When I was a young man in my 20’s, I ranted and railed against God because in my view, any God who was all loving, all powerful and all knowing would never allow suffering. My unspoken belief (however naive), was that being carefree and without pain was always good. While being beset by anguish and often embarrassing limitations was always bad.
I knew of course that suffering was real. So I assumed that the all good, all powerful, all loving God of the Bible could not possibly exist. And believing otherwise was to me as foolish as believing in pink prancing fairies and happy purple unicorns.
This all changed on June 13, 1994, when the God of all creation met me in the shower. Since then, I’ve seen far too much to discount the importance of suffering. Now I admit that I can’t explain all suffering. But I’ve seen enough to know how God uses suffering, both in my life and the lives of the people I most admire.
Suffering: Our Choice To Get Better or Bitter
I remember a young, very bright lawyer who I’ll call “Sarah.” Sadly, Sarah was fired from our law firm because she couldn’t get along with others, especially her boss. Sarah was pretty, talented and had impeccable Ivy League credentials. But there were two things Sarah lacked on a professional level that were clearly hurting her.
For all her youth, talents and skills, Sarah didn’t seem to have much compassion or humility. And so it was very hard for her to take correction or avoid putting her foot in a bear trap.
The moment Sarah was fired, my heart went out to her. For I knew she was suffering. And I knew she would suffer even more because she was unable to accept criticism. I’ll never forget walking her out the door and hugging her in the hall. My parting words to her were “Sarah you can use this to get better or bitter. I hope you choose the former.” Since then Sarah has moved on to another job. But did she ever learn from her experience? Or did she simply grow bitter? This is the choice we all must make when it comes to suffering. Those who humble themselves become better. Those who do the opposite grow bitter.
Pulling The Wings Off Butterflies (The Things We Do When Not Exposed To Suffering)
We all remember some of the hateful stupid things we did as kids. I for one used to torture insects. I would also bully the smaller kids at the playground and throw marbles and magnets out of my 15th floor window…kind of curious if such would fall through someone’s roof or shatter the New York City pavement.
Maybe you were less reckless. But surely you bullied someone, or called people hateful names or were in other ways downright cruel to pets, insects or people. And yet, while we tisk tisk the things we did while younger, we are still horrified when the same diabolical nastiness rears itself up in our own “innocent” children. So why does this happen? Yes, even the child brought up in the best of homes is for some reason, still capable of the worst inherent cruelty. Could it be that no one is innocent? No one is pure? And that just maybe, everyone including tiny little babies, are all inclined to do evil… and that all of us are in desperate need of a savior?
Suffering Resets Our Spiritual Compass
I challenge you to look at the people you most admire. The people who are kind, loving, wise, thoughtful, compassionate and patient. The people who have joy and peace in their lives regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, or have a good or bad job or marriage. The people who somehow seem above the storms of life, and yet are nevertheless so intimately grounded in the real world.
Ever wonder how these people got that way? Do you think this was just something that magically came about from inside them? The answer in almost every case is NO. They got this way through suffering. Not sure you believe this? ASK THEM.
And that’s the rub isn’t it. We want the punch line without listening to the joke. We want the fruit of human goodness, but run away from the very trials that will transform us. And yet, deep down we know that those who live without suffering, are most apt to cause the suffering of others. It’s all the same story whether it’s our “innocent” little kids with affluenza, or the pampered fat dictator from North Korea. A fluid life of ease brings about spiritual disaster for ourselves and for our children. And it fosters in us an arrogant and profound disregard for the people around us.
Yes, without suffering it is nigh impossible for us to love God or love people. And when we try to escape our suffering through sex, power, control or substance abuse, we’re actually running away from the very thing that can help us. And the end result is that we become more brutal, more detached, more deluded, and far more apt to cause suffering in other people.
6 Ways Suffering Helps Us Rather Than Harms Us
- Suffering stops us from believing in our own hype.
When you’re hot you’re hot. Until suddenly you’re not! Suffering is the speed bump that says your circumstances don’t change who you are. You still need a quiet and humble spirit. You still need to actively love those around you. And you still are in desperate need of a savior. So hold on to Jesus in all circumstances, even in your success. For Jesus is eternal. Your worldly success is fleeting.
- Suffering burns compassion into our brains for those who have suffered as we have.
Jesus says we are to love our neighbor. But often we cannot truly love someone until we’ve suffered in the same way that they have. Many of our greatest institutions and charities were founded because people experienced personal suffering, either directly or through the loss of a loved one.
- Suffering allows us to comfort others in the same way we’ve been comforted.
Yes, part of God’s plan is for you to show the same mercy and comfort to others that you yourself received from God.
- Suffering causes us to question the course of our lives.
Are we climbing the ladder of success only to find this ladder is leaning up against the wrong wall? How many times did we lose a job or a relationship, and years later we were glad for it!
- Suffering causes us to seek and abide in the God of the Universe-The Giver and Sustainer of all that’s Good in Life.
Imagine being on a plane where the life giving oxygen mask drops from the ceiling, but you’re too busy or too confused to lift it to your mouth. This is how we are when we think we’re successful. Suffering helps us keep the main thing the main thing. Once again our spiritual compass points to the North Star. And that North Star is our day to day abiding in Jesus.
- Suffering resets our capacity for joy and gratitude.
Suffering grounds us in the present. And often after a period of suffering, we see that we can love God and love people better than before-as if the suffering somehow refined us into being more of what we should be, though before the suffering we had no idea how to get there! We become more apt to forgive, more apt to take correction, more apt to be compassionate. More apt to sing praises and have joy in the moment. More apt to delight in our Lord Jesus. This is the paradox: It’s a mystery where somehow the “bad things” help us gain a true good perspective. And this in turn helps us all the more appreciate the children, the parents, the friendships, the neighbors, the trials and the blessings that are every day right in front of us.
Your My Cornerstone (Zach Williams & TobyMac)