A Theology of Suffering

A Theology of Suffering


Malcolm Duncan  is one of my favourite N. Ireland Bible teachers. I first heard him live at New Horizon in 2014, a few months after Leah had died. My concentration and attention span were limited but Malcolm’s preaching really held my attention.

Malcolm’s charge at New Horizon in 2014 was to preach each night from the Sermon on the Mount. On the Thursday night Malcolm announced that he felt that God wanted him to depart from what he was scheduled to speak on, in order to talk about suffering and grief in a message entitled His Presence in our pain. It was such a God moment. There were many friends and family there that night who were grieving deeply for Leah. Not to mention the many others in the 2,500 strong crowd who were grieving for loved ones or who were experiencing other kinds of suffering.

Malcolm said that night:

Have you ever cried out to God, “Why?” How can we not be moved when we hear the stories of Christians around the world that are suffering such horrific persecution. At some point in their life, every Christian will go through something that causes them to ask, “Why?” Mary and Martha went through that experience when Lazarus died.

The sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one who you love is sick.” Never think that sickness or death or suffering or unanswered prayer are an indication that God does not love you.  There is a cruel theology in the church that says if you are facing illness or sickness it is because you don’t have enough faith – that is NOT the case.  Suffering does not mean that God is punishing you.

Within weeks of this event, Malcolm Duncan was going to know grief and suffering like he had never known it before. In the months that followed, three members of his close extended family died by suicide, while three other family members – his mother, his wife and his brother, were simultaneously hospitalised in three different hospitals, for very serious illnesses.

Two podcasts that Malcolm subsequently recorded with Dave Criddle, entitled Hard Times and Hard Times Part 2  have been such a blessing to me. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve listened to these podcasts and sat writing notes in my journal.

In these podcasts Malcolm and Dave talk about how they’ve attended church feeling weak and broken and that it’s ok to not be ok. They said that although sometimes they have felt God’s presence in a very real way in their suffering, there have been many other times when they don’t feel God at all, they just continue on because they believe.

Malcolm talks about his faith being less ‘fluffy’ now and about being clearer about the difference between joy and happiness – happiness is fleeting and depends on our circumstances, whereas joy is deeply rooted in something much more meaningful. He says that emotional pain has caused him to dig deeper for meaning , but he also acknowledges that for many people, pain and suffering become the fulcrum on which their lives turn away from God.

How many times I have stood sobbing at Leah’s grave (this past week included), contemplating one of her favourite verses inscribed on the kneeling plate:

kneeling plate

Malcolm’s life has turned further into God, which he describes as ‘a work of grace’. He talks about saying to God “Unless you get me through this, I won’t make it.” Ah, but how those words resonate with my own heart.

He asks “How does one travel with sadness – the absence of a sense of God’s presence -because finding God in the midst of suffering is not a given?” He says “What do we do with a God who doesn’t always heal, One who doesn’t always answer prayer?” Malcolm courageously admits to having thousands of questions. It is like the Balm of Gilead to my soul, to at last encounter a Christian leader who admits to being plagued with many of the same questions that I have wrestled with.  He says that one day God will answer all of our questions, but on that day, the questions won’t matter anyway.

Near the end of the first podcast is my favourite line of all, when Malcolm says that our churches are caught up with thinking about a theology of healing, when perhaps what they/we really need is a THEOLOGY OF SUFFERING!

“Hard Times” with Malcolm Duncan & Dave Criddle

“Hard Times, pt. 2” with Malcolm Duncan & Dave Criddle

Lost or Found?

Lost or Found?

Our church on a Sunday morning has about 150 hundred people and isn’t especially crowded. However if Horace and the kids go in and sit down before me I can never find them and have to ask one of the stewards to help me locate them!

At New Horizon the other night a friend who hadn’t seen me since long before Leah died, toured the tent of 2,500 people, before the meeting started, looking for me, because someone had told her I was there. She searched the faces of every row, every block, until she found me imbedded in the middle of a row, half way down a crowded block of seats. She beckoned me out and enveloped me in her warm embrace.


Her tears mingled with mine, as she expressed her sympathy over the death of my daughter. As a mother of four children herself, her heart aches for my loss.


The Bible says in Romans 12:15 that we are to ‘weep with those who weep’. It always comforts me to know how much others care and that they are praying for me and my family circle.

The actions of this friend also reminded me of our Saviour and how He searches for us too. In the parable of the lost sheep in Luke 15 we read:

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

We can be ‘lost’ in so many different ways – lost in sin, lost in our sorrow, lost in our emotional pain, lost in whatever has taken over our lives and has caused us to turn away from God.

The Bible tells us in Luke 19:10

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

No matter how lost we are or why we are lost, Jesus is looking for us. He loves us so very much, He died on the cross to take the punishment for our sins so that we can know forgiveness and assurance of everlasting life. No matter how awful our circumstances, Jesus can give us peace in our hearts.


I hope that I never have to replicate this lovely gesture though. If I can’t find my husband and children in a crowd of 150, I would never be able to locate a long lost friend amongst 2,500!

Later that night at New Horizon we sang this amazing song by Rend Collective, Leah’s favourite band. It really blessed me.

We are more than conquerors

When my hope and strength is gone
You’re the one who calls me on
You are the life
You are the fight
That’s in my soul

Oh, Your resurrection power
Burns like fire in my heart
When waters rise
I lift my eyes
Up to Your throne

Grief has no Shortcuts

Grief has no Shortcuts


In years gone by I used to tell people that “when Leah went away on holidays, our household fell apart“! This was because Leah was so organised. For any planned event or outing, Leah made out a tick list and followed me around the house asking “Mummy have you done this?” Or “Mummy have you got that?

I too can be a very organised person, or at least I used to be before grief set in. Grief affects my concentration and attention span, but most especially my time management skills – it seems to take me ages to get anything done.

Simon was going to camp early yesterday and there was no chance that he would do his own packing. So my task for Saturday was to pack for Simon going to Faith Mission Camp. A simple task you might think?

Last year before Leah went to Bristol in July, she wrote Simon a list, so that he would know what to take to camp with him in August while we were away.

For the camp Simon is going to I am supposed to send a tub of homemade buns with him to contribute to the catering – Leah usually made those, other than last year when none were sent.

Leah absolutely loved going to camp. When she was of Primary School age she went to the same camp that Simon is now at – Faith Mission Camp in Portadown. Then as she got older she went to C.E.F. (Child Evangelism Fellowship) Camp in Rossnowlagh in Donegal. My older daughter went there too and trained to be a leader. Leah had one weekend in 2012 as a junior leader which she really enjoyed. Her plans for 2013 were to attend “Training Week” in June to do leadership training and then to be a leader at camp in August last year.

However instead Leah was diagnosed in April 2013 and started treatment in July. Leah’s burning ambition was to work with children and young people. She planned to train as a youth counsellor when she left school.

This was Leah’s list that she made for herself when she was going to CEF camp in Rossnowlagh in 2012


Packing for Simon to go to camp on Saturday seemed like a mammoth task. There was my grief at having only one teenager going to a faith based camp this year instead of two. There was my grief at not having one of Leah’s familiar tick lists in front of me. There was my overwhelming grief at the complete absence of Leah’s voice checking up on me.

Thankfully Miriam came and helped me to make the buns for Simon to take with him so that was ok.


What should have only taken a few hours took me the entire day. I’m learning that grief has no shortcuts though. There would have been no benefit to some helpful person coming and doing that task for me – every aspect of our loss has to be grieved, even though the pain at times is awful.


Tonight I’m planning to go to New Horizon in Coleraine. I missed it last year because Leah and I were in Bristol. The last time I went there was when I brought Leah home from having spent the week there in 2012. I clearly remember parking and sitting with Leah in the car outside our house, unable to get a word in edge ways because Leah was so excited about everything that God had done in her life that week.

When Leah was leaving CEF camp in 2012 her dorm leaders gave her a little notebook and wrote this in the front:

image image

Leah then took this notebook to New Horizon in 2012 and wrote six pages of notes – here’s an extract:


I’ve shared this song before but I’m going to share it again because it’s one of many that I regularly come back to:

Sovereign Over Us

By Aaron Keyes, Bryan Brown & Jack Mooring

There is beauty in our tears
You meet us in our mourning
With a love that casts out fear
You are working in our waiting
Sanctifying us
When beyond our understanding
You’re teaching us to trust

Your plans are still to prosper, You have not forgotten us
You’re with us in the fire and the flood
Faithful forever, perfect in love
You are sovereign over us

We have this Treasure in Jars of Clay

We have this Treasure in Jars of Clay

Something Leah and I both really appreciated after she became ill, was for friends to share a Bible verse with us and to pray with us.

Thankfully we know so many amazing people here in N.Ireland, that we weren’t short of people who were willing to minister to us in this way.

Therefore during Leah’s stays in hospital in N.I. we usually received some kind of pastoral support on a daily basis and we loved this.

Bristol was another matter.

We were warned in advance that the only minister who would be allowed to visit us in the bone marrow transplant unit was the ‘official’ hospital chaplain, nobody else would be allowed in.

We were shocked to discover that the hospital chaplain only visited once a week.

Three weeks into our stay, her visits in the transplant unit were stopped, on the grounds of infection control.

I went through the official hospital complaints procedures, to insist on Leah’s rights to chaplaincy and I succeeded in getting the hospital chaplains redesignated as “essential visitors” so that her visits could be reinstated.

Sadly for us, a few weeks after this, our lovely chaplain left, to take up a new post elsewhere, so her visits stopped again.

Our minister from home managed to visit us in Bristol on one occasion, as did our church Family Worker, Leah and I appreciated this so very much.

The hospital staff in Bristol were amazed at this pastoral input from our church in Northern Ireland.

Notwithstanding all of this, by week three, Leah was seriously ill and we were seriously missing the pastoral support we were so used to receiving at home in N.I.

Leah and I were virtually in ‘lockdown’ in an isolation room on the bone marrow transplant unit.

We were fortunate that on the 31st July ’13 we were given an accommodation upgrade from a small pokey room that we hated (cubicle 4) to a beautiful, airy, spacious one, with ensuite facilities, that we really liked.

I couldn’t make phonecalls or ‘FaceTime’ as the noise irritated Leah when she was so unwell. The one thing I could do though was send and receive texts and emails.

I so very much appreciated the support that we received from so many people during Leah’s hospitalisations, by text, email, Facebook and private message.

This is one very helpful text that I received at just the right time:


Gradually it dawned on me that I had no choice but to be Leah’s ‘chaplain’ myself. This is a text I sent to someone else around that time:


As evangelical Christians in N.I. I think that we are too used to the easy life sometimes – we can choose from any & every type of church and denomination.

We could go to a Gospel meeting or Bible study every night of the week if we choose to.

Most major towns have well stocked Christian book shops.

Many of us go every year to conferences like New Horizon, Portstewart Convention, Focusfest, Mandate and many others.

When and how do we put all of this teaching into practice in our lives?

The Bible says in Hebrews 5:12 

‘You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food.’ NLT

I had lots of devotional books with me that I read daily for my own benefit but at this early stage I wasn’t used to sharing any of this with Leah.

She had brought her own books with her but was now too ill to read them herself.

In early August Leah was so ill and so sedated that she could only listen and concentrate for very short periods of time.


I needed to pick out the most appropriate pieces from my own reading for sharing with Leah.

I was sort of nervous and self conscious at first, wondering if I was getting it right, but Leah was so appreciative.

Soon it just felt so “normal” and so nice, that every day, I read the Bible and some devotional readings to Leah and prayed with her. Leah was so “hungry” for the things of God, that even when I was having my own personal time with God, if she happened to be awake, she would say “read that out loud to me please Mummy.”

At times we as Christians can feel so very weak and inadequate, but yet God can still use us in the lives of others.

The Bible tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:7 

‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ NIV

Our very weakness and sense of inadequacy is what helps us to rely on God instead of doing things in our own strength.

I have learned many lessons on this journey, but if the truth be told, they aren’t lessons that I would ever have chosen to learn – or at least I wouldn’t have chosen to learn them in this way!


The Girl’s Brigade CD

The Girl’s Brigade CD

Today I listened to this CD of worship songs recorded by Leah along with all the other girls in Kilfennan Girls Brigade in 2010.
The money raised from sales of this CD was divided between Kilfennan GB and the NI Children’s Hospice, where Leah subsequently died in January 2014 in peace and dignity.

Every April our Girl’s Brigade finishes its year’s work with a fantastic display for parents and friends. The last performance on the night’s agenda is the finale. This is where the girls of secondary school age – the ‘Company Section’ – usually sing a medley of favourite worship songs/choruses.

Leah is first on the right hand side of the middle row

I used to love the expression on Leah’s face as she sang – it radiated joy. Leah’s facial expression told me that she meant every word:

All I once held dear, built my life upon
All this world reveres, and wars to own
All I once thought gain I have counted loss
Spent and worthless now, compared to this

Knowing you, Jesus
Knowing you, there is no greater thing
You’re my all, you’re the best
You’re my joy, my righteousness
And I love you, Lord

Now my heart’s desire is to know you more
To be found in you and known as yours
To possess by faith what I could not earn
All-surpassing gift of righteousness

Oh, to know the power of your risen life
And to know You in Your sufferings
To become like you in your death, my Lord
So with you to live and never die

Graham Kendrick
Copyright © 1993 Make Way Music,

When Leah was three years old she came home from Good News Club and asked Jesus to forgive her sins and to live in her heart as her Lord and Saviour.

One of her favourite wee books used to be “Jesus all alone” that she had received as an Easter gift at the Parent and Toddler Group at our church. It tells the story of Jesus dying on the cross. She had memorised the words from cover to cover when she was very young.
Early in 2012 when Leah was 14 she found herself struggling both emotionally and spiritually. That Summer she went to C.E.F. Camp (Child Evangelism Fellowship) in Rossnowlagh in Donegal and also to the ‘Livewire’ teen programme at New Horizon in Coleraine, where she met with God in a new and deeper way. This is a text she sent me that week:
Leah stayed with friends in Portstewart for the week of New Horizon. At the end of that week I collected her and brought her home, a 40 minute journey.

Leah talked excitedly the whole way home about what she had learned about God and about what He was doing in her life. When we reached our house it was a while before she could even stop talking long enough for us to get out of the car. I was so delighted and amazed to hear everything that she was sharing with me. I remember the next night in the kitchen Leah hugging me and her telling me “Mummy I just love Jesus so much!”

In October that year Leah was asked to write out her testimony for a youth conference in Donegal.
When Leah was in Intensive Care, on one of the days that the doctor had called me out to explain that my daughter was unlikely to survive, I came back into her room and searched on YouTube for the song “Our God is a Great Big God” and played it. Leah was on a ventilator and too weak to even open her eyes, but she immediately smiled and used her two hands to do all the actions to accompany the words.

Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
Our God is a great big God
And He holds me in His hand.

He’s higher than a sky scraper
And He’s deeper than a submarine.
He’s wider than the universe
And beyond my wildest dreams.

And He’s known me and He’s loved me
Since before the world began.
How wonderful to be a part
Of God’s amazing plan.

The closer Leah came to death, the more joyful and peaceful she became.

She told Nic, her boyfriend, that she wasn’t afraid to die.

She was as sure of the truth in the words of the above songs on her death bed, as she had been when she sang them with the Company Section of the 320th Girl’s Brigade Company.