Suffering means I’m doing something wrong, or I’m not faithful enough. Suffering comes at people’s own hands, because of the choices that they make. We can pray and work our suffering away. God rewards good with good and bad with bad. If we do things the right way, God will protect us from suffering and harm. We can protect ourselves from suffering through right choices, like a solid savings account, being friends with the right kind of people, living our lives the right kind of way, living safe. It is good to protect ourselves and our children from bad, hurt or suffering. Suffering isn’t something to talk about, but to keep quiet about, or to endure.
Do any of these cultural messages sound or feel familiar?
But what does the Bible have to say about suffering? Crazy countercultural things, like that we should rejoice in our sufferings, because it produces endurance that leads to character that leads to hope, a hope that is bigger than ourselves (Romans 5:3-5). That we should count trials as joy, AS JOY, because they produce a stronger, more steady faith (James 1:2-4). That we experience suffering for all kinds of reasons in all kinds of ways: at the hands of discipline (Hebrews 12:10-11) and trials that refine our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7), persecution for our faith/being the church (2 Timothy 3:12, John 16:33, 1 Peter 4: 12-13), that in this world there is the reality of death, pain, mourning, crying and that is why the promise of heaven is so dang good (Revelation 21:4). No one, not any of us, are immune from suffering. Even the righteous have many troubles (Psalm 34:19).
And then there are gems like this that make me want to literally fist pump in the air:
We now have this light shining in our hearts (the gospel – the good news of Christ), but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
Yes, we live under constant danger of death because we serve Jesus, so that the life of Jesus will be evident in our dying bodies. So we live in the face of death, but this has resulted in eternal life for you…
…That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.
(Paul speaking in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 16-18)
That part – though our bodies our dying, our spirits are being renewed every day – I am learning that it is natural for me to focus on the physical, namely the dying, the wasting away, the troubles, the being knocked down. But then there’s the spiritual part that’s happening, that is not as in your face, that can be missed but is where the meat of life is at – I am not driven to despair, I am never abandoned, I am not ultimately destroyed, I AM RENEWED. I can see troubles easy breezy. But instead, I’m learning more and more how to see the spiritual, and I know no better way to do so than to just plain old ask God to help me to have eyes to see and to spend time in his presence, getting to know his ways and letting go of my ways, and even of culture’s ways. And when I have leaned heavy into God and made him bigger than my beliefs and my troubles, I have seen that one of God’s big lessons in all of this for me has been to let go of my big fat illusion that I can be in control. That I am in control. And to trade that in for trust, trust that isn’t just there in the good, but that buoys and anchors me in the deepest and darkest of valleys and the every day in-between. I am learning this through my suffering: This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
Instead of hanging firm to my troubles, to what I can see, I am hanging firm to the word of God that says that nothing – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword – can separate me from Christ’s love. (Romans 8:35) I’ve only lost one thing – my health. With it has come a necessary loss of my understanding of self-dependence, of self-control. But if I lost everything? Paul says: I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8). As we sit in our suffering, may we see it for what it is, an opportunity for closeness with Christ. An opportunity for gain. An opportunity to really get, at the core of us and our lives that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. May we be able to peel our eyes/hearts/thoughts/minds away from the physical losses and think about the spiritual that God has for us to learn.
May we be able to join with the Psalmist, who says “This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” (Psalm 119:50) And with Paul who says in Philippians 4:12-14 that in all circumstances – in need or plenty, well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want – that God is the source of his strength. Can I be okay, let alone delight, in my weakness, in insults, in hardships, persecutions and difficulties because they make me dependent on Christ’s strength in me and make Christ’s strength shine? (2 Corinthians 12:10).
I don’t know. But I know I’m certainly growing in spiritual maturity, and in large part through my season of suffering. In learning how to let go of my illusions about suffering and control, I’m learning how to hang on to the thing that matters most, Christ’s strength, goodness, love and power.
Before I end, I want to be sure to say that God asks us not just to learn from the sufferings that befall us, but to walk into suffering. I could write a million and a half things on this topic, and maybe one day I will. But here’s a good word from my sister in Christ, Lori, on how you will be burned when you live as Christ asks you to live, but “Do it anyway.” She’s real and honest, and I need her voice in my life. I’m also eating up Shannan Martin’s book Falling Free. Here’s a taste of her story:
The truth had descended on me like an early fog – it’s hard to pine for heaven when you already believe you’re there…For all our adult lives, our radar had been locked on one goal: to ensure our own safety and security…What we saw with fresh eyes was that God’s “more” often looks a whole lot like less…He reminded me who he is – a God who laughs in the face of logic and weighs things like safety and security on an eternal scale requiring all of my faith…Faith points us to a way that’s completely different. It requires us to abandon our lives into the hands of God and whatever he has planned… [For us] it meant trading more for less and leaping off the ladder of upward mobility…it meant discovering the golden thread that connects all of us, the glimmering kinship of being fully known in the eyes of another and believing we share a humanity that transcends race, DNA, habits, opportunities, failures, and socioeconomic strata.
There’s just a few more days to pre-order her book before it officially releases and grab yourself some free goodies in the process. You can pre-order and read more here.
To end, Lauren Diagle’s song First has been an anthem song of sorts as I’ve wrestled through this topic of letting go of my control and focusing instead on God, in all seasons, in all moments. I leave it here for you to enjoy. As I listen, here’s my prayer for you and for me: May my heart desire to seek God first! Before bringing my needs or cares, may I just desire to be with him, to seek him, to worship him. May I be able to learn more and more through my suffering how to look beyond myself and really lose myself in God. And may that in turn lead me deeper into a life of following him, which involves willingly stepping into suffering, into service, following in Christ’s earthly example.
Peace be with you today and everyday, friends!