Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12-13
Our reactions to suffering tend to be pretty similar: we resent it, we hate it, we seek to avoid it. Or we may seek to understand it as Job did when he brought his questions to God. Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane asked God if there was another way.
We are alerted daily to the reality of how broken our world is, with suffering in every direction. Why was that young man so full of vitality and joy taken by cancer? Why did the drunk driver survive while the innocent kids from the other car died? We see these things, or we live them. We see earthquakes, and tsunamis, wars, and slavery. We wee the destruction of addiction and illness. We encounter countless stories of injury, failure, dead and dying dreams, and loneliness. We may also have that quiet agony built from all the things we’ve kept to ourselves after having experienced judgment, or coming to believe that others just don’t understand or care.
Like Job, we may try to make sense of it. We hope, perhaps, that if we can put a “why” behind the injustice of it, it may make the suffering a little more bearable. Friends may seek to comfort us (and themselves) by telling us that “everything happens for a reason.” And indeed, that might be true. But many people who are going through intense suffering will say that they’ve found such sentiments don’t help much. Job went through the same thing with his friends, who on top of everything had the gall to ask what he’d done to cause it. And in the end, God didn’t answer most of his questions either.
Suffering can make us bitter and resentful, ruminating on how unfair things are. It can also terrify us, making us shrink away from the rest of life as we fear that some tentacle of suffering may find us there too. And indeed it may, because the truth is there is nowhere safe in this world. Jesus himself promised us that in this life we will have many trials and sorrows (John 16:33). How nice.
Thankfully, Jesus goes on to tell us that he has overcome the world. And this, at least for me, is the part that I’m truly eager to see and understand. Because if you’re like me, you want something that will help deal with the reality of suffering here and now. I am tremendously thankful for the promise that God will someday deliver and redeem humanity and the world. But if I’m honest I also need something for the day-to-day. So I spent a little time pondering ways that suffering can help us grow in our walk with Jesus, and as people who are better able to love others.
Suffering can make us more compassionate.
Few things offer greater opportunity for deep relational connection than suffering. When we’re hurting, it is very difficult to connect with someone else if we don’t believe they can understand our pain, which may be because we suspect they have not suffered in this way. Suffering can make us humble and approachable. It can allow others to see our weaknesses and imperfections, and allow us to see theirs as well. And if we find people who are able to love and accept us in such a vulnerable state, we can forge powerful bonds with these brothers and sisters, something that happens too rarely in this world. But these kinds of relationships that can do so much to soothe and heal wounded souls.
Suffering can make us resilient.
It can help us become more aware of our ability to survive trials and tragedies—not in that flimsy, hypothetical way where we imagine what we might do if we went through something hard, but through raw, real experience—where despite what’s happening, we continue to strive for what matters in life. And as a result of this, we can develop the ability to be far less afraid of future threats and obstacles, because we come to truly know what we are capable of enduring.
Suffering can move our focus back to the Lord.
Pain provokes an instinctive response for help, and when we are suffering, it is natural and healthy for us to seek and look for God’s help, drawing nearer to Him because of our intense need. I believe the longterm effect of adopting this posture towards God is that it can also give us a greater appreciation of what Jesus did for us when he willingly took all of our burdens upon himself to suffer and die on our behalf.
The discussion of suffering is expansive beyond anything that could be contained in any article or book. I truly believe that the manner in which one views suffering will have a tremendous impact not only on their ability to bear it, but their capacity to thrive in the midst of it. I have always been astonished by the Apostle Paul speaking of his great joy in prison, even as he awaited his own execution. But I am confident in this: such joy would not have been possible, were it not for Paul’s certainty that his present work in the world still very much mattered, and his belief that God would deliver on every future promise of redemption. Paul knew that his suffering was not in vain, and he knew that soon he would be with Jesus Christ in glory.
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