Week 7, Day 4: Suffering
If you ask people who don’t believe in God why they don’t,
the number one reason will be suffering.
If you ask people who believe in God when they grew most spiritually,
the number one answer will be suffering.
- John Ortberg
Suffering, unfortunately, is normal; it’s part of life. Living as we are, in the time after Jesus came but before he comes again, nothing will be completely glorious; and even in those spaces where we catch glimpses of the kingdom of God, flashes of heaven on earth, they will be momentary and incomplete, “a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV).
South African bishop Desmond Tutu fought against the oppression of the racist apartheid regime in South Africa for years. He saw friends jailed and killed, and risked imprisonment himself for defying the government. In the mid-1990s, he was asked by Nelson Mandela to head up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body whose goal was to bring together perpetrators and victims and to seek restorative justice. The process involved bringing to light all of the terrible things that had taken place — a harrowing process. A few years after the Commission wrapped up, Tutu wrote:
Dear child of God, I am sorry to say that suffering is not optional. It seems to be part and parcel of the human condition, but suffering can either embitter or ennoble. Our suffering can become a spirituality of transformation when we understand that we have a role in God’s transfiguration of the world.
His words echo those of Peter, who wrote, in 1 Peter 4:12-13 (The Message):
Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job. Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner.
In some ways, this is a change in expectations. If you expect something to be a certain way, you will be less upset when things turn out exactly that way.
Christians should be the least surprised that life is difficult and full of suffering. We know about the Fall and about sin, which is the main reason for suffering. We know about our enemy, Satan. We know that even though Jesus came to rescue us from the effects of sin and death by offering us grace and new life, too many of us still reject him and refuse to live life in the power of the Holy Spirit. We should not be shocked when evil abounds as a result of selfish choices, when people hurt one another, when we abuse and despoil our planet.
We should also be the least surprised because this is what Jesus promised. He said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33, NIV), and warned his disciples that they would face persecution and hatred because they were his followers. One of the interesting things that psychologists have noted is that when a person becomes more mature and is able to draw healthier boundaries with other people, friction and conflict may arise, often because the other people were unhealthily dependent on the person. In the same way, as we mature and develop as followers of Jesus, we may experience friction and conflict from others, often because their own souls are starving or unhealthy.
Indeed, as followers of Jesus, we are called to participate with Christ in his suffering, to be identified with him as he gave his life for others. Mother Teresa, who spent over fifty years serving among the poor in the slums of Calcutta, once wrote:
My dear children, without suffering, our work would just be social work, very good and helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus Christ, not part of the redemption — Jesus wanted to help us by sharing our life, our loneliness, our agony and death.
Learning to live as fully as Jesus did is not a recipe for pain-free, comfort-full living; it is, in fact, an invitation that is paradoxical in that it calls us to suffer as Christ suffered and yet it promises us that this is the way to life with God. And so we turn to the words of Paul in Romans 5:3b-5:
We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Paul is not saying that we should enjoy our sufferings or seek them out, but rather that we should understand how God can work through suffering to build our character and help us grow up. Sometimes it provides an opportunity to endure; sometimes it reminds us of the existence of sin; sometimes it shows us our true character; and sometimes it can break into our numbed existences and drive us closer to God. C.S. Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” One of my friends put it this way:
God doesn’t will suffering, but he does wield suffering. An uncontrolled fire can be devastating, but a focused flame can turn sand into glass, ore into precious metal. As an artist wields flame to make something beautiful, so God wields our suffering to make us beautiful.
It is not by avoiding suffering that we grow and become mature, but by going through it.
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: What difference would it make to your life if you were to expect suffering rather than be surprised by it? What are some instances in your life where God brought growth out of suffering?
Heart: What does suffering look like in your life or around you right now?
Hands: Choose to turn to God and to others. Share whatever you’re going through with God in prayer and with a trusted friend. Don’t go through this alone.
From suffering to perseverance to character to hope, Spirit, lead me. Amen.
It is not by avoiding suffering that we grow and become mature,
but by going through it.