Sometimes trials are huge and obvious. These are the moments that blindside you and overwhelm. They are what Dan Allender calls “shalom shattered.”
More often, the suffering we encounter is the day-to-day wearing on our souls:
- Standing on a street corner trying to hail a cab with your three-month-old strapped to your chest, while every cab is taken by someone else.
- Not having the words to make yourself understood.
- Receiving a notice that there will be no water in the building today.
- Having your bike stolen.
- Values that clash.
- Lonely days.
Suffering in this world—great or small and in one form or another—is inevitable. It is not something like jury duty that you just have to hope will not happen to you. You will not avoid it if you simply “play your cards right” or just “walk in the Spirit.” Nor is it some detour to get through quickly so you can get back to the real work of ministry.
Suffering in the Christian life is essential. It is a tool for transforming us into the kind of people God designed us to be.
One of my favorite books is Hind’s Feet on High Places, by Hannah Hurnard. In it, the protagonist, Much Afraid, is called to the High Places by the Good Shepherd. For her journey, she is given two companions: Sorrow and Suffering. The path He leads her on winds through places like the Shores of Loneliness and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. These are ways that look wrong.
I have always struggled with those God-given companions. I want growth to come through rainbows and sunshine. Like Much Afraid, I want a straight shot to the High Places, not a winding path through hard places. Nevertheless, these are the companions God has chosen, and there is no other way to get there.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed … All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God. Therefore we do not lose heart (2 Corinthians 4:8, 15, 16).
I read this and think, I do not want to lose heart. I want to fully engage my heart in the midst of suffering and see God bring life from it. Paul is reminding us of the High Places. He is telling us to take the hand of Suffering and not just endure but embrace it. How do we do that?
When we are in the middle of something difficult, our eyes are often not fixed on God. We ask why. We try to wrestle out an explanation that often does not come. We let our circumstances dictate our response. Dr. Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, said, “Our view of God will determine our view of ourselves and the world around us.”
We need to dwell on the character of God, to the point where we can say, “I do not understand you in this situation, but I know You enough to know that I can trust you in it.” We must keep telling ourselves the truth about who He is in the midst of our suffering.
About What is Happening
Our natural reaction in difficulties is to not enter in. Like Much Afraid, we do not want to take the hand of Sorrow and Suffering. It is easier to: pretend that suffering is not happening to us; minimize its impact; numb ourselves to the pain; tell ourselves to suck it up and move on; put on a brave face; and/or spiritualize the situation. When we respond in any of these ways, we are hardening our hearts. When we do that, we miss what God could do in us through the difficulty.
It is important to call circumstances (even small ones) what they are and to acknowledge the impact they are having upon us. We must admit when things are hard, because it reminds us of our humanity. What can look like strength or faith in the midst of suffering might actually be a desperate attempt to stay in control and be self-reliant. We must not refuse to enter in to whatever it is that the pain of suffering is stirring in our hearts—this opens our eyes to where we are weak and enables God to do His work. When we acknowledge our suffering and invite God in, we are able to develop dependence upon Him alone.
God is not bringing you through suffering because He thinks you are strong enough. He is trying to bring you to a place of weakness. Paul says:
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:8–9).
One of God’s main purposes in suffering is to teach us to rely on Him. During a time of hardship in one overseas assignment, I was reminded of the lyrics from a Rich Mullins song:
I can’t see where you’re leading me,
unless you’ve led me here,
to where I’m lost enough to let myself be led.
We open ourselves to God’s transforming work when we acknowledge our challenges and view them through the lens of His power and goodness. Let suffering lead you to the place where all you have is Him. You will discover that He is more than enough.
Question to consider: In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul “is telling us to take the hand of Suffering and not just endure but embrace it. How do we do that?”