The thing about suffering is that we can always downplay our own by finding someone who suffers more than we do. I have four sisters and all of them can say more about this subject than I can. One endured years of separation from her husband in an attempt to heal her marriage. Another endures loneliness and isolation in a foreign country. Still another became a widow after only three years of a very happy marriage. And the last has suffered countless years of health struggles and dietary restrictions. And there are my two friends that epitomize the definition of suffering in my opinion. My Indonesian friend, Nella, was constantly sick and finally succumbed to her body's weakness in death. My Lancaster County friend continues to fight to keep ahead of the cancer that refuses to die despite several surgeries and endless treatment.
And me? Yes, I have suffered, to some degree. The early years of my marriage held much pain as my dear husband struggled to love me as the Scripture instructs due to his own brokenness. I desired to have one more member in our family, but a miscarriage and subsequent infertility prevented that. Going from one crisis to another in Indonesia was unpleasant and stressful. Losing my mother to heart failure was a huge loss. Living without a home for the last six months was inconvenient and tough. And more recently, my theology and inaction has been attacked by one I love deeply. But, is this suffering? Am I qualified to say anything on this topic?
While many know more about suffering than I do, I can point to some truths that have helped me over the years.
Normalize, not minimize.
1 Peter 4:12 says "Don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you!" Everyone suffers in varying degrees and ways. But bottom-line, we all suffer. Are you alive? Do you breathe? You will suffer. It is normal, but it also hurts. Don't compare your suffering with someone else's, either to minimize it or to exaggerate it. When Jesus gave the apostle Peter a glimpse into his future death in John 21:21-22, he blurted out, “What about him [John], Lord?” Jesus replied, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? As for you, follow me.” Each of our journeys is handmade by God for our best, to produce the best results according to his will.
Joy, not complaint.
1 Peter 4:13 says "Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world." Complaining only reiterates the troubles and keeps them in the forefront of our minds. After a particularly difficult time, I picked up a devotional by Joy Ritterhof entitled "Are You Rejoicing?". Day after day, her challenge to me to rejoice gradually changed my perspective and brought relief.
Pray, not worry.
"Is anyone among you suffering? He should pray." (James 5:13) Some of my sweetest times of communion with the Lord come during times of suffering. Pouring out my heart to him gives me a place to take my concerns, my fears, my cyclical thoughts and lets me pull them up out of myself and give them to someone who can actually do something about them.
Participate, not avoid.
"But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you." (I Peter 4:13-14) My experiences are not new. My Lord too is often misunderstood. His words get twisted. He is blamed for everything. Folks reject him because he doesn't do what they want. All sorts of evil are done in his name. He is given ultimatums and attempts to control or manipulate his actions. He is slandered and insulted on a daily basis.
When this kind of suffering is directed my way, I put on the belt of truth, "But if [I] suffer for doing good and [I] endure it, this is commendable before God. To this [I was] called, because Christ suffered for [me], leaving [me] an example, that [I] should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." (I Peter 2:20b-23) Though this may be one of the hardest kinds of suffering, it affords me the opportunity to identify with Christ in a new and deeply profound way. He gets it — he understands —and I begin to get him just a little bit more.
Journey, not leap.
1 Peter 1:7 says "These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world."
I have always wanted the easy way to maturity, the one without suffering. That is why I usually choose to do the right thing, not because I am especially good, but because I want to avoid suffering. As a "results-person", I want to hurry up and learn the lesson and get back to "normal" life. But the illustration of climbing always helps me here. A climber cannot magically leap to the top of the mountain. He must journey, sometimes painfully, inch by inch to the top. There is a reason for the journey, the process, the present. Through suffering, I am starting to appreciate the process, the small steps of growth, the journey, not shortcutting my lessons with a leap to the finish.
My wise husband once said, "I contend that suffering involves the inner turmoil of the process of becoming Christ-like. In this regard, the daily choice of dying to my own desires and choosing Christ's enacts God's will in my life through the path of suffering."
Heaven, not earth.
Romans 8:23 says "And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us." I love life. I enjoy living, laughing, feeling and creating. At times, I find it hard to believe there is something better. Without suffering, I would be so blind to the real reason I live—not for earth, but for eternity. This world is not my home, I'm just passing through.
I used to think that only those who were disobedient or rebellious or unwise would suffer. That suffering was the punishment or consequence of some kind of sin. WRONG. In John 9:1-3, Jesus saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him". So my attempt to live perfectly in order to avoid suffering is futile. God wants to show his power in me and one way is through suffering.
Like the apostle Peter, I want to suffer "in a manner that pleases God, keep on doing what is right, and trust [my] life to the God who created [me], for he will never fail [me]. (I Peter 4:19) I frequently remind myself that: "God is always good, always on his throne, always working, always knows what he is doing and his love for me never stops." (Carolyn Custis James)
Which of these Biblical truths about suffering did you need to be reminded of today? Why?
How has that truth helped you in your present suffering?