If you struggle to believe God loves you, and God just keeps bringing trials into your life, don’t panic. They’re more related than you realize.
I hobbled on one crutch to grip my cell phone from my back pocket. I was a starter for the New York Knicks and then the Toronto Raptors. And then I got injured, and then injured again, and then injured again. An elbow, a hand, a hip—an unholy trinity that slowly, progressively and painfully dragged away my ability to play basketball for several seasons. My dream, my deepest desire, my identity were all suddenly in danger. It felt like life had been written in dry-erase marker, and God came and smudged what had been clear before. Once a star basketball player in Madison Square Garden, and now through three years of unplanned, unwanted physical issues, in my house straining just to check my phone.
John Piper’s tweet grabbed my attention: “NFL player Garrett Gilkey blew out his knee last night. He writes about God’s ‘grand and glorious sovereignty.’” Click. Like a rescue worker down in a sunken-in mine, God seized my soul from the death of sin and despair.
What Is God Doing?
I’ve never struggled to believe in God. But I’ve lived a lot of my life as a person who believes in God, but lives as if he doesn’t exist. I already had a “gospel” of my own—the promise that love and wealth are the world’s to give to the popular and gifted. I didn’t need to trust God, because I already trusted another god: the NBA.
Three years ago, Christ slowly started to change all of that. God gave me a gift through multiple season-ending injuries. In the same way that God gifted Garrett joy through his suffering, God gifted me faith through my suffering.
That’s how God works. He never wastes a drop of pain. If you’re in the midst of suffering—especially if it’s long-term, complex or confusing—here are three gifts of faith that grow out of suffering in ways that will last (1 Corinthians 3:15).
A True Faith
Through suffering, God molds in us “godly sorrow that brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10).
Suffering is the hook that God uses to bring us back to himself, collapsed and tired from slaving for sin, which Jonathan Edwards calls our “cruel task-master, which oppresses and chastises.” It’s the earthquake that exposes idols and dethrones sin in our hearts. When I was playing for the Knicks, I knew God existed and disapproved of the life I was living (overindulging in alcohol and sexual promiscuity), but I preached a gospel of cheap grace to make myself feel better. With the injuries, God exposed that I was relying on something other than grace painted to look like grace—a cheap grace that was as useful for my suffering as a cardboard cutout of Jesus.
When the injuries came, I started reading Scripture. I had the odd, unsettling thought, “I don’t think I’m really saved.” I read in James, “Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).
God dims the light of our life with suffering, so that our hearts embrace a grace that really sustains. Suffering is a time to mourn the loss of that which could never save.