Death and taxes. Two things that are famously known for their certitude. But, I suggest that death (and some might argue taxes) is merely a form of something else- much more frequent and just as certain. And that something else is Suffering.
That’s why I fully reject the idea that Christianity is some sort of free pass to comfort or prosperity. All the evidence is clear. This life is not a cruise. There is no “smooth sailing” to our final destination, in the sense that we can get there by avoiding pain. God isn’t some magician whose purpose is to send checks in the mail and provide big ole’ houses for those who just name it and claim it with enough faith. We aren’t owed material wealth. And I might argue, that comfort might not be super good for us.
Jesus promised us an abundant life. But the world is feeding us lies about what abundance means. Abundance doesn’t mean yachts and sprawling mansions and millions of dollars in the bank. In fact, people who put the value of their identities in material abundance are, even, according to Jesus, the most poor. The most lacking. We need to define abundance by God’s standard, not HGTV’s, or Elle Magazine’s, or billboards along the highway.
Facts of Life:
At some point, everyone we know will die. Either before or after we do.
At some point, our lives will be touched in some way by chronic illness or cancer, whether ourselves or through someone we know and love.
At some point, unexpected things will happen that cause stress.
At some point, we will need to make difficult decisions, that don’t have a black and white answer.
At some point. At some point. Something will happen that causes us to suffer.
Help Number One: He Knows
Out of all the world religions that take themselves seriously, an interesting fact is that the Christian God is the only God who has actually personally known suffering.
Many people have unease or misconceptions about why Catholics have Jesus on the crucifix, when many Protestant churches have the empty cross. It’s not that we don’t believe in, or celebrate the resurrection. If you think that, check out an Easter Vigil Mass sometime. That thing is sweet. It encompasses the movement from death to life, in everything from the use of lighting, to the scripture readings, to the tone of the music. Catholics most certainly believe in the Resurrection.
Part of the reason Jesus is on the cross on the crucifix, is because it is a reminder to us of how our Savior intimately knows and understand suffering, and that becomes an immense comfort to us, as we face the different struggles of our own lives. This idea is called to mind in the Jeremy Camp song, “He Knows.”
The crucifix isn’t about keeping Jesus on the cross. It’s about identifying our suffering with His own, and receiving the comfort that comes from that. And whether or not you use that tool in your own faith walk, all Christians can take comfort in the fact that our God knows immense suffering.
Help Number 2: Suffering Isn’t the Worst Thing
I think humanity, in general, seeks to reduce our discomfort. When my daughter fills her diaper, she cries to let us know its time for a change. When my older children get an “owie,” the first thing they do is run to me for a kiss to “make it better.” From the earliest age, we seek to eliminate discomfort… we seek to eliminate our own suffering.
But, interestingly, the Christian faith teaches us that, in fact, our own personal suffering is not the worst thing! I recently read an article about people of faith who put a radical trust in God. It told the story of a pastor tortured for his faith in China, and after he was tortured, he was put into a very small box, just a few feet tall and wide and deep. Instead of praying for his own freedom, he prayed for a Bible. He didn’t pray for his own physical suffering to end- he prayed for a Bible (and received one, by the way!). Because he knew the ultimate truth. That suffering, even to the point of death, isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. Sin is worse. Not being able to share the love of God with others, is worse. Not knowing God, is worse. The priority is not on relieving suffering, the priority is on holiness. And if being in that box meant that this pastor was able to share God’s love with his captors, then he was more content to be there than he was desirous of freedom.
Help Number 3: The Fruit of Suffering
This one, also probably doesn’t always feel that great, at least at the outset. Catholics use the term “Redemptive Suffering” to describe how the fruit of suffering can actually be a good thing, if we allow God to work through our pain. It allows for the very real possibility that through suffering, can come immense beauty. We see this most easily in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. The death Jesus experienced was cruel, and painful, and one of the worst ways probably possible to die. But, had He not gone through that pain, we would have no Easter morning. We would have no celebration of all that He conquered precisely because he did suffer. We would have no salvation.
We have another saying that goes “offer it up.” We can allow our suffering to become redemptive, useful, and helpful to ourselves and others if we refuse to wallow in the pain itself, but instead seek out the purpose in why we are being allowed to suffer, and to offer our own suffering back up to God for the good of others. In my own life, having experienced Posptartum Depression/Anxiety after the birth of our son has allowed me to support several other moms in my life who are going through it. Going through PPD was, in my experience, a bit like hell on earth, but God has allowed me to go through that, in order that some others will not feel quite so alone. And that has helped to redeem my own experience, and give purpose to the pain that I went through during that season of life. Redemptive Suffering on a small scale, in my own life.
We can waste our suffering, or we can use it. It’s a choice each one of us has each time we face any of our own pain. And we have the best example in our Savior, who used His suffering for the ultimate redemptive purpose.
I think it’s important that we as Christians work to grow in our ability to see suffering as an essential and sometimes necessary component to our lives. Christianity by no means promises comfort in the sense of ease. If you were able to ask any of the original apostles if their decision to live life following Jesus meant ease and prosperity for them, or comfort by a worldly standard, I’m fairly certain the answer you would get is ‘no.” Especially since nearly all of them were martyred for their faith. However, walking through this life with Jesus promises comfort and prosperity that isn’t tied to the standards of the world. And sometimes, some of our riches are necessarily born through pain. Riches like compassion for others, understanding of someone else’s experience, humility, sobriety, empathy, and mercy. Sometimes suffering teaches us lessons we wouldn’t otherwise have learned.
If only we let it, suffering can be redemptive.