How do we suffer well? What does it mean to be faithful to the Lord when we are facing a trial that we had no direct hand in creating? Of course we are all sinners, and all suffering is traced ultimately to the effects of the curse on this fallen world. But when we zero in on a particular moment—a lost job, an empty pantry, a sick or dying loved one—there are times when no sin of ours had any direct responsibility for the pain we are feeling. What should we think and do right then? Here are a few very practical suggestions that come to mind.
1) Study the innocent suffering in the Bible. Job is a great example, as is Daniel—but Jesus “outshines them all.” Not all suffering is the direct consequence of sin. If we don’t know this, we’ll stumble down the briar patch of Job’s friends and feel guilty or self-righteous in our suffering when we should be seeking God in it. It also encourages our souls to know we are not the first, and we won’t be the last, to experience this kind of pain.
2) Put less stock in understanding and more stock in worshiping. Post enlightenment/internet Westerners love to assume that knowledge is the solution to everything. This is simply not true, unless we mean the knowledge of God. The right solution is not always more foresight or more insight, but rather more God-sight. If problem solving gets in the way of trusting and worshiping, we are problem solving too much.
3) Distinguish between a difficult life and an abandoned life. A difficult life might look like having to give up your job, saying a brutal goodbye to a love one, eating food you don’t like, not knowing where your next meal will come from, moving into a smaller housing or a less attractive neighborhood, losing your car, asking for financial help from others, feeling terrible because you are sick, or experiencing ongoing physical pain and limitations. This can happen even though you haven’t made any direct decisions to cause any of these trials. The danger here is to assume that a difficult life means that God has abandoned you. He has not. Sometimes God uses a reduction in our life, even pain in our life, for his own mysterious and good ends. If we define God’s goodness as an abundant physical life we’ll get it wrong again and again.
4) Remember that suffering is very, very, very, very temporary. From God’s perspective (and our perspective in the future), any difficulties we face are briefer than we can possibly fathom compared to eternity. Millennia after millennia of pain-free, difficulty-free existence in heaven will show us what God already knows: the difficulty we are facing right now is like one painful blink that we never experience again. It seems painful right now but it is a…blink…and when our eyes open on heaven it will all seem very short indeed. So when you confront a difficult moment, take a moment and blink…and remember eternity.
5) In the meantime, during our blink….Remember that the Word and prayer are available, free of charge, at every moment. Whether we’re holed up in a cave like David, or imprisoned like Corrie Ten Boom, or paralyzed like Joni Erikson Tada, or watching our enemies come at us with spears like Jim Elliot, God’s Word and his gracious welcome are available to us. Sometimes the main value of suffering is to show us that when we have nothing else, we still have the Lord. As Corrie Ten Boom said, “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.” When what we have is taken away, may we learn with greater joy that we still have Christ, and more importantly, He still has us.
In whatever suffering the Lord has planned for us to endure, may we endure it faithfully, until the moment comes when our blink ends and we open our eyes to see his face.