We all have stories and no two are the same. (If you haven’t read my story I would invite you to do so.) There is a common thread that runs through all of them however. We all celebrate, we all get restless, and we all suffer. It is this, the suffering that shapes us more than anything else in life.
Suffering is more than just physical hardship. It’s also emotional pain, relational woes, soul unrest, and spiritual attack. Jesus’ death does not take away our suffering, but it gives profound meaning and purpose to it.
I have learned this first hand. I love what Charles Spurgeon says; maybe you too can identify with his words. “I bear my willing witness that I owe more to the fire, and the hammer, and the file, than to anything else in my Lord’s workshop. I sometimes question whether I have ever learned anything except through the rod. When my schoolroom is darkened, I see most.”
Consider James’ words “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.” (James1:2-4)
Count it a joy? When you feel like you are drowning in grief or suffocating in fear, joy is one of the last things you are thinking of! However,I have learned that suffering provides an avenue for our faith to mature. Don Barker, in Pain’s Hidden Pleasure says, “If there is anything a sufferer needs, it is not an explanation, but a fresh, new look at God.
As I faced a future with TA I was afraid, and I prayed over and over that God would rescue me and He did. Maybe not in the way that I thought He would or should but he has given me more strength, more sanity, more of Him, than I ever had before I was sick and I wouldn’t trade any of that for the life that I had before.
AW Tozer says, “God never uses anyone greatly until He has wounded them deeply.” We must be stripped down of our self-sufficiency and taught to rely on God for everything and sometimes it takes having things ripped out of our hands or our lives in order to learn.
As I have been been “journeying to the cross” this season I have been giving some extended thought to the suffering that Jesus endured. We we know the outcome—an empty tomb. For me, this is an exercise in reflection, but for the disciples as they found themselves in the middle of it was an exercise of faith. I see what God was doing in the garden of Gethsemane, and I know the great necessity of the cross because I have the benefit of understanding the why in this situation. Otherwise, I too would probably have fallen asleep and most likely would have run for safety. It’s easy to look back.
We look back all the time, longing for comforts past, wondering what might have been. Even though we have taken up life with Jesus, suffering challenges our resolve and fixes our attention to how things used to be. We look wistfully at our “before” life. Our hunger for restoration and relief from burdens turns our heart to the past, but Jesus has only an eye for what is set before Him. He knew what had to happen, kept His focus forward, and stayed the course, amid the suffering.
God’s purpose is to create Christlike character in us, to bring us into harmony with His will for us. He is interested in a “better us,” not in providing an easier path. Sometimes we need suffering as a way to bring us nearer to God and remove our worldly attitudes.
The Isrealites experienced this in the forty years they spent wandering in the desert. They argued with Moses, idealizing their life in Egypt and questioning the goodness of the Lord. They complained about the Lord’s provision, not because he didn’t provide, but because they weren’t content with what he provided.
The paradox of suffering is that it is actually a gift – one we might like at times to give back unopened– but a gift nonetheless. God gives us suffering as a way of giving us himself, for it is in our suffering that we become acutely aware of his presence and power. Hardship empties us of our self-reliance so that we might soak in what it means that we are children of God.
The Israelites in the wilderness and Christ on the cross both stand as a testament, old and new, that God does not forsake his people. More than this, they remind us that suffering is a gift from God that very tangibly embeds his promises in our daily life. Of course, we have to be looking to him to receive it as such.
This is wisdom borne of suffering. But this is the clear-eyed analysis of someone who is standing on the other side having survived in one piece. What do you do when you find yourself in the midst of suffering with no end or relief in sight? Know that you are not alone and Jesus holding out his hand to, ready to rescue us with peace and rest. Call out to Him, He will hear your cry and save you. (Psalm 145:19)
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.” (Isaiah 43:2 NIV, emphasis mine) This promise from Isaiah is not an if but a when. And when it happens, God promises to be with us, always. Sometimes we lose sight of that as we are beaten by the raging storm around us. If that is the case you are in good company. Matthew 14:22-32 tells the story of Peter’s experience with walking on the water and then losing sight of Jesus in the face of the storm. Vernon McGee writes, “When he [Peter] began to sink, he prayed the shortest prayer in the Bible,” Lord, save me!” If Simon Peter had prayed this prayer like we have heard others sometimes pray, “Lord, Thou who are omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent…” Peter would have been twenty-nine feet under water before he would have gotten to his request.” Charles Spurgeon once remarked that “the best style of prayer is that which cannot be called anything else but a cry.” This is the prayer of a drowning person in need of help from a savior, and aren’t we all? Do you know what happened next? Jesus immediately reached out and grabbed him. (Matthew 14:31)
Kendall Huag said, “Ultimately, suffering is about learning to receive whatever God has placed in our hands as his goodness for us today. For Jesus, the journey to Jerusalem was a gift. Gethsemane and Golgotha were gifts. They were not easy gifts to receive, which is why he had to say, “Not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). And it is why he taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matthew 6:10), because if we are not looking for God’s kingdom come, we always be looking back for our kingdom gone.”
This is what my happy ending looks like, a fire for God that has been rekindled. The opportunity to take heartbreak and fear and turn them around for God’s glory. Stop for a moment today, and think about your love story. Maybe it’s only just a story right now and you need God to pour His love into it. He will, you know. It doesn’t matter how ugly the beginning is, He loves you just the same. I am here to tell you that some of the ugliest stories can become beautiful when you give God the opportunity to pour His love into them. It is only through the grace and love of God that I can stand here today, not bitter and angry about the hand life has dealt, but thankful that through all of it I have been drawn closer to a God who wants nothing more than to be my happily ever after.
If you haven’t before I would invite you to accept the gift of cross. The gift of forgiveness and salvation. If it’s a gift you have already received maybe you need to dust it off and realize the true cost of it before another day passes. It is this gift, offered to us for free that cost Jesus everything. The gift we are getting ready to celebrate.