Most people naturally avoid suffering. And I don’t blame them! Suffering is uncomfortable.
Certainly there are different degrees of suffering, but any experience of something difficult, painful or unpleasant qualifies as suffering (at least according to the dictionary).
A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a friend who was praising God because God had preemptively rescued her family from suffering. They had planned to sell their house and move into a larger, more expensive one. When potential buyers approached them about forming a contract and purchasing the house, my friend and her husband decided at the last minute not to sell. The timing didn’t seem right.
The next day she lost her job which would have provided the funds for their new mortgage. God, she reasoned, had saved them from the financial crisis that selling their house and buying a new one would have caused them.
Perhaps that’s true. I’m pretty ignorant most of the time about the providence of God. It was the most logical interpretation probably because our default is to avoid suffering because it makes us miserable; and God certainly wouldn’t want to make us miserable…right?
The apostle Paul had a different perspective on suffering. He started a church in Philippi, and after he left, the Christians there began to experience opposition from others because of their commitment to Jesus. In Paul’s letter to them, he acknowledges that suffering can sometimes be a privilege and a blessing:
“For God has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well….” (Philippians 1:29 NRSV)
That’s difficult to hear in a culture of suffering-avoidance. How might suffering ever be a privilege and a blessing? On the surface, the Philippians were able to stand in solidarity with their leader Jesus, who suffered deeply himself. That kind of suffering was an honor. But perhaps suffering is a blessing on a deeper level as well: through suffering we are stripped of all that we hold on to for security and identity, and invited to move beyond ourselves toward God and others in genuine love.
Richard Rohr reflects on this dynamic in the book Adam’s Return:
In the larger-than-life people I have met, I always find one common denominator: in some sense, they have all died before they died. At some point, they were led to the edge of their private resources, and that breakdown, which surely felt like dying, led them into a larger life. That’s it! They broke through in what felt like breaking down. Instead of avoiding a personal death or raging at it, they went through a death, a death of their old self, their small life, and came out the other side knowing that death could no longer hurt them.
Jesus leads the way for us and shows us how to handle suffering. When faced with it, he emptied and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross.
We frequently don’t have a choice about whether or not we suffer. But we do have a choice about how we respond to it. Will we try to avoid it? Will we rage at it? Or will we, like Jesus, humble ourselves and allow God to use it to shape our souls?
We’d love to hear from you. Who do you know who has suffered well? What impact did that have upon them and others?