I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering lately. Its nature, its purpose, its origin. How we suffer. Why we suffer.
I spent many years in denial about my own suffering. Because my pain had its root in personal sin, I assumed it didn’t classify as “suffering.” Wasn’t suffering for martyrs? Saints who persevered through trials for Christ’s sake? I’m the furthest thing from a saint. I made (and still make) a lot of bad choices, and so don’t I just receive the natural consequences of those choices? I have a difficult time imagining that my 3-year-old client is suffering when he starts screaming for a toy I won’t let him play with at the moment. Isn’t that the same general idea?
When sin entered this world, so did suffering. If we define suffering as any kind of pain, or distress, or hardship, we can pretty easily trace back to its roots. If God is the source of all pleasure, then finding (or seeking) ultimate pleasure in anything else is sin, which then results in suffering — because we fail to find God. (I say ultimate pleasure because God created many things for our pleasure and our good. But we can sin by elevating those things to a level of idolatry.)
Using this framework, apparently I have suffered a lot. Because I’ve sinned a lot.
In looking back in my own life, I can see a pattern. I become tempted by the thing. The thing looks more and more appealing until I reach for it. I know instantly that I’ve sinned, and I feel shame and remorse for choosing the thing I know I shouldn’t. I hide my face from God, become angry and bitter that the thing didn’t provide the satisfaction I wanted, and I heap guilt upon myself for making a bad choice. I suffer through remorse and pain over my choices, and I lament the separation from God I have created through my sin. Poor choice after poor choice after poor choice results in my wondering whether I am physically, mentally, spiritually able to make a good choice. I become trapped in my own poor choices, lost in the pain, and my sin becomes my identity.
The Good News, of course, is that Jesus comes in, sweeps away our mess, cleans us up, and gives us a new identity in Him.
It would be nice if that was the end of the story. We get rescued, and boom, we are free.
But what if God actually wills that we continue to walk the road we were on?
Jesus was a man familiar with suffering. He was free from sin, completely obedient to His Father, and He suffered more than any of us. He truly did experience separation from His Father on the cross. He was forsaken. And yet it was the Father’s good pleasure to crush Him.
I remember a story I heard in a sermon once. An unbelieving teacher, knowing that one of his young students professed faith in Christ, invited her to the front of the class. The little girl was deaf, so the teacher signed his question to her.
“If God is so good,” he asked, “why did He not allow you to have your hearing?”
The little girl thought for a moment, then wrote her answer on the board. “Because it was my Father’s good pleasure.”
His good pleasure.
His good pleasure to crush His Son. His good pleasure to allow sin to enter the world. His good pleasure to allow sickness and disability and crime and addiction and murder. His good pleasure to let His people suffer in a world of chaos and confusion.
Because in His mercy, in His infinite goodness, His Father allowed Christ to suffer for history’s redemption. He who suffered and died for us brought infinite glory to His Father.
And in His mercy, He allows us to sin that we might seek His face for freedom. In His mercy, He allows broken relationships and sickness and anger and bitterness and anxiety, that He might restore the broken pieces and create something more beautiful than the pain we experience. Just as a mother labors for hours to bring forth her precious child, so He allows us to labor through suffering so that He is able to produce good fruit with and through us.
So what if my depression, my anxiety, my fear, my addiction are all precisely in His will for my life?
What if my pain is not something to be fixed, but something to be experienced and walked through, side-by-side with Christ?
What if it was, and still remains, His good pleasure that I walk this road of suffering — the anxiety, the bulimia, the depression, the fear — until the good work is complete and He says, “It is finished?”
Until something much greater and more beautiful than my pain is produced?
Romans 5:3-5: 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.