‘Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.’ (Romans 5:1-5)
Like a lump of crude aggregate that is consigned to the furnace where pollutants and impurities are sloughed away and only the natural ore remains, so too are we refined to moral purity and restored to spiritual unity with Jesus through the cleansing fire of suffering.
The world groans in suffering. Within and without we are a people afflicted. For some that comprises addiction. For others, loneliness. For others still, disaffectedness and directionlessness. The demons within rip and tear with as much brutal force as the illnesses, diseases, injuries and disfigurements that ravage the temple of our bodies.
Suffering chains and enslaves us, constrains and encumbers us. It gags and trusses us. It imprisons and sentences us to immobility and disillusionment. So the only relevant question that remains is: by what means do we attain release? Or rather, through whom can we obtain our freedom from the eviscerating debilitation of this grief?
First we must identify suffering for what it is. It is essentially a) the result of living in a flawed, failing, fallen world, b) a necessary character building experience, c) an opportunity to trust in Jesus to unburden us of all our cares, and d) the perfect platform for worship.
It is important to recognize that the origin of our suffering, the source from whence it springs forth in our hearts, is of secondary importance to what we do with the anguish and distress it causes us. This isn’t to say that the reason for our pain isn’t relevant. It is as relevant as what we do about it. But in order to manage and master such agony, we must move quickly from the shock and alarm of suffering and its cause to the podium of resolve and action. Accepting the heavy yoke of suffering – our ‘cup of poison’ – firstly brings us into direct communion with Christ who knows the puncturing torment of suffering unlike and beyond any human experience in living history; and secondly, removes us from the incapacitating relegation to victim and elevates us to victory. We subjugate and conquer our misery in the mere resolution of refusing to be defeated by it.
Suffering is the most spiritually calamitous, soul-annihilating condition in human experience. It paralyzes emotions, asphyxiates reason, detaches us from reality, demolishes our sense of security. It is a jarring, penetrating darkness that perforates, invading every corner of our being – from the core of our spirit to the most outer extremities of our awareness. This is the point of greatest danger!
It is precisely at this point that Satan takes up the bugle of war and sounds the call to arms, summoning every demon of vice and vile abomination. He is not above ensnaring souls in crisis, souls crippled and limping in suffering, souls weakened and compromised by despair. He knows only too well that the first scorching burn of suffering often produces a knee-jerk reaction of rejection, one of retaliation against Jesus for allowing suffering of such monumental proportion to enter into our lives, destabilizing and demoralizing our human experience.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ (John 3: 16-17). It is not our Redeemer who inflicts suffering of any kind upon us. To do so would negate the inimitability of His divinity. He is, by His godly nature, incapable of doing this. He cannot but love us.
Suffering is the result of dwelling within a fallen, imperfect, caustic world ruled by Satan whose sole aim is to corrode and dismantle our belief in Jesus, His Word, and His eternal promise – how much easier we make it for him to ambush us when we blame the very agent of our salvation, the one thing in all of existence from whence we can obtain succor, relief and liberation from the pain of suffering. In crisis, our flawed human condition requires a target for blame but we impugn the wrong perpetrator. Recognizing this is crucial to turning the tables on suffering (and upon Satan’s savage stranglehold on our souls) and starting the slow ascent to recovery.
And egregiously guilty are we of failing to bring our grief to Jesus for fear of being rebuked as weak and faithless, but when we presume to know the mind and the heart of our Savior, we do so by human standards. Jesus is beyond human and not subject to the laws of flawed humanity. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.’ (Matthew 10:29-31). Jesus seeks to alleviate our anxieties and to intervene in all matters that affect us. Suffering brings us to Him in our most vulnerable state and His grace, forgiveness and love are brought to fullness within our hearts, purifying our character and sloughing us of our undesirable traits (pride, arrogance, resentment, insensitivity, selfishness) when we submit to His primacy in our lives in all things, all matters, all outcomes. The same Jesus who will not allow that one single sparrow might fall from the sky without being brought to His attention will certainly not let even the least of our cares escape his notice, much less the crushing depths of our suffering.
Next we must take the most profound leaf of faith – accepting that suffering, whilst not inflicted upon us by God, is nonetheless utilized to its full advantage by Him in order to build (or perhaps to rebuild) our character. Suffering breaks us down, disassembles us brick by brick until only the bedrock of our soul remains, strewn with the rubble of our lives. This is the turning point, the point at which ‘the stone that the builders rejected’ (Matthew 21:42) becomes the capstone of our heart. Jesus tenderly picks up every leveled brick and carefully, gently rebuilds us, leaving no chink, no crack, no fissure into which Satan can ever drive his talons and secure footing again.
But He does so much more than this. He loves us so very far beyond our enfeebled, deficient comprehension of the true depth of the term – and He seeks ever to seize the opportunity to return even the most microscopic, diminutive speck of faith we place in Him with a mountainous response of love and hope through His imperishable grace and mercy.
He urges us to unburden our suffering onto him – as though suffering agony upon the cross for our salvation was not enough! His very real human and spiritual suffering, splayed and nailed upon a cross, elevated above the ground to proclaim and flaunt His humiliation and degradation was not enough. He would willingly remain in perpetual torture, enduring the spikes driven through His hands and feet, the spear thrust into His side, the thorns puncturing His brow, to relieve us of our torment. We have but to lay our anguish at His feet in prayer and trust utterly in Him – this leviathan demonstration of faith opens the floodgates of His mercy and both invites and enables Him to unveil His unknowable mysteries deep within us, mysteries and miracles that not only strengthen and buttress our frail, flagging spirit but alleviate our suffering. Jesus does not merely abide with us in our pain, a sympathetic but impotent comforter – He abides in us and He takes into and unto Himself our spiritual grief, removing entirely the oppressive yoke of our burden.
Having done this, He effects the final and most profound marvel of His sovereign divinity – He transforms our suffering not only into hope but creates of it infinite possibilities for positive and redemptive change in the world. By surviving the incinerating furnace of suffering and enduring its spiritually distilling refinement, we better understand the human condition. This creates in us a depth of empathy and humanity unattainable by naught but experience – harsh, ravaging, grueling experience. In recognizing that Jesus’ trial upon the cross alone offers the salvific promise of deliverance from the blistering inferno of suffering, through the tempering purgatory of acceptance, onwards to transferring our pain in faith and trust into His hands, and to its perfect resolution in producing beneficial change in the world through us, we bring to full circle the blessed crucible of suffering.
Who but Jesus in His infinite mercy and boundless love could topple Satan’s illusory kingdom and conquer suffering by transforming it into a vessel for spiritually fruitfulness and uplifting, enriching change in the world, transfiguring us into a chalice of hope and redemption, a living declaration to all of the authority of Jesus to conquer all despair? Who but Jesus could deluge the barren desolation of torment with the living water of hope and truth through faithfully answered prayer and His hallowed Word?
Suffering, and the survival of the process and purpose of suffering, brings us one final blessing. It elevates us to a platform of spiritual maturity and meekness that brings us into the closest possible proximity our mortal, human condition will allow to our Savior. Our emergence from suffering into deliverance through faith into grace brings us not merely to the hem of His robe but into His tender embrace where our adoration, our thanksgiving, our worship, our praise, though a single voice, throngs throughout the whole of heaven, reverberates across the universe, and is felt all over the world. Such potency of congress with Jesus fulfils in us His everlasting Word, His unfailing promise to reconcile us with our Father in Heaven through His sacrifice. And we in turn fulfill the prophecies of Scripture, subverting the disgrace of Adam that plummeted us into sin, by carrying out the very purpose for which we were made – to worship the Lord our God, in whose image we are made, in whom He implanted the holy capacity for perfect worship. Achieving this depth and breadth of communion with Christ through suffering and subsequent adoration seals our covenant with Him, liberates our souls from the manacles of suffering, and recreates us anew – better able to live out His divine plan for us, better able to worship Him selflessly and joyfully, better able to become His instrument of peace and reconciliation in the world.
We are, each of us, already stained and scuffed, pitted and porous, made unclean and deleterious by our sins. Our suffering, however, need not scar us. In fact, it has the capability to make of us lamps from which the light of Jesus shines forth from within when we pray to Him for help and guidance in spite of our pain. When we unburden our distress upon Him in absolute trust, when we submit to His healing strength, we worship in a purity of humility, subservience and surrender that both glorifies His incomprehensible divinity and bridges the divide between our transgressions and His perfection. Far from being scarred and disfigured by our suffering, its rigors can restore us to hitherto unknown wholeness, to an untold totality of spiritual completeness we did not formerly possess and could not attain without being subjected to the fires of torment.
We must greet the gathering storm clouds of suffering with rejoicing and joy, for with thunder and lightning come cleansing rains. Forget not that Jesus ‘rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm’ (Luke 8:24). He will temper and transform the storm within but you must ask yourself, as He asked his disciples after He had tamed the squall – ‘Where is your faith?’ (Luke 8:25). Answer ‘I place it in you, Lord’ and He will not only take from you the intolerable mantle of your suffering but transform it through His healing love into an opportunity for blessed providence to work His miracles, wonders and promises in the world through you.
‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’ (John 20:29), for through them shall His mysteries, boundless love, and the glory of His name be made known!
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