You know, it’s an interesting concept: suffering. I recently preached about the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-11 (namely Matt. 5:9) and it struck me that suffering is one of those areas where worldly and Christian perspectives diverge completely. There is absolutely no common ground when it comes to it: the Christian is called to be poor in spirit, mournful, meek, and thirsty without satisfaction. Yet the world labels all of this “suffering”—how it’s uncomfortable to be poor in spirit, it’s illogical to be mournful, it’s embarrassing to be meek, and it’s downright against our inalienable human rights to hunger or thirst for anything—and they call suffering inappropriate or unfortunate by modern standards. Comfort is of the highest order in our society whether it has to do with your job, education, friendships, or relationships. Yet the Lord calls suffering, this embarrassment and discomfort and pain and everything, a blessing. That’s right, a blessing.
When I think about suffering, it’s almost like a double standard. On one hand, I can feel my own suffering: I emotionally feel when things are painful, I can feel my own flesh shivering under the unbridled burdens of my heart. My thoughts are colluded, murky and chaotic. I think and feel that I am in a state of suffering. On the other hand, I intellectually know certain truths that hold true when I suffer as a child of God: I know that suffering is necessary, I know that God uses suffering to conform me to the image of his Son, I know that suffering is merely a temporary affliction (Hebrews 12:5-11). My knowledge is clear and repetitive. Scripture has been seared into my mind, that are looping in my brain as I suffer. This knowledge is supposed to console me.
Yet sometimes, it makes not my suffering any easier to bear. And I contend that this is probably the right thing, the way God intended suffering to be. Otherwise, what’s in the word “suffering” if what is suffered over is so easily satiated. If suffering is short-lived or easily resolved, when the solution is just a phone call or a click away, then there seems to be no benefit at all. Do we even understand what it means to suffer anymore? To not only suffer, but suffer well? Can we sit through a painful situation with patience, weighing the burdens against our own flesh, knowing that in the end—whether near or far—that good will come of it (James 5:7-8)?
Sometimes counselors or advice-givers have it wrong by impulsively trying to reinforce spiritual knowledge (assuming the person already has a saving knowledge of the gospel and adequate understanding of the grace of suffering) on a person who is suffering instead of encouraging patience and giving hope in the eventual deliverance from his or her own circumstance. They are, in a sense, stripping that person of the blessings that comes with endurance by trying to resolve a situation rather than allowing the Lord to bring about his own discipline and solution. If suffering was meant for our own good, should we not suffer well rather than step in the way of God’s purpose? Should we rely on our own facility to provide shade for a friend when they’re really dying of thirst? It is not our job to solve matters of the heart on our own. Suffering is supposed to be about establishing our own hearts upon Christ (James 5:8), but we rarely suffer long enough to actually do so.
At the same time, the person who is suffering must be of a mindset that holds onto hope. There are those who seem unable to see past their own pain, they are too far gone to have an eternal perspective. All they know and can think about is their own pain, and they sulk in their own misery. These might be instances where gentle reminders from trusted friends are welcome, but not to the extent that their suffering is resolved. Rather, we come alongside those who are suffering to help them remain steadfast (James 5:11): like a child learning to ride a bike, we are there to center their balance if they teeter, but we eventually let them go so that they can learn on their own, allowing them to depend solely on gravity and the Creator of it all.
Even still, suffering is never easy. Those who say it is are either deceiving themselves or aren’t actually suffering in the first place. But we find solace in the fact that our God created this suffering for good reason because He is good. We trust that all suffering should be welcome discipline in our lives, and isn’t something that should be quickly hoped away. We find comfort in our suffering. We learn from our suffering. We are conformed to the image of Christ in our suffering. We are blessed in our suffering. These are things the world doesn’t tell us, and quite frankly, it’s considerably better that way.