Lessons in the Suffering and Trials of Elizabeth Thorn

Posted by Worldview Warriors On Sunday, July 20, 2014 0 comments

by Michael Homula

Last week I shared a brief story about Elizabeth Thorn and what she experienced, endured and did during those three fateful days of July 1863 while six months pregnant. Today I want to take some time to look more closely at Thorn and what we can learn about the character of God and how we should respond when we face suffering and tribulation.

In the summer of 1863, when a battle came to Gettysburg, its citizens were trapped between armies and soon witnessed that the universe of battle was broad and complicated and they too would have to be players in the drama. So they stepped in. They performed all sorts of duties during the crisis – some acted as spies, some picked up a rifle and defended their homes, others cooked, and most ultimately nursed and comforted the wounded and dying. But in the case of Elizabeth Thorn, she scouted ground for the Union Army and then took on the gruesome task of burying the dead all while six months pregnant. Truly amazing!

Thorn documented her experience like virtually no other in the town of Gettysburg at that time. In her writings we find a woman weary but strong, frightened but courageous, horrified but comforted. We must ask ourselves: why was she able to do what she did in the face of such tribulation?

Immediately after the battle, upon returning to the cemetery and the gatehouse that was her home, she found dead and dying men littering the ground. Ordered by the cemetery president to begin burying the dead, she wrote:

"Yet for all the foul air we two started in. I stuck off the graves and while my father finished one, I had another one started. This lasted for days, until....Two [others] came, but one only stayed two days, then got deathly sick and left. The other stayed five days, then he went away very sick.

"[We] kept on burying the soldiers until they had the National Cemetery ready, and in that time we buried one hundred five soldier…it was only excitement and God that helped me to do all the work, with all that stench."

The “why” was her God. The temptation to run away from the horror, carnage, and stress must have been enormous. No one would have faulted her for doing so. Instead of sinking into a paralysis of fear or run to get away, she turned to God and He delivered – as He always does. This is a lesson those who follow Jesus and declare God as Father.

In Zechariah, the prophet heard great news from an angel about Jerusalem:

"Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst." (Zechariah 2:4–5)

In Thorn’s weak, fragile, and vulnerable condition God afforded her protection – “I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord.” If it were true for the vulnerable villages of Jerusalem then surely it was true for Elizabeth Thorn, and it is true for us today as God’s dearly loved children. God will be a “wall of fire” around us.

He has been. He will be.

But, it gets even better. Inside that fiery wall of protection God says, “And I will be the glory in her midst.” God is never content to give us the protection of His fire; He will give us pleasure of His presence.

This certainly would be an encouragement to Thorn during the days and months of hard and gruesome labor and it should be sweet to us as well, carrying us through whatever we face in our lives.

There are seemingly infinite lessons for us in the suffering, perseverance, courage, and fortitude of a pregnant woman burying the dead at Gettysburg. Worldly suffering is inevitable but God has many reasons to allow us adversity, just as Jesus suffered before and on the cross. In the interest of time and space, I chose three reasons:

To Glorify God

It may sound odd, but sometimes we are given tribulation in order for God to receive glory. Consider the events in Daniel concerning Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. They were to be thrown into a flaming furnace for not worshiping a pagan god. They declared to king Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 3:16-18, “the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us…”

In other words, in this tribulation that the three were receiving, God would be glorified in their deliverance from it. Similarly, just as Elizabeth Thorn faced her trials, we may face trials so that our perseverance in God may one day glorify Him when we are delivered from the hardship.

To Build Faith

This is opposite of what most people would believe. One would think that trial and tribulation would cause a believer to lose faith in the Lord, however this is opposite of what the Bible teaches. Faith is built by being tested just as how exercising, though it is uncomfortable to most, builds muscle.

Peter in 1 Peter 1:6-7 emphasizes this idea. Peter tells us that our faith would be found to glorify Jesus, though it be tested by fire. The classic example of this is Job who, although he lost everything, maintained and built faith in the Lord. Elizabeth Thorn’s faith was tested in a way that none of us are likely to experience yet her faith remained firm under fire.

To Grow

Adversity and tribulation, just as it helps us build faith, also helps us to grow more complete, especially in perseverance, character and hope. Romans 5:3-5 says the following:

"…we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us."

God promises that our growth occurs in a process starting with hardship. Hardship gives us a reason to have perseverance: to get through it no matter what. Perseverance builds character by having us trust in the Lord and be humble. Finally, good character gives us the hope we need to overcome the hardship.

I see no greater example of these (and many others) than actions of Elizabeth Thorn at Gettysburg as she faced, alongside her God, suffering and adversity beyond what any of us could imagine.

So, what will you do when you next suffer or face a trail?