Article by: Hannah Miller, High School Youth & Young Adults Pastor
We don’t want to hear this, but suffering is a guaranteed aspect of our life here on earth. However, even amidst pain and suffering, there is so much hope. I am not sure what has sparked this desire to write about suffering today, but I hope that if you’re in a season of suffering right now, you will find hope here.
To start, suffering is not a random experience that God rains down on us in some sadistic boredom. Suffering plays a role in our lives and in our spiritual journeys to become more like Christ. In 1 John, we read, “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6, ESV). Jesus walked in suffering. He experienced grief (Luke 19:41; John 11:35), he felt anguish (Matthew 26:38), and he knew sorrow (Isaiah 53:3). When we walk in the same ways that he walked, sorrow and suffering are a part of that. Eventually, Jesus experienced deep suffering and pain as he was taken to a Roman cross. However, even amidst this deep suffering, Jesus models how to respond well amidst suffering. Suffering is anything that brings anguish or pain to our bodies or souls. Jesus felt both anguish of soul and anguish of body.
When we journey through suffering, we are often, if not always, drawn into deeper communion with God. “Some of us hide behind our faith to flee the pain in our lives rather than trust God to transform us through it” (Scazzero, 2017, p. 102). Pain and suffering are some of the most transformational tools available. This does not mean that we intentionally seek out suffering and pain, but we acknowledge that God can and will use even these times for our good and his glory (Romans 8:28). We are guaranteed suffering, which is okay. Hear that today; it’s okay!! John 16:33 is Jesus’ theology of suffering in one verse. He says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV). Jesus told his disciples, told us, that suffering should not come as a surprise. This world is broken, and therefore, suffering is going to come. However, he tells us these things not to cause fear but to bring us peace. As we groan and ache for an end to pain and suffering, we can be comforted by the one who sees every wound and hurt. Our suffering is normal, but it is not eternal. As John was writing the book of Revelation, he acknowledged the pain and pointed to hope. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Our suffering may be normal, but it will not last. We may not see an end to our pain on this earth, but we will not take it into eternity with us. How beautiful is that?
Just because suffering is a normal part of our lives and will be erased in eternity does not mean we will never experience relief from our sufferings here. Throughout Scripture, we read of God’s people, who he loved deeply, experiencing suffering. However, we also read of countless ways in which God relieves the suffering of his people. From the stress and anxiety of the future to the grief of losing a child, God intervenes. Even Jesus, our model for suffering, grounded his ministry in healing and caring for those who suffered. At times, the sufferings of God’s people were a direct consequence of their hearts or behaviour. However, even in these times, God’s heart was to relieve their pain and suffering after repentance. God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah and said, “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 30:17). God’s heart is for his people, for us, and it pains him to see us in anguish. When we pray and ask for him to intervene, there are times when he does. There are times when he changes the circumstances that are causing us pain. Or, there are times when he steps in and instead of changing our painful circumstances, he gives us the strength, courage, and peace to walk through that sorrow no matter how long it lasts.
There are also times when we are not feeling God’s healing or strengthening touch amidst our pain. Instead, we think God has abandoned us to our grief and agony. What do we do then? When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the punishment was losing his child. In anguish and grief and sorrow, he pleaded with God. “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the night lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused and would not eat any food with them. On the seventh day, the child died” (2 Samuel 12:16-18). This was one of many instances of suffering in David’s life. He was promised kingship by God but spent most of his life on the run. He lost loved ones, had a dysfunctional family, and made horrible life choices that resulted in dark ramifications. However, like Job, he did not see this as evidence of a lack of care from God. “Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshipped” (2 Samuel 12:20). When God does not heal, we get to choose how we respond. We can lay in ashes, mourning our treatment. Or, we can worship, trusting that even in this, we are loved, and God is good. When God does not heal, it does not mean we lack faith, fail to pray hard enough or have stepped out of God’s favour. There is no specific formula for healing. God heals some and not others. However, in each of these scenarios, in healing or not, God never leaves our side but walks with us through the pain and suffering. We can find much encouragement in his presence even though our pain persists.
Our response to suffering needs to be rooted in a trust in God. We can trust him with our pain, suffering, and grief. He does not shy away from the pain, nor does it make him uncomfortable. Instead, he enters into our pain with us, sees our tears with compassion, and equips us for the fight. Before we can move into that life of trust, we must acknowledge our pain and agony. Someone with a broken leg can not continue to walk on it, denying the agony it brings and expect the pain to disappear and the bone to heal on its own. Rather, the person needs to go to their doctor, explain the pain, see the broken bone on an x-ray, and allow the doctor to put it in a cast. We must do the same with the grief, pain, and sorrow we experience. We cannot ignore it, wish it away, or deny that it hurts. Instead, we must acknowledge its presence and allow God and others to help us. Isolation and denial will not help us move forward. Acknowledging our pain, being honest with God about how we hurt, and inviting others to walk through our pain with us, are incredible first steps in responding to suffering in a healthy manner.
As Christians, we have a hope that strengthens us. The book of Hebrews talks of this hope. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). Look at this imagery of our hope being an anchor. When we picture God as our anchor in the storm, we often picture him calming the storm. We imagine him making our boat, our life, steady. However, this is not how an anchor works. When you throw out your anchor, you are still very much affected by the storm. The waves still toss you about; you still get seasick, man your vessel, and pray hard. The anchor means you will be held back from the rocks that would destroy you. The anchor is your reassurance in the midst of the storm. When it seems like the storms of this life will destroy us, we have a reassurance that we will not be broken beyond repair. We have hope that when the storm has passed, we will have weathered it. Yes, we may need to repair the damage and be shaken, but we are whole. We can continue on our journey.
As Christians, it is okay to suffer. Jesus suffered intensely. In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul said that they were under such intense pressure that it felt beyond their “ability to endure” to the point that they “despaired of life itself” (1 Corinthians 1:8). He goes on and says that the reason this happened, was to help them rely on God instead of themselves. God delivered them, and they believed he would continue to do so. Paul and the other apostles had hope. “On him, we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us” (1 Corinthians 1:10). We will suffer as Christians. This is a part of our life here on earth. However, we have hope, and our hope is secure. No matter how intense the storm is, even as we despair of life itself, we can find peace in our anchor. We can endure suffering because of the joy set before us. Our joy is Christ and one day, perfect eternity at his side. Take heart today!