Many of the narratives Amore and I are taking in right now include the motif of time travel. In particular, the characters in these stories are tempted by the desire to travel back in time to change the action they most regret or avert the greatest sorrow of their lives: to prevent a tragic death or the incarceration of a parent, to take future medicine back to a grave illness it could cure, or to stay in or end a relationship.
Sometimes they succeed in changing the one thing they thought would change everything, but it doesn't. More often, they do alleviate the regret or prevent the sorrow, only to realize they succeeded to their loss or to the harm of the people around them. They discover the pain they loathed was responsible for some of the best things in their character or relationships. The pain, though no less painful, becomes purposeful and ennobling.
This strikes me as a shadow of Truth lingering in our culture's secular mythology. It interests me that even people who don't know the Lord recognize that trials have a purpose and can do good work in us, even through very evil and broken circumstances.
Looking at the intensely painful trials in our families right now or at the ones we've passed through in the11 years of this blog, there have been so many times about so many of the things when I have wished I could lessen or remove the pain. I'm glad in the Lord that I can't act on that temptation. As hard as it is to suffer in my body or relationships or in the suffering of my dearest loved ones (or all of the preceding), by faith and God's Word I know that to remove those trials would be to our eternal loss.
Suffering is a blessing for those in Christ. It is an uncomfortable, sometimes excruciating blessing, to be sure, but still, in the eternal scheme of things, a blessing. For the Christian, it has a purpose and is part of the "all things" God causes to work together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). From Scripture and my experience, here are some of the blessings buried in suffering, blessings which do not come to us any other way, blessings to us, to God's church, to the lost, and to His glory.
Suffering is a chisel to conform me to the image of Christ and bring me to maturity:
- Suffering increases dependence on God through desperate circumstances. As Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth often says, "Anything that makes us desperate for God is a blessing." Nothing makes us desperate like affliction. The apostle Paul experienced this benefit of suffering during a sojourn in Asia. He wrote to the Corinthian church, "For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again" (2 Cor. 1:8-10).
- Suffering can increase the believer's knowledge of Christ in the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Many times in telling the story of my first season of brokenness, I have said that I wouldn't take a million dollars to go through it again, but I wouldn't give a million dollars for the growth in knowing Christ and His Word received through that time. Sadly, in the hardness of our hearts, sometimes we must arrive at the place where Christ is all we have before we realize that He is all we need and the One Thing above all others we want.
- Suffering, for me, has increased my assurance that the ministry I do is through His grace and strength (1 Peter 4:10-11). This is always true for all of us, of course, but my weaknesses make it obvious. Because of my health issues, if He doesn't enable me, it won't happen. Any "yes" I say to ministry is sincerely, "Lord willing and the creek don't rise." Yet "God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work" (2 Cor 9:8). He always gives me enough grace at the right time to serve in the ways He wants. My frequent prayers in this regard are, "I can't do this; will You please help me?" and "Show up and show off, Lord."
- Suffering increases perseverance and, ultimately, hope. "Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). Suffering strengthens our faith muscles to grow our endurance and our hope in the unseen good we groan to see (Romans 8:18-25).
- Suffering deflates pride (2 Cor. 12:7-10). For more on this, see "The Gift of Thorns" from the archives of this blog.
In addition, suffering is a means of growing the body of Christ toward maturity:
- Those whose help I need have an opportunity to serve, and to do so without fanfare or reciprocation. As much as this weighs on me as the one in need of help, friends and family have pointed out that "all things for good" applies to the other people affected by my limitations as well as to myself. By serving me cheerfully in the Lord's strength, they serve the Lord, and He will not forget that.
Service is a spiritual gift and a general command. People in need are the opportunity to exercise that gift and love through serving. "As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 4:9-11).
- Those who pray can grow closer to Christ through prayer and in character as they faithfully execute that hidden ministry in the secret place of communion with the Lord. Moreover, thanksgiving is multiplied as we all see God's answers. The verse following the previously cited 2 Cor. 1 passage says this: "You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many" (2 Cor. 1:11). Prayer is real spiritual work and an opportunity to amplify the chorus of thanksgiving to the God who hears and answers in His best way.
- Those who watch may have their faith encouraged as they watch suffering in faith, as I have in watching Joni or Gitz or Vaneetha or Kara Tippetts or Amy Carmichael or those in my own local church who walk courageously through cancer or disability. Their stories continue to build the testimonies of the great cloud of witnesses proclaiming with their lives that Jesus is better, that Jesus is worth present suffering, that His kingdom is better than the best this world has to offer (Hebrews 11:1-12:2). These testimonies grow my love for God and strengthen me to trust the Lord with my own afflictions. May it be so with yours and mine, too.
- Others who suffer feel safe confiding their sufferings to one who suffers. Seeking the Lord in our suffering is the unique and necessary training ground for offering comfort to other sufferers: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4). Experiencing God's comfort in our own suffering gives us something to offer hurting people, makes us more approachable to them, and enhances our credibility when we must speak uncomfortable truths from God's Word that will help them get through their hard time. Do also note in that verse that we need not have suffered in the same way as the person we seek to comfort. So rich and multifaceted is the comfort given by the Father of mercies that His comfort makes us "able to comfort those in any affliction."
Third, suffering can open doors to share the gospel with the lost:
- Suffering is a means of bringing us into close contact with people we may not have met otherwise. Paul the apostle wrote more than once of his prison chains as no hindrance to the gospel and even called himself "an ambassador in chains" (Eph. 6:19-20; Phil. 1:12-14). Paul was in chains, but God's Word could not be (2 Tim. 2:9-10). Furthermore, it was because of a physical illness that Paul preached the gospel to the Galatians (Gal 4:13-14). Healthcare workers are my mission field instead of pastors' wives now.
- Suffering strikes believers and unbelievers alike; when the lost world sees a difference in the way Christians suffer, sometimes they want to know why. With all prayerful effort, I seek to be kind to my doctors and pharmacists, to care about them as people, and to watch for doors the Lord opens to share the gospel with them. Amore's coworkers are aware of the trials his family has endured in recent years, and they know the demands my illness place on him. They may not know the Lord, but they are watching to see how Amore responds to these afflictions. They see how he takes care of me, and perhaps, someday, the Lord will cause them to ask him the reason for his hope. Unsaved family members see how we weather griefs and sorrows as well. May the Lord make them curious enough to ask, and may He open their hearts to believe. Our part is to pray for open doors and bold words and to be ready to give the reason for our hope (1 Peter 3:15; Col. 4:3; Eph. 6:18-20).
Finally, suffering is a means of glorifying God in the heavenly realms:
- Consider His servant Job. Satan's core strategy with him was to strip all earthly blessings from him until he cursed God to his face. One of his continuing strategies with us is to attack us at the place of our faith and to undermine our confidence in the wisdom, goodness, and trustworthiness of God.
Every time we look at the hard and look back up to God in faith to bless His name, He receives glory and Satan is put to shame. Lifting up that shield of faith extinguishes the flaming arrows of the evil one (Eph. 6:16). Suffering is fundamentally a spiritual battle even more than a medical, financial, or relational one, and the spiritual victory is more important than any circumstantial victory of relief of adversity.
When we, like Job, say or sing, "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21), the Lord is honored and Satan defeated in the skirmish. When we, by His own grace, say, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him" (Job 13:15), we add our own voice to the cloud of witnesses to Jesus' worthiness.
- Consider also Satan's limits. As with Job and with Peter. he cannot touch us with suffering unless the Lord grants permission (Job 1; Luke 22:31-32). The same Lord who tells the ocean waves, "Thus far, and no farther," sets the boundaries on Satan's access to us. Satan is a roaring lion, yes, but he's a lion on a leash.
As Peter wrote, "Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen" (1 Peter 5:8-11).
Our Shepherd is stronger, and our Shepherd is good. If He permits the enemy to touch us with pain and loss, that is for our good. We can trust Him with this, whatever our particular "this" is.
This is not an essay on how to suffer well. I stumble too often to write such a post. It is instead a post seeking to shine a light on the meaning of our suffering. Dear crumble, your pain is not random; it is the yoke, the cross-beam, specially fitted for you by a Father who loves you and is making you like His Son. As Joni says, "God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves." Your pain is not meaningless; you have the opportunity to suffer for the name and kingdom of God, and that opportunity is only yours for a little while, in this life. When that kingdom comes in all its fullness, there will be no more crying or pain, and He will wipe every tear from our eyes. Your pain is not forever and will end in resurrection wholeness. If you are in Christ, your story has a happy ending, and it will be worth all we went through on the journey. He promises (John 16:20-22; 1 Peter 1:6-7).
Thanks be to God for the uncomfortable gift of suffering and for His faithfulness to preserve my faith in the midst of it so far. Thank you, crumbles, for helping me through your prayers and encouragement. May the Lord strengthen and encourage all of us, dear crumbles, to bless His name when He gives and when He takes away. Even in the taking away, He gives. Nothing can touch us unless He appoints it for our good and His glory. We can trust the Lord with this, because of Jesus the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.