Life has been very challenging for me in the past few years. I have been learning some things about suffering as He has allowed me to participate with Him in this â€śdyingâ€? process. I had no inkling as to the purpose or effect of suffering in the Christian lifeâ€¦ It seemed to me like an idea that we take for granted theologically speaking. We speak loftily of how good it is to walk the path our Savior walked, to carry our cross, to lay down our lives, or to be conformed to the image of Christ. Really and truly, unless we have walked through a measure of pain in some aspect of our lives and, more importantly, acknowledged its presence and effect upon our souls, those phrases have no meaning for us. We can have painful things happen to us, and sometimes tragic circumstances surround us, but until we view those things with a spiritual perspective, we tend to dismiss them as merely singular eventsâ€”perhaps bad luck or accident. Or worse yet, we harbor resentment and bitterness towards the people or events that have affected us in a negative way, sometimes taking this to the extreme of harboring resentment towards God. We never acknowledge that at some level, it is supposed to have eternal impact, whether a small incident or a catastrophic event. Good things come and go and we take them for granted, bad things hit us and we tend to become self-focused instead of God-focused.
The whole doctrine of suffering in the Christian church needs to be re-taught. There are some basically bad teachings that circulate. For example, there is the idea that we suffer because of sin in our lives, or the idea that we donâ€™t have enough faith to overcome and be victorious. Both of those ideas have a grain of truth at their core. We live in a fallen society, and our individual sin has consequences that will, inevitably, affect our private world. We also have a tendency to behave like the disciples in those moments when Jesus responds to them, â€śO ye, of little faith,â€? simply out of our faulty views of God and His ability to act in a given situation. The really blatant inaccuracy of those statements, however, lies in their focus on â€śselfâ€?. So, if we could walk for a little whileâ€”a day, an hour, a minuteâ€”without sinning, then we wouldnâ€™t suffer? Or if we could only muster enough belief in God, then perhaps we could â€śmakeâ€? Him change things?? The idea is preposterous that we can control our circumstances through our behavior. It is inverted idolatryâ€”reallyâ€”and prideful attitude with a truly subtle twist. It leaves out the purposes of God being worked out through the hard things we encounter.
I have come to some conclusions in recent months and weeks. While I do not pretend to have answers for everyone who goes through the wringer, at least for myself I have been able to find the eye of the storm in the palm of His hand.
The first, most important, conclusion that I reached was a deeper understanding of the absolute sovereignty of our Creator God. In a pagan sense, I am a fatalist, but from a Christian perspective, I simply acknowledge that He is, utterly and completely, in control of the universe. I do not nay-say the doctrine of freewill, because I believe in His infinite wisdom, he requires us to make choices. We make them, with or without conscious knowledge of His working in the situation. We make our choices based on our emotions, our knowledge of a given situation, our desire to do good, or our desire to be selfish. All of these are influenced by the people around us, the past experiences we have lived through, and the spiritual realm battling for control of our lives. God knows how we will choose because He knows the â€śfutureâ€? [although in reality, all times for Him are â€śnowâ€?], but also because, ultimately, He controls what influences our decisions. It is a paradox that can never, in this life, be completely understood. We would say that because He controls our influences, He therefore controls our decisions, but really in the end, the choice is still ours to make, regardless of the influences on us during the decision-making process.
The second conclusion I reached was that my suffering (whether small or great) and my reaction to that suffering has an effect on the unseen realm around me. I was trying to explain this to a friend recently. Although, I had never put it into words before, it seemed to flow out of my passionate desire to make her understand something about the spiritual realm. She seemed to think that because other people in the Christian faith were suffering publiclyâ€”were in the headlinesâ€”that her own suffering, and therefore her life, was of little or no consequence. My response to her was taken from an encounter I had with a Chinese pastor who had been imprisoned for her faith, as well as from Colossians 2. When Christ was crucified, buried, and resurrected, Paul says this in verse 15: â€śHaving disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.â€?
When we have to walk through things as Christians, each victory is a blow to the enemy. There are those who are called to have global influence and they have opportunities to speak truth in the public forum. Then there are those who are called to walk in the â€śhidden placesâ€?. They live private, quiet lives and affect very few people in the world around them, or so they think. But, each time a mother battles in prayer for the lives of her children, that is a blow to the powers of darkness. Each time an individual confronts darkness in his heart and says, â€śNo,â€? to temptation, that is a blow to the enemy. Each time someone suffers pain or anguish in his soul and chooses to worship the Lord and give Him glory despite the circumstances, that is a blow to the demonic realm. Every tiny joy, every little disappointment is an opportunity to give God the glory and to deny Satanâ€™s attempt to find a place to build a stronghold in our lives.
I came to a third conclusion that the extent of my sufferingâ€”its effect on my soul and on my spirit-manâ€”can only be determined by me and the Lord. What may appear to other people to be a major blow to my life, may, to me, seem a small matter. In the same way, something that might seem to others a trivial matter, may be a major obstacle to overcome in my individual walk with the Lord. An hour can seem a blink of an eye, or it may crawl at a snailâ€™s pace depending on oneâ€™s perspective. God knows better than anyone around me can ever know, how a given circumstance will affect my relationship with Him. I can seek counsel, I can take action based on that counsel, but the ultimate outcome is going to be determined, not by what appears to happen externally, but by what my heart response to the situation is. The more I pour my heart out before the Lord and allow Him to examine and change me, the greater the chance that when it is all finished I will indeed be more â€śconformed to the image of His Sonâ€?1. The pitfall to this is the temptation to avoid externals by focusing on internals, but to truly trust Him is to act on what I know to be truth.
Another conclusion I have come to is an elementary principle. If I determine that what I suffer has to do only with me and my life, then I am operating on a faulty, selfish assumption. Every person around me sees my circumstances and makes judgments about my character and about my God (whether they are conscious of it or not) based on my actions and reactions. This is true whether they are believers in Jesus or not. I stumble and they come to a negative conclusion. I triumph and they are forced to acknowledge that something or Someone beyond me, is operating. If I remember that my life is not my own, I am bought with a price, and I am to glorify God in this body, then every action I take will be thought through and subjected to His control before I take it. Sometimes this is as simple as a deep breath and a quick prayer before I lose my temper or my patience. Sometimes this is as complex as weeks of prayer, or perhaps fasting, before a major decision in my life. It is verbalizing forgiveness rather than angry resentment. It is apologizing with sincerity and offering to make amends when I have offended someone. It is, plainly and simply, asking the Lord to be Jesus through me to the world around meâ€¦
Only the broken vessel will allow the torch of His glory to shine through (as in Gideonâ€™s day) or will allow the oil of Holy Spirit anointing to pour out into the lives around it (as with Mary of Bethany). We cannot become broken by simply asking to be His vessel. It is something that happens as a process of time. Life unfolds around us, in us, through us, and it is the testing we endure that enables us to step back and let God do what He needs to do in us and through us. Suffering should remind us
1) that we are not in charge;
2) that He is in control;
3) that there is an unseen realm (more real than this world we see around us) which is affected by our lives, small or great;
4) that we can only be bettered by it as we allow Him to work in us; and
5) that, whatever its source, it cannot be all about usâ€”it can only be about Him and His work in and through us.
I have one last observation. As much as I have come to value suffering in my own life, and as much as I have learned to â€śembrace my troubles as friendsâ€?, I have also observed that in some cases, blessing is as much of a testing of the soul as trials are. The temptation for a person with apparent blessing and prosperity and â€śeaseâ€? of living is to slide through life never really acknowledging Godâ€™s hand at work in their lives. Sometimes, those who have endured troubles and then come into blessing, find it more difficult to maintain a close relationship with the Lord during the blessing because they are not pressed into seeking Him by the tough things. I will not say this is always the case. One who has come to a place of walking in the presence of the Lord can never truly be comfortable without the sense of Him surrounding them whatever their circumstances. Often, however, the lives we perceive from our natural perspective to be â€śblessedâ€? bear their own unseen burdens and we cannot judge them based on our own experiences.
Nevertheless, we truly must be alert and aware that the things we encounter, the lives we live, are not to be taken lightly. We are not simply individuals living out our lives in this fallen world, simply trying to â€śget throughâ€? to the other side. We are ambassadors for Christ. This is not a new concept. The apostle Paul said it first 2000 years ago, but it bears repeating. We need reminding. Heâ€”the Lord of Hosts, His Son Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spiritâ€”is manifested to the world around us through the small things in our lives as well as the miraculous deeds we are allowed to participate in. Not the least of these, there is the wondrous act of redemption and grace performed at the cross, fulfilled in His resurrection, and manifested in the lives of those who come to Him seeking fulfillment. Suffering, in its ultimate spiritual reality, is simply the grace and the mercy of God shaping our lives so that we can better display His glory, regardless of what we interpret as the source, or the form that suffering takes.
For this, we should be grateful. Suffering without acknowledging Him in the midst of it merely leads to despair and hopelessness. He gives us the grace to endure and the love to sustain us. It is, as the writer of Hebrews says, evidence that we are His children, and this brings meaning and hope to lives that would otherwise have no meaning. After all, from an eternal perspective, our short lives come and go and fade to forgetfulness. Five generations from now, who will know who we are? What about ten, or twenty, or fifty generations from now? When we submit our lives to himâ€”lock, stock and barrelâ€”we place ourselves in the hands of a God who will help us to make a difference in the lives of people we will never know a hundred years from now, or a thousand years from now. It is a long chain of events, like an infinite jigsaw puzzle, that can be influenced in a positive way because we asked His assistance through the tough times, seeking His wisdom and strength to endure. Ultimately, we can affect others best by bringing Him glory and honor during the quiet, or not so quiet, short lives that we live, in the midst of every trial and blessing we experience.