For a very large part of my youth I thought the point of being a Christian was to keep bad things from happening to me. After all, the Old Testament has all these covenants, “If you ___, then God will ____.”
So if I did all the right things, kept all the rules, did all the things asked of me, then God would protect me and take care of me and keep me safe. I could manipulate the creator of the universe into being my own personal caretaker.
Imagine my surprise, and anger, as I encountered more, and more, pain and suffering in my own life. God was supposed to make me happy. He was supposed to keep my parents marriage together, he was supposed to keep me from feeling sad all the time for no apparent reason. God was failing to hold up his end of the bargain, and so, maybe I was done with God.
Only in the wealthy west could a spoiled little girl hold onto the notion, for any length of time, that it’s possible to live a life without suffering.
But I see the same sort of thinking in other western Christians all the time.
Why do we fight so hard for a story that doesn’t include suffering? Why do we resist it so much?
Five years ago I might have told you that it’s because somewhere inside of us we know that suffering is wrong, that it’s not supposed to be part of this world. We feel that it’s a thing that is broken and we must fix it.
Today I might add that we resist suffering because we fear it. We pad our lives with things that create the illusion of safety, things we think will protect us from the inevitable reality of our own vulnerable, mortal bodies. Such padding is a privilege only the wealthy can afford, which might be why the truly poor people I meet seem resigned to suffering. They have no way to escape it’s reality. They don’t fight to change it, because they can’t imagine a life where suffering doesn’t exist.**
The idea that suffering is to be avoided is not a Biblical one. Suffering is expected, and encouragement offered to endure and redeem it. In case you haven’t read your Bible lately, or don’t have one, I offer a few snippets on this theme for your further reading and consideration.
“Consider it all joy my brothers when you fall into various trials…” James 1
“we also rejoice in sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” Romans 5:4-6
“Dear friends, do not be astonished that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in the degree that you have shared in the sufferings of Christ,” 1 Peter 4:12
“For it has been granted to you not only to believe in Christ but also to suffer for him,” Phil 1:29
“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in death.” Phil. 3:10
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my physical body – for the sake of his body, the church – what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ” Col. 1:24
There is, through out scripture, this crazy idea that one might, with the help of the Holy Spirit, be able to pass through times of suffering in a way that is redemptive, and somehow participates with God in the work of redemption of this broken world. (Because this world is broken and in need of redemption, that much is true.) In other words, it is possible to suffer with HOPE!
We see this in stories in the Bible, we see this in church history, we see this in the lives of people around us, if we are lucky enough to know some of those people who know how to pass through suffering with hope.
I no longer fear suffering. By this I do not mean that my muscles don’t clench involuntarily when my kids jump off of something high, or that I don’t try to avoid car crashes. I’m not a crazy person who seeks out suffering, and I’m not going to quit trying to relieve the suffering of others, because I believe that’s what God does too. He’s always redeeming and restoring and bringing good out of evil.
I’m excited by the idea that suffering can be made into something beautiful. I will suffer. My children will suffer. That is inevitable. But I need not suffer in vain. We have this hope.
Jesus brought redemption through suffering. He turned the suffering to his own purposes and through it enacted the forgiveness of God in this world. He turned shame into triumph. I don’t get it, how that works, but I’m moved by the possibilities.
The Good Friday account tells us that even Jesus asked for a way to avoid suffering, “for this cup to pass” from him. Yet he ultimately accepted it, and even chose it, out of love, as the only way to bring about redemption. Now he walks with us through our sufferings. We don’t suffer alone.
So why would I expect to live a life without suffering? I am not so special that bad things should not happen to me. When they do, both large tragedies and minor inconveniences, I no longer ask, “Why me?”
What goes through my head instead is the question, “Why not me?”
Why should I not have my car break down? My friends down the road don’t even have a car.
Why would I complain about being sick? My friends have lost children and loved ones to illness.
Why would I get upset about a limited grocery budget? I still have money for food. Many I know don’t have even that. They eat what they can forage and scrounge.
When I accept that mine will also be a story of suffering I am freed to make it a beautiful story anyway, to enter into the beauty that is present in the midst of suffering.
When I’m fighting against the suffering that comes my way I can see nothing but the suffering itself. When I let go and accept that the suffering is present, I can look around and see the many things I still have to be thankful for. (It’s kind of like childbirth that way. If you remember that a baby is going to be the result of this, it’s a lot easier to go through.)
And God? I’m not done with Him.
It turns out He never promised that I’d lead a charmed life without any suffering if I trusted in Him. He only promised that He would be with me, that He is good, and that He will help me through it, and give me the strength I need to endure.
And that he has done remarkably well.
*I should probably be super spiritual and put in a cross picture, but really, they’re both torture devices, so this will do.
**Gross over generalization I know. But an observable phenomenon, especially living in a Buddhist culture which begins with the basic tenant that life is suffering.