gold of glory, not only in our lives but in others’ lives too.”
- Adèle Babut, quoted in Kenneth Boa with Jenny Abel, Shaped by Suffering: How Temporary Hardships Prepare Us for Our Eternal Home (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020), 165. Available for purchase at various booksellers and in our online store
- Boa with Abel, Shaped by Suffering, 154.
- Categories taken from Boa with Abel, Shaped by Suffering, 157–66.
- Boa with Abel, Shaped by Suffering, 167.
Originally written in 2002. My father always hoped that one day, his “ship would come in.” Although he was a bus driver, he spent a lot of time and effort on the side, going from one venture to another in quest of the elusive cash cow. He never nabbed one, but I was able to […]