Suffering is surely an uninvited discipline, like no other. We see suffering as a torment from hell, to be cursed or avoided, rather than an opportunity or a teacher. This happens most when we put ourselves at the center of suffering, instead of God.
We protest suffering for two reasons. The first is that we have been led to believe or have convinced ourselves that getting close to God is a guarantee of affluence, comfort or control. We are frequently on the lookout for proof to our right for “blessing” or “good” and in the process, we mislabel comfort for blessing and ease for good.
Secondly, through advancement in medicine and technology, much of modern human suffering has been minimized. In American/western culture, we have access to many quick escapes from suffering. We do not have to stay thirsty or hungry for long. Most illnesses are quickly mitigated with medicine. We often don’t even have to walk any further than from our house to our car. And we look upon the hungry, thirsty, the sick and those taking the bus as if they are missing the blessings of God.
As a result, we are far removed – and thankfully so – from much suffering, but when it comes, often our hope wanes, our faith falters.
What is your tendency when suffering comes?
I am going to suggest that when we suffer – if we allow it – that we would see suffering as a discipline. This can happen when we keep God at the center of the discipline, which involves a diligent search for what is good and for where God is in the suffering.
Suffering is often the opportunity for an engaging exposure of false idols, false ideas about God and ourselves. It first can reveal our predilection to be immovable, to resist change. We would often rather be ruined than make any change. When we are comfortable – settled in and unchallenged – we often have nothing to compel us forward. We stagnate. We even fail to seek God.
Suffering also exposes what is bad or painful in our lives – those things we often try to ignore, or try to bury, avoid, or lie to ourselves about. Those painful things often cause us to reliably sin to get something better. That sin can lead us to false dependencies (idols) which are blatantly bad for us – alcohol, bad relationships – or subtle, culture-rewarded behaviors – TV, food, status-building, work addiction. No matter which, we often mistake lesser longings for greater ones, settling for popularity over influence, or material gain over belonging, or individualism over community. Or anything over God. We will often sacrifice the righteous to the good, missing God altogether.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops perseverance and perseverance develops our character and our dependence upon hope. Romans 5:3-5
The Greek work for suffering (“problems and trials” in this version) means “pressure.” It metaphorically is being “hemmed in,” a narrow place, as if there are no other options (but God). Thus, our idioms of “dire straits” or “between a rock and a hard place.” Suffering is good when it applies pressure on us to finally come to God, where our only hope lies. We would like to think that comfort, affluence or wellness would give us hope, but each will fail. Illness still comes; bad weather still comes; failure and loss still exist. Only the hope from God sustains because He does not fail; his presence remains when all else collapses or abandons us.
So, how do we engage the discipline in suffering? How do I keep God at the center and persevere? How do I build hope, that which I need most of all?
Let God comfort you.
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our trouble so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. In fact, when you are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! 2 Corinthians 1:3-6a
When I have been hemmed in by suffering, I have asked God for many things – answers, change, relief, direction…even His will. But God wants to offer himself as the greatest comforter. He wants to be with us even then. Be still and let his Holy Spirit enter and speak to you, to hold you in the darkness of fear and anxiety. Some things many never change. A loved one dies. A lost opportunity may never return. One decision may impact an entire life. Let Jesus be enough for you. Learn to engage him in the deep recesses of the human existence.
Let God’s community absorb your grief.
Share each other’s burdens and in this way, obey the law of Christ. Galatians 1:2
Along with the end of 2 Corinthians 1:6, we can see that the community is supposed to be there for each other. This is a fallen world and terrible things happen. Entering into the suffering of others allows you to be a conduit of God’s love and compassion. The parallel meaning of “share each other’s burdens” is to let others share your burden. Receiving other’s compassion is a discipline, too. Isolation is inherently non-biblical.
See suffering as a chance for God to grow you.
Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So, let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be mature and complete, needing nothing. James 1:2-4
It is a spiritual maturity to look into the eyes of suffering and look for an opportunity – for joy, to prove your faithfulness, to grow steady. The “test” of your faith is a “proof” word – to demonstrate your faith – your trust for and your trust of God. To whom do you need to prove it? Not God. He already knows. Often, we need the proof ourselves. Leaning into God, trusting His Word has often brought a subtle amazement to me. People have asked me, “How did you get through that?” I knew it was God. It may not have been easy. It wasn’t fun (i.e. comfortable), but, with God, I endured.
We are more than our problems. I see no reason to retain labels such as “victim” or “survivor” or “I am in recovery.” Many people keep these labels their entire lives. The apostle Paul says you are more than that, more than a conqueror because of the love of Christ.
In all these things (trouble, calamity, persecution, hunger, danger, even death) we are more than conquerors through Christ, who loved us. Romans 8:37
Don’t reduce your prayers to only circle around your problems. God is more than your problem-solver. Instead, when you suffer, seek greater things than solutions. Suffering may be that place you learn wisdom, true self-knowledge, Christ-likeness, perseverance, your faith, God’s presence and gain the thing that gives life triumph through any battle – hope.