I recently listened to the third part of a message series I’ve been following by Mark Rae. If our brokenness and failures weren’t hard enough to process, Mark next speaks to our suffering. He started with a question that was posed to German theologian Helmut Thielicke: what do you believe is the greatest challenge facing America? Thielicke answered,
How America deals with suffering may be the greatest challenge to them in their time.Helmut Thielicke
Wow. He didn’t say our national deficit, our education system, poverty, racism, etc. — he said, “how we handle SUFFERING.” Mark stated, “We ought to be come aware of how devastating can become the illusion that we can banish suffering from the world and its extermination is the only task it represents to us. However, we can’t extinguish it from the world. Instead we must learn that suffering must also be accepted and laid on us. Christians know that suffering is the raw material from which God wants to make something beautiful. If we take away suffering, we take away the opportunity for God to work on us in a way different from any other way to work on us.”
What is Suffering?
Merriam Webster defines suffering as,
The state or experience of submitting to or being forced to endure.Merriam Webseter
By that definition it seems easy to see how suffering was a part of our lives this last year. While we all had different experiences and journeys, I think there are very few people who did not endure some type of emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual pain or a financial hardship of some sort during the pandemic. (I think it’s important to note that comparative suffering, which is what we do when we compare our own pain to the pain of others, will not help any of us — it only makes it more difficult to integrate our loss and pain and accept our current circumstances.)
Our suffering this last year HAS A PURPOSE. It is meant to strengthen our faith and build our patience. In Luke 22 when Satan was coming after Peter, Jesus said to him, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.” Jesus had the power to remove Simon’s suffering but didn’t. He knew that removing his suffering would shortchange the strengthening process. Given that God went on to use Peter in the foundation of the church, it seems that process had purpose!
Not only does suffering strengthen us, it also helps us more readily identify with Christ. God’s goal for us isn’t our comfort, but our character. And it’s in our suffering and struggle where we come to know Christ better than we could in any other place. As we go through the refinement of fire, we begin to reflect Him more clearly and understand the depth of what He has suffered for us.
How should we respond to our Suffering?
There are three positive ways we can respond to suffering when it happens:
- We can be grateful for it. Suffering and struggles are a special place that God wants to use to bring us closer to him. This is an opportunity!
- We can commit to doing good. There is a whole world watching how we handle suffering, and how we suffer is going to show off God to the world (or not, if we don’t suffer well). Doing good also takes the focus off our suffering, so it doesn’t become the focus of our life.
- Lastly, we should remember that God seldom uses anyone unless he’s put them through the test of suffering and adversity. Even Jesus was in the wilderness before he began his ministry. This is a training ground. Use it wisely!
As I look back on this year and all of the ways we’ve individually and collectively suffered, I start to become grateful. Not because of the suffering itself, but because of its purpose. Even if some of the purpose doesn’t ever entirely reveal itself, I’m so grateful that it’s helped me to know God more fully than I ever did before.
Saving grace podcast
Episode #105: The Suffering of Affliction
This episode from the series “Strong at the Broker Places” by the Grace Center for Spiritual Development. There are six episodes that discuss trials, failure, suffering, loss, and doubt and how God can bring strength and beauty out of brokenness. Check out their website for a free study guide or Spotify for episodes #103-108.