Suffering is a given in any life. But, for some Christians, suffering is a shock. A sign that God isn’t paying attention. Or a symptom that they are praying incorrectly. The idea that a Christian life is all prosperity and popcorn is widespread … and wrong.
“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.”
Jesus, John 16:33
How can we “take heart” when pain and sorrow, fear and loss take up center stage in our lives. God is omnipotent. God can do anything. God could fix this in a second. Why does He allow our suffering?
Jesus warned us that we would have trouble on Earth, but He encourages us to remember that He has overcome the world. In fact, He says “so that in me you may have peace” in almost the same breath. So what does that mean exactly when pain, sorrow and loss are center stage in our lives? And how do we get there? I believe some answers come from Paul’s words about his pain and trouble in 2nd Corinthians 12:6-10.
Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul, 2nd Corinthians 12:6-10
This statement makes perfect sense when combined with the idea of a God who consents to Satan’s request for test a person, as He did to Job (Job 1:6-22) and to Peter (Luke 22:31).
God knows that suffering develops humility, a true understanding of who we each are and who God is. Without this depth of awareness, we can’t be in a strong relationship with God. Our trials not only build faith and character; they also open our eyes to the reality of our existence
Jesus prays for us in times of temptation and suffering. For example, He told Peter that He had prayed that Peter’s faith would not fail. It’s notable that Jesus did not pray that Peter would not deny Him. He knew the terrible experience was necessary for Peter and for all who later learned about it.
The phrase “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” is not from the Bible. It’s from “Conan the Barbarian,” with the script slightly misquoting Nietzsche. Actually, suffering makes us weaker, which is a good thing.
Why? Because God wants people to see His presence in His Christians (and not just in Paul and Peter, either.) Suffering breaks up the vessel of our self-centeredness, our self-regard. A broken vessel displays the light of God’s presence within to others. Maintaining faith, joy and hope during a serious calamity is the best Christian witness we can ever give.
How do we do that? The good news is: It’s not up to us.
God tells us, as He told Paul: “My graces are sufficient for you.” I believe that this means that God will give us the abundant graces we need to deal with suffering without fear and anxiety, but with His peace and joy. All we need to do is be open to accept these graces.
I have found this to be true in my life. I open myself up to God in continual prayer and thanksgiving, using Christian mindfulness. God fills me up with peace and joy even in the hospital waiting room, in a locked psych ward with a loved one, at the funeral home, on the scene of the accident, in the board conference room and during the dark of the night. It’s not up to me. God is doing it for me and through me.
When we suffer and rest in God’s grace, God responds.
I will give you the secrets of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know I am the Lord, the God of Israel who summons you by name.
Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church, has called this experience “gritty grace.” Maybe the abrasion we feel is good for everyone.