As a youngster, I played sports year round. Sometimes I wish mom and dad had diversified my calendar, but sports taught me a lot of life lessons. Not all were positive, of course. Last week, for example, family game night turned awkward when I accused my three-year-old son of cheating after he beat me in Hi-Ho Cherry-O. I hate losing.
Pray for me.
Other lessons, however, profoundly shaped and prepared me for the real world. Among those is the inevitably of failure. Even today, especially when times are hard, I can hear my coach’s voice, “Life’s tough, Powell. Wear a helmet.”
I’m not trivializing pain and suffering. Life really is hard. At no point was this more evident than last year. In a span of five months, my wife’s grandfather, the patriarch and spiritual cornerstone of her family, committed suicide. I started a dream job, only to be fired after four weeks. And our adopted daughter died, suddenly and tragically, just a few months before we were supposed to bring her home.
This message, life is hard, isn’t trendy. In some circles, it’s not even acceptable language.
It’s much easier to paint life in rainbow colors or tell others being a Christian means no more problems, but these messages miss the big, fat elephant in the room.
The elephant’s name is suffering and the room is called life. Everyone suffers, in other words. We spend far too much time and energy building walls and bank accounts to keep suffering away. In doing so we create more unnecessary suffering. Just look at anxiety, depression and suicide rates in modern-day America.
There must be another way, and there is.
In Matthew 16:25, Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to save his life, must lose it. Anyone who loses his life will find it.” The journey to abundant life necessarily includes a cross. We must let go of ourselves, our way of thinking and seeing the world, before God’s love can invade our hearts and minds. Most of us won’t choose this cross voluntarily, however, so suffering often becomes the vehicle that ushers us there.
I’m not saying suffering is God’s idea. I’m saying it’s inevitable, so there must be some reason for it.
Let’s look at a few important points about suffering, what it is, and how we grow from it.
Suffering is anything that takes away your control.
For most Christians, suffering is too narrowly defined. It usually physical like what we see with Paul and other disciples in Acts. Being beaten is certainly suffering, and physical death might be the ultimate suffering (although ranking types of suffering can be problematic). But suffering isn’t limited to the physical.
In my experience, when suffering is this narrow, we minimize or look past “trivial” struggles (please note the sarcasm).
“Well, yeah, my marriage is struggling. But people around the world are being killed for their faith.”
“Yeah, I battle anxiety. But my best friend was just diagnosed with terminal cancer.”
Do you see what’s happening here? We start comparing our suffering to someone else’s. And while I get the sentiment, ranking suffering misses the point.
We need to expand our understanding of difficulties. Like this:
Suffering is anything that comes into your life and takes away your control.
Suffering is anything that brings you to the end of yourself, your resources, your power, and your current understanding of things. If you’ve ever said, “I can’t do this anymore,” “I can’t handle this” or “I don’t know how I’m going to get through today,” that’s suffering. You’ve lost control. And it feels a lot like death.
In this way, we suffer more than we realize. This is neither good nor bad. It just is. But, if we choose to learn, to lean into God, a bigger Life awaits.
Suffering makes us whole.
If you don’t think suffering is necessary and somehow plays a role in this thing called life, look outside. Every year, around the same time, creation shuts down. Leaves fall, and trees go dormant. Flowers die. Bears hibernate. Then, every year, around the same time, trees bud, flowers bloom, and life returns.
Then, every year, around the same time, trees bud, flowers bloom, and life returns.
Life and death are hardwired into creation, friends. No part of creation disputes or resists this…except humans.
Does creation believe the gospel better than we do?
This loss and renewal pattern sustains the world. Death gives way to life, which gives way to death.
Even the sun loses 6 x1012 grams of matter every second. According to most scientists, the sun has only 4–5 billion years left. Every second the sun dies so we can live.
Who cares about life cycles, loss and renewal patterns? Here’s the skinny. When we resist or numb suffering, the cycle is broken and we lose our identity. We forget who we are when we neglect this cycle. No part of creation resists the loss and renewal pattern except humans and no part of creation questions its identity other than humans. Don’t dismiss this connection.
Suffering is an invitation to change.
As I said earlier, suffering was a key theme for my family last year.
In the days and weeks after each tragedy, I heard two voices. The first was the voice of bitterness, cynicism and resentment. The second voice sounded more like an invitation, a strong hand reaching out in love, urging me to keep going. The choice was mine. I could stay where I was or I could move forward.
Suffering is a quick jolt that wakes you from your slumber. It calls you off life’s hamster wheel. And if you decide to take God’s hand and keep moving, a bigger, more inclusive world waits on the other side.
You will TRANSMIT your pain if you do not TRANSFORM it.
Richard Rohr says, “If you don’t transform your pain, you will always transmit it.” If you don’t change and move forward, you will throw your pain onto others or it will erode your soul. We call this victimizing and playing the victim.
And here we see how desperately we need a gospel-shaped understanding of suffering. Blaming and accusing courses through our culture’s veins, even among Christians. And we must admit the tit-for-tat, eye for an eye, you hurt me, so I’m going to hurt you responses to suffering have not served us well.
Revenge and retaliation are not words in the Christian vocabulary.
Christians especially should have a different message for the world. Revenge and retaliation aren’t words in our vocabulary. I’m not minimizing pain and suffering. I’m trying to say there’s a better response. And it’s Jesus.
On the cross, the son of God suffers immense pain. He is tried unfairly and sentenced to die unjustly. Yet, Jesus never spews venomous accusations nor paints himself as a victim. Instead, he asks God to forgive those who crucified him. If anyone has the right to blame or seek revenge, it’s Jesus. Yet, we have zero evidence to suggest Jesus ever asks his disciples to seek revenge for his death.
Why? Jesus knows you can’t overcome pain and suffering with more pain and suffering. But Jesus also knows suffering and death will not have the final word. On the other side is new life. Resurrection. And if so, then the final word belongs to God.
That’s a hopeful message.
If you’re experiencing some form of suffering right now, please know I’m praying for you. God is for you, and while I have no explanation for your pain, I do have an answer. His name is Jesus.
Hold on. Don’t lose hope. Resurrection is coming.
Grace and peace, friends.