Are you in the midst of suffering? Have you suffered previously? If neither of these apply to you, rest assured, they will eventually—if you’re fortunate.
That may seem like a ludicrous statement, but suffering comes to, basically, everyone. We do our best to avoid and escape it, but if we take the suffering that comes to us and mine every lesson we can—and use it to draw closer to God—we will be infinitely better off. In fact, I would go a step further. I would say that, oftentimes, if you want to serve and be close to God, you will suffer greatly, perhaps more than most. I’d like to emphasize at the outset that God does not “cause” all of the suffering we experience, although he does allow it. But it is in his plan for your ultimate good and for the good of others. Furthermore, I would assert that we should fully reject the notion that when good things happen in your life it demonstrates that you have “favor” with God (which would imply the converse is also true).
In our American paradigm, our expectation is that all things will go well and we should experience minimum pain and maximum comfort. God has much larger plans than something as paltry as temporary comfort. Let’s take a look.
Starting with the prophets, would you say they had favor with God? Absolutely. God gave them specific, word-for-word messages to deliver to the people, using them for years at a time, and whose words ended up as a significant part of the Bible. Yes, they had favor with God, as he chose to use them in a way he has used almost no one else in all of human history. Do you know what happened to them? Nearly all suffered and were killed in various ways because they were obedient to God. Furthermore, in the midst of their suffering, they didn’t always feel the love of God and the power of the Spirit carrying them through. Sometimes they did; often they didn’t.
Jeremiah is particularly helpful in his honesty about his fluctuating emotional state as he was doing what God had asked of him, at times expressing his hurt, anger, and confusion with God and his ways. Known as the Weeping Prophet, he famously wrote the book of Lamentations in which, in his anguish, he says things like, “He (God) drove into my kidneys the arrows of his quiver,” and, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is, so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’”
How can a prophet of God say things like this? What are we to make of it? He’s not the only one. The Psalms are rife with raw expressions of anguish, and while the writer of Ecclesiastes is processing, he says it’s better to have never been born.
Let’s fast forward a bit, though, because there’s plenty of suffering to explore. Would you say that Mary, mother of Jesus was favored by God? Yes, considering that when the angel Gabriel appeared to her, he said, “Greetings, O favored one.” And 2,000 years removed from that culture, we are awed, wondering what it must’ve been like to be chosen to carry the Son of God in your womb and raise him from birth on.
Aside from the stress of “raising” God in human flesh, here’s what it would’ve been like: continual jabs to your face and whispers behind your back for being pregnant out of wedlock. And, since you live in the same small town forever, that never changes. The judgmental stares. The snide comments. The way Jesus and the rest of your children were slighted and snubbed. Remember one of the many times Jesus confronted the Pharisees, this time telling them their father was the devil, and they retorted, “We are not illegitimate children” (emphasis mine).
And what was Mary supposed to say? No one would believe her if she told them the truth. So she had to take it. And then, you get to watch your son be unjustly executed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible. More on that later.
And then there were Jesus’ disciples. Those who were in his inner circle, who saw his miracles, who learned directly from him, who later performed many miracles, history indicates that all except one died because they refused to deny that Jesus was God, the savior of the world, who was raised from the dead. The historian Josephus, for example, records that James, the brother of Jesus, was stoned to death.
Then there’s Paul, who had been persecuting Christians but had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus, became a Christian himself, and for that, according to Paul's own words, “Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes, Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea,” along with many other hardships he listed. Eventually, he was beheaded in Rome.
But now, with Holy Week upon us, it’s time we talk about Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, son of God, ultimate servant, closer to his Father than anyone ever could be, suffered more than is possible to comprehend. We know that, physically, he suffered unimaginable pain. Beginning the night before his execution, it was recorded by the physician Luke that he was sweating blood. This is a rare medical condition known as hematidrosis, which is brought on by intense stress or fear. Afterward, the flesh is particularly sensitive. Following this, he was flogged and then crucified. If you’ve not done so, I strongly encourage you to read medical accounts of what it is like, physically, to endure these things. Crucifixion was invented by the Romans to inflict maximum pain before death. The word “excruciating” comes from the Latin word meaning “out of the cross.” No one doubts that Jesus experienced unbelievable amounts of pain prior to his death.
But there was more. Why did he die? He died because God is a God of justice, and he cannot let injustice stand. Crimes must be paid for one way or another. The physical torture Jesus suffered was not nearly as great as what he endured when the punishment for all crimes committed against God was poured out on him by his Father. This was not visible to the naked eye, but Jesus knew what was coming, causing him to ask his Father 3 times whether there was another way. Knowing there wasn’t, he literally sweat blood.
Being God the Son, Jesus was the closest to God the Father than anyone and the most obedient. And he suffered the greatest.
Are you suffering? Are you suffering because of your service to God? Are you suffering and wondering where God is and why he hasn’t rescued you out of your troubles? If any of these apply to you, you’re in the best company possible.
Following God doesn’t mean a problem or pain-free life. To the contrary, Jesus promised us, “in this world, you will have tribulation.” Count on it. Does this make our suffering easier? Not usually.
In America, we expect ease and comfort and get highly agitated when that is disrupted. This is a unique attitude in human history which, to my thinking, can’t help but make our suffering even more difficult because the difference between expectations and reality causes us so much more distress.
There is nothing I can say that will take away your pain. But there are some truths I can tell you which, if you hold on to them in spite of your pain, can help get you through.
The first truth is that, no matter your circumstances, if you are a follower of Jesus, he loves you with a love so deep it’s difficult to comprehend, since our human love is so flawed and performance-based in comparison. Find the verses in the Bible that speak of God’s love for you and preach them to yourself. Keep preaching them to yourself. It’s true regardless of how you feel.
The second truth is that, unlike us, God is playing the long game. When I endured year upon year of suffering, I wanted to do whatever I could to make the pain stop. I’ve pleaded with God and have been angry with God, but he was doing so many things through my suffering. My suffering was for my good on many levels, not the least of which was to strip me of my deeply entrenched American veneer of self-reliance. My suffering was also for the good of others—whom he loves—so I can more effectively minister to people who are going through similar pain.
But even if you cannot see past your current pain to what good may come of it, remind yourself that bitterness and anger toward God or about your circumstances will only exacerbate your suffering. This is a hard truth, but it is true nonetheless.
While much, much more can be (and has been) written on this subject, the final truth I’ll leave here is this: your suffering is temporary. Whether it ends next week, next year, or when you die, it will end. And then you'll be in eternity—which is time without end, where there will be no tears, mourning, or pain.
This is no glib statement. And if you’re suffering, far from indicating that you’re out of favor with God or don’t have enough faith, it’s quite possible that it is just the opposite. For God sees the value in suffering when it comes to changing who we are currently into who we are capable of being—which is conformed to the image of Jesus.
This is Holy Week, where Christians all over the world gratefully celebrate the price Jesus paid for them on the Cross and jubilantly celebrate his victory over death with his resurrection from the dead.
He chose to die because we are incapable of paying for our own crimes against a holy God, and true justice matters. So he suffered and paid the price for us because he loves us and wants us to be with him forever.
When Paul suffered his floggings and stonings and beatings, he referred to them as “momentary light affliction(s)” because he was focused on unending life after death. And Jesus, the Bible points out, suffered “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame.”
There is purpose in every bit of suffering you endure. The Psalmist noted that God records our misery and keeps our tears in a bottle. Isaiah tells us that Jesus was a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”—he understands deeply what you’re going through. In fact, the Bible indicates that whatever is done to you is done to him. Stubbornly seek him and keep seeking him no matter how you feel.
If you're suffering, you’re in very good company. Neither your circumstances nor your emotions are the final word; Jesus is.