I don’t like him. I want him to leave. I want to say “Bye!”, “Don’t come back!”, “Get out of here!” More strongly, “I hate you!”, “You’re hurting me, and my friends, and I wish we’d never met!”
Harsh words. Words that I’ve spoken, at least in my thoughts. They’re part of an ongoing dialogue with my companion. His name is Suffering. I think you know him too. He gets around despite being rude, unwelcomed, difficult and intrusive.
Lately I’ve been having some pretty frank conversation with God about Suffering. Suffering has been visiting with friends of mine and their 3-month old daughter. They aren’t especially fond of him either. He showed-up unexpectedly – shockingly – in the midst of a joyous celebration. His arrival brought a suffocating heaviness that continues to loom and strangle. The reality of Suffering’s stay has brought sadness, tears, questions, confusion, anguish and anger. As Suffering mingles with my friends and their family, I am repulsed by the shadow he casts. He’s dark. Despicable. He infuriates me. I want to scream “How dare you!”, “Who do you think you are?”, “You’re audacious!” I want to kick and claw and punch and beat this invisible plague. I want to run. And cry. I’ve been pleading to God for peace and wholeness for my friends and for a life so fragile. I want things the way they are supposed to be – or at least the way I expect them to be.
In my pleading I was finally able to quiet my spirit enough to step to the edge of my faith. There, with Suffering beside me, I petitioned God. I begged for understanding and help with receiving the struggles of life against the backdrop of His goodness and sovereignty.
Help arrived a few days ago as the Spirit reminded me of a difficult truth: “To this [suffering] you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21). Called is an interesting word choice. It means invited, beckoned, summoned, commanded, asked. I like being called to dinner, but called to suffer? Invited to suffer? Commanded to suffer? No room for the prosperity gospel here.
As I wrestled with this summons to suffer, God brought me these words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) Thanks, God, but this is disconcerting. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad for the grace. It’s the part about being weak that doesn’t set so well. I like competence. I like control. I like predictable, steady and routine. I don’t like surprises, even on my birthday. I could do without the weakness of unanswerable “why?” questions: Why a brain tumor? Why a father crippled by cancer? Why another lost job? Why can’t things just work out the way I want? Why, why, why?
Cue the Apostle James. James has amazing practical theology, but his counsel on suffering only confounds my thinking. In fact, he seems to be taking God’s side (go figure). James says followers of Jesus are to be joyous in suffering. (James 1:2) Really, James? Called to suffer with joy? You’re stretching me here, God. I’ve asked you to stretch me gently. I thought we had a deal.
Then a whisper: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32) Ah! There it is. How could I miss it?
God knows Suffering. Suffering’s most heinous work was visited upon His Son, Jesus. God the Father and Jesus the Son understand Suffering’s schemes. The pain, anguish and loneliness. The desperate cries for relief from the Son to the Father. In His death for sin, our Pioneer, our model for living the human life – Jesus Christ – showed us that suffering is ultimately about obedience and glorifying the Father. That’s why God calls us to suffer. The Cross displayed the beauty of joyous suffering. (Heb. 12:2) As Christ followers it is reasonable that we should also suffer.
But we don’t suffer alone. God is active in our suffering. He allows it – not because he can’t stop it or because he isn’t good. God is loving, not vindictive. Sovereign, not reactive. Suffering is God’s catalyst to deepen our understanding that without Jesus Christ, nothing else matters. Our personal suffering unites us with Christ and His suffering. In this union a doorway opens to intrusions of divine grace. These intrusions are gifts given with perfect power, received best in moments of weakness. Such grace bolsters our hope and grows us toward suffering with joy.
So, Suffering is here to stay. He is with my friends, and my father. He is with me. He will visit each of us. Be encouraged by the following words from an old saint who welcomed whatever God planned for his life – even visits from Suffering. Give Suffering room as you give God glory.
“Lord, You know what is better for me; let this be done or that be done as You please. Grant what You will, as much as You will, when You will. Do with me as You know best, as will most please You, and will be for Your greater honor. Place me where You will and deal with me freely in all things. I am in Your hand, turn me about whichever way You will. Behold, I am Your servant, ready to obey in all things. Not for myself do I desire to live, but for You – would that I could do this worthily and perfectly!”
– Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ