I hate to suffer. At the risk of stating the obvious, by definition, suffering sucks. It’s so much easier to watch someone else suffer and to offer help or encouraging words. “Yes, brother, I went through this. It will get better.” “It’ll be for the good in the end.” While these statements may be wholly true, they are just so easy to say when you’re not the one suffering.
And as we pursue Christ and grow in our walk, it’s likely that we’ll take on more and more suffering. God reveals deep, entrenched character flaws that might have otherwise been left to fester and grow like mold in the back of the refrigerator.
And if your own problems weren’t enough, as you step out and take more responsibility for the ministry, the more involved you become in other people’s problems. As a discipler, you find yourself agonizing over what steps to take with your disciple, or maybe agonizing over what now seem to be missteps with your disciple. Christians find themselves making decisions that the world views as crazy, because by this world’s standards they are crazy. Why would anyone choose where to live, work, or go to school based on what their friends are doing? Shouldn’t you just make your OWN decisions? Well, when you have comrades in this life-and-death spiritual struggle, it actually makes all the sense in the world to band together to most effectively continue the fight.
The scriptures grant that suffering is painful. To deny that would be to deny the very definition of suffering and to become an ascetic. But the scriptures also talk about suffering as a privilege and something that’s necessary for our maturity.
For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake.” (Philippians 1:29)
Granted – like this is a privilege? Um… thanks, God… I guess.
Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 10:12)
O.k., so there’s benefit to suffering. But is it worth it? I mean, is it really worth it?
Suffering hurts, and especially when you find yourself suffering for consistent period of time, the nagging question arises: IS IT WORTH IT? Why not just throw in the towel and take the easy path? There’s things in my life that I know are working well, and I seem to be able to derive some pleasure from them. Why not just dive head-long into those and see how it goes? Maybe a better way to frame this question is how the bible frames it: why this waste?
This question is especially poignant for those Christians who have sacrificed greatly for God’s work in people’s lives. In difficult times, the cost of those sacrifices becomes very tangible, and if you’re not sure it’s worth it, you may loose all perspective and quit. We must be able to answer the question of “why this waste” with unshakable surety.
For the first part of this series, let’s consider some reasons for suffering.
Reasons for Suffering
If you’ve been a Christian for more than a week, than you’ve probably experienced the gut-wrenching and all-consuming rage/depression/self-pity associated with the dreaded d-word: discipline. Now, we know that discipline is good.
No discipline is enjoyable while it’s happening-it is painful! But afterwards there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. (Hebrews 12:11)
If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children after all. (Hebrews 12:8)
Yes, discipline is certainly good, and it’s always easy to look back at past discipline experiences and see the tangible fruit that it brought about in our lives. But it’s a whole ‘nother story when you’re in the moment. The author of Hebrews hits the nail on the head when he says “while it’s happening-it is painful!”.
Does it get better as time goes on? I suppose, because you have a backlog of experience with redemptive discipline from which to draw. But the pain, fury, and confusion that accompanies discipline is always, well, quite painful.
Any discipline that is redemptive is focused putting a stop to destructive behavior or attitudes by calling the person to pay a price for his/her wrong actions. Discipline is inherently painful and is designed to create a situation of measured suffering. If it weren’t painful, it wouldn’t be discipline anymore and it wouldn’t have the changing power that it does. Discipline without consequences is more like a suggestion or advice, but without consequences it’s certainly not discipline.
Natural Consequences and Bad Decisions
Sometimes suffering comes as a result of bad choices, but has nothing to do with discipline. The consequences of the choices themselves are what cause the suffering. This is a cause and effect sort of suffering. For example, if I make the irresponsible decision to quit my job because someone made I comment I didn’t like, I will suffer by not having money to make the rent next month.
Some consequences of this sort don’t go away though. Things like an SDT or brain damage from an overdose leave a scar that will be with us as long as we walk the Earth.
This kind of suffering can is very difficult because you have both the daily consequences but also the realization that you brought these consequences on yourself.
The Bible makes a distinction between suffering as a result of bad choices and suffering for righteous reasons.
If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. (1 Peter 4:15f)
The main thing with this kind of suffering is to avoid bitterness against God or whoever for the situation we’re in. It’s so tempting to shake our fist at God: “why couldn’t you have stopped me?! It was one night, and now I’ve suffered for years, it just isn’t fair!” God doesn’t promise to spare us from the results of our choices. In fact, he doesn’t promise to spare us from the results of a fallen world in general. Cause and effect isn’t really fair or unfair – it just is.
Now, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t heal or that he doesn’t spare us at times. When he does, it’s by His grace and mercy, and it’s miraculous. It’s not something that can be demanded though.
Now we know that sin comes in two flavors: commission (actively doing something wrong) and omission (failing to do what is right). Consequences we experience may either be a result of a bad decision to go out and DO something, or a result of being too apathetic, lazy, or distracted to do what needed to be done.
Suffering as a result of omission can be extra confusing, because you may feel like you didn’t know any better or that you did everything you could. A father may suffer with a rebellious child because he was too aloof and failed to provide the discipline that child needed growing up. This type of suffering is especially frustrating for me, and I think is commonly experienced by young Christian leaders.
Natural Consequences which are unavoidable
Sometimes people suffer as a result of natural consequences, but they have nothing to do with evil choices – just mistakes or accidents.
Joni Eareckson Tada’s story is a good example. Joni dove into shallow water as a teenager, broke her neck, and has been paralyzed from the neck down ever since. It wasn’t an evil choice to dive off the cliff, but the consequences were grave nonetheless. Her autobiography is a great read and she shares her struggles with bitterness, doubt, and depression.
Instead of becoming bitter and resigned, Joni began a Christian ministry targeted at handicapped people. Joni, as a person with a severe disability, has made more of an impact on the world that most people ever will because of how she choose to react to her suffering.
Living in a Fallen World
Many people are suffering from situations that they did nothing to create. There was no mistake, accident, or bad decision involved at all – just a crappy situation. Many illnesses are this way, and losing someone you care about is always extremely painful.
Sometimes this kind of suffering is a result of someone else’s bad choices. People who have lost a child in a drunk driving accident know this kind of suffering all too well.
Suffering in the Context of Christian Service
Our initial reaction to suffering may differ depending on what caused that hardship. Suffering under discipline can be infuriating while suffering a tragedy brings deep, sorrowful pain. Suffering is never pleasant, by definition. And when the Christian worker suffers as a result of trying to do good and stepping out and doing ministry, this can be especially frustrating. This kind of suffering is what drives us to ask: “why this waste?” That’ll be the topic for part II.