Suffering is one of the universal experiences of the Church. We are promised that in our walk with Christ we will experience hardship for His sake. Christ addresses this issue in John 16 as He explains to His followers that, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” The amount and nature of our tribulations will be different for each believer. Some seem to suffer without end while others appear to escape all but the slightest of inconveniences. Whatever the degree, suffering is a part of the Christian life.
Thankfully, in addition to the promise of suffering we are also assured of certain graces. We are encouraged that suffering is not purposeless, that we are refined by these experiences. Paul writes, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5: 3-5) Suffering is used to continue the work of our sanctification into the likeness of Christ and is therefore, while unpleasant, a call the Christian should embrace.
In addition to the assurance of purpose within our pain, God also promises strength. One of my favorite passages in all of scripture comes from 2 Corinthians chapter twelve as Paul describes his “thorn in the flesh” and his pleas to God to remove it from him. Paul is suffering and God’s response is simply, “My grace is sufficient.” Paul is then able to recast the entire experience in a new light. Pain is still present, suffering hasn’t evaporated, but if Paul is able to be closer to his Savior through the experience then it’s all worthwhile. His suffering is not removed, but his spirit is encouraged.
Despite the amount of biblical attention and its imminent reality, suffering seems to still hold a strangely unique position in my mind. Rather than expecting it to be made manifest, I’m surprised by suffering when it arrives. In addition to that surprise, suffering seems to hold a kind of “other” quality. Suffering is the condition of the “persecuted church.” It’s the condition of the monastics who chose lives of intentional hardship that I can’t even imagine. Whatever difficulty I encounter in safe, protected, “Christian” America doesn’t seem to even compare. This perspective has resulted in placing suffering on a kind of pedestal. It’s the “super Christians” that are called to suffer.
Until recently I have uncritically assumed this kind of artificial loftiness to the call to suffer. While it is certainly significant that we are called to share in the persecutions of our Master, that call is no more inherently meaningful than the call to participate in the other elements of Christ’s life: His joy in community, His communion with the Father, His rest from toil. If that is correct, my expectations about suffering need to change.
The call for Christians regarding suffering is the same call for all other areas of our lives: to be like Christ. Yet it is so easy for me to conflate my reactions to “being” Christ. When I suffer it’s easy for me to look to the Garden of Gethsemane and see myself in His place, suffering perfectly in submission to the Father. What is actually closer to the truth is that I’m one of the disciples asleep, about to be startled into my new condition of unexpected suffering and then run from it.
Christ’s behavior and purpose for suffering is similar to His temptation experience. We see Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan and are given a pattern for how Christ behaved and responded. In addition to this, throughout scripture we are promised grace to resist any temptation that we encounter, yet none of us are under any illusion that we no longer succumb to human frailty. In spite of His example and promises, this side of Glory, we fail. We stumble and fall short. The miracle of forgiveness is that there is grace even there.
In the same way, Jesus’ behavior in response to suffering remains the standard of holy expectation. Yet tragically we will fall short here as in all other areas of Christ-likeness. Christ remains the only one who has ever suffered perfectly, and we are still inclined to be the disciples fleeing in terror or Peter denying even knowing Him.
My fear with this article is that it may be received as an open door for license. “If we are incapable of suffering well, why endure suffering at all? Why not just flee at the first sign of hardship?” God’s promises for strength and endurance in the face of trials are true, and we own our failures when we stumble. But failing to suffer well, failing to rest in the grace afforded us, seems to carry an additional weight as if forgiveness isn’t there or more begrudgingly offered.
Christ’s temptation, suffering, and death are all done in our place because we are hopelessly incapable of achieving perfection. We fall, we fail, we flee, and yet God’s grace is sufficient. Christ suffered not just to provide me an example of what God expects, but because I can’t suffer well. And His forgiveness is great enough to overcome, even when suffering drives me to say, “I do not know the man.”