Suffering is something we like to avoid. We reach for the jar with painkillers as soon as our headache starts to intervene with the duties and pleasures of life. Many of us look away from the television screen when pictures are crimes or horrible diseases. Mercy killing, more commonly known as euthanasia, is promoted as a fool-proof method to end all suffering once and for all. Civilized people strive for a world uninterrupted with pain.
Still, the effects of suffering abound, also in our Western, high-tech world. As a matter of fact we seem to discover more pain all the time. Besides the many forms of physical suffering that cannot be sufficiently relieved with medical assistance, we have become more aware of the enormous impact that emotional pains and scars can have on people’s functioning. We have grown too familiar with terms like childhood trauma, psychological abuse and dysfunctional relationships. It seems that each time we move one notch upward on the pleasure scale, we slide down an equal step. As our hands reach to embrace the grail of bliss, it eludes us.
No wonder. Our world lies in the firm grip of sin. Man rebelled against his good Lord and followed the insidious Prince of Darkness. The consequences were far-reaching and devastating. Satan’s purpose for our world has always been complete hatred and total destruction. If it were not for the immediate intervention of the good Lord, the human race would probably have self-destructed by now. But though our Lord in heaven prepared grace for us, this present world will remain subject to the results of sin till Judgment Day.
Consequently, we are faced with suffering. There are numerous sorts of physical disease and pain. Many people see their strength diminish and have to adjust to their ever-progressing disease. What started as an inconvenience becomes a major disability. Some of our children die before their potential received a chance to blossom, humanly speaking. Alongside these bodily ailments are the countless mental and emotional forms of distress. The ache of losing a loved one never goes away completely. We encounter disharmony between husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, and members of the same congregation. Struggles with substance addiction or homosexuality are not foreign to God’s children. Some have to deal with results of suicide or incest. Each one of us could make this list of intense hurt longer, as many types of pain are only known to the sufferer himself. The extent of human suffering is unknown.
As devastating as these physical and emotional derailments can be, there is another form of suffering. The children of darkness do not experience this unique pain. Neither are all Christians living in our Western society aware of this kind of discomfort. But actually it is a fundamental part of being a child of God. This type of suffering is a direct result of our faith. Being a Christian means that we are different from the world. As a society rejects God, it becomes intolerant of His children. The result is that many Christians have to suffer persecution for the sake of their faith. It is the cross of following Christ. Jesus paid the big price for our eternal salvation; we in turn pay the small price of taking up our cross. The early Christian Church was persecuted initially by the Jews, later by the Romans. Throughout the entire history of Christ’s Church many believers have been deprived of certain rights. Countless people have had to pay with their lives for the hope that kept them going. Also today many of our fellow-believers suffer maltreatment and death in northern Africa, China, the Middle East, Iraq and other parts of the world. Though we cannot fathom what these people go through, we suffer with them and make their affliction known to our heavenly Father.
There is another aspect of taking up the cross. As His followers, we must crucify our old nature. This ongoing process has its own trials and frustrations. There are parts of our old nature that we don’t mind keeping. We know we should not watch certain movies, but oh well, we can handle it. We know we should promote the honor of our neighbor, but then again, we pass on the juicy details in the strictest confidentiality. Beside these tugs of the old nature, we have to deal with the inability of our new man to totally eradicate all sinful desires. Crucifying our old nature is an ongoing, painful process.
the New Testament prepare us for this type of trial and suffering. “And Jesus said to all, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it’” (Luke 9:23, 24). "Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:27).
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s suffering, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12–14).
In faith Christian learn to cope with the sufferings of this age. Though there are different types of reaction to difficulties that are a consequence of following Christ is comparable to the way we deal with the hurt of living in a fallen world. A few guidelines will help us.
In the first place we do well not to worry. Though anxiety can be very real and understandable, it increases our suffering unnecessarily. All affliction comes to us out of the hand of our Father. He is in control and knows what we need. In all things God works for good with those who love Him. These words of Romans 8:28 have reassured Christians of all times and places.
In the second place we can be cheerful for what still is possible. Filled with confidence in God’s care we learn to look at the bright side. It is in this area that we hear many humbling and moving testimonies. “I am so happy that the Lord allowed me to keep some sight in my left eye. Now I am still able to see my grandchildren!” “Isn’t a wheelchair a marvelous invention? What would I do without it? If it wasn’t for these wheels, I could not have visited you!” “I will never be able to have a boyfriend...But seeing my brothers and sisters find partners makes me so happy. I am glad that I am still alive to experience that!” This attitude will benefit us during some forms of persecution as well. It could be that we are deprived of certain privileges, or that we have to pay fines, but we still may have the nearness of a fellow Christian. We have to pay for the education of our children on top of all our taxes, but isn't it wonderful that we can raise them in a time of peace and that we are able to provide them with Christian schooling?
In the third place, we do not have to acquiesce. With common sense we must explore what can be done to improve our health and increase our resistance. The means of modern medicine are available to us. The possibility of vitamin and mineral supplements can be explored. At times of mild persecution we can pursue political avenues to correct injustices and point out real discrimination. Ora et lavora conf denter. In faith we will supplement our prayer with works, which include efforts to maintain law and justice in the land.
In the fourth place, in our adversity we have the opportunity to practice thankfulness. The Lord uses our disappointments and hurts as exercise in the school of gratitude. The les· sons are very difficult sometimes. How do we give thanks when a child leaves the church or when we have to deal with the pain of divorce? In God’s strength we can reach the point that we realize we have to stop asking questions. We have to learn to put our hand on our mouth in view of the Almighty’s greatness (see Job 40:4). By doing that we have be· come ready to bring our needs before the throne of God, with thanks· giving. In return our Lord will grant us the peace that passes all understanding.
Suffering is essential for salvation. By His suffering and death our Lord Jesus Christ secured our eternal well·being. As His followers we take up our cross. Through our struggles and pain, we learn dependence on our Father and gratitude under all circumstances. Our suffering directs our view to eternity. We can learn to rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because God's love has been poured out in us through the Holy Spirit, (Romans 15:3–5).
Reprinted from Reformed Perspective, March, 1998.