Suffering. What an ugly word. We’re trained by society and contemporary medicinal practices to abhor and avoid suffering if at all possible. Suffering or the feeling of physical and emotional pain is considered to be alien to our bodies. We treat it as an abnormal part of nature and of our lives. We are conditioned to avoid it at all costs and when we’re in the midst of it, all we’re told to focus on is recovering and healing. Suffering isn’t a means to an end; it only happens when something has gone wrong and it affects our ability to live normally or ‘happily’.
Scripture doesn’t treat suffering with as much contempt as our society currently does. Scripture recognizes suffering as a means to an end and rather than treating it as an alien in our bodies, it acknowledges the normality of suffering and it expects suffering as a part of life. Paul flushes this idea out most clearly in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Paul explains how he has a “thorn in his flesh”, which is likely some sort of physical disability, and even after pleading with God three times to have it taken away he must live with it. But then here’s two of the most powerful verses in Scripture that Paul writes as a result of learning he must live with permanent suffering: “And God said to me: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.’” Paul then writes, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Wow, that’s a lot to take in and it’s so opposite of the way we think about suffering. The way that Paul describes his experience of suffering and weakness is of one that points him to God. Suffering serves a purpose. Suffering points us beyond ourselves to someone greater than ourselves. Suffering takes us from a horizontal mindset to a vertical mindset. When life is going fine and dandy we’re only really focused on ourselves and the world around us. We’re capable and in control during these seasons of life. But in the rough seasons of pain, suffering and struggle, we’re forced to look beyond our seemingly ‘capable and independent’ selves to see that there is a God who cares about us and wants to take care of us so we don’t have to take care of ourselves. Because the fact is that we are incapable of taking care of ourselves and avoiding suffering. As much as we’d like to think we can try to avoid suffering, it is inevitable and once it hits we have the choice of going at it ourselves, focused on our own means to relieve the pain (which often leads to addictions and more pain), or we can turn our eyes upwards and trust in the One who also knew incredible pain and chose to die on a cross to share in our suffering with us.
This is the heart of the Gospel: the realization that we can’t do life on our own and we need God to save us. The Gospel is where our brokenness intersects with God’s grace, which is all-sufficient for any amount of brokenness. When we are weak, when we can admit our suffering and inability to cope with it on our own, then we are strong because we are in a posture to receive God’s grace.
This doesn’t mean we have to smile and pretend to be happy when suffering comes our way; in fact we can still hate it and ask God to take it away just like Paul asked for his ‘thorn’ to be removed. But what this does mean is that we don’t have to suffer in vain any more. God has given our suffering purpose. Even if He chooses not to heal us from our suffering, He always chooses to redeem us through our suffering. Suffering is a reality we must live with for now; there is nothing abnormal about it. We can expect to suffer just as much as we can expect to be happy. And we have the ability to praise God in both seasons of life because we know that God redeems us through our suffering, teaching us to trust in His promise that suffering won’t always be a reality we’ll have to deal with and teaching us to trust in His grace which is sufficient for us to live in the midst of suffering for the time being.