The Truth About Suffering
Earlier this year I spoke at a retreat for about twenty-five medical and pharmacy students in St. Louis; my theme was “Die to Live, Live to Die”. As part of exhorting my audience to joyfully take up their crosses, I shared some of the difficulties my family has faced living in the Memphis inner city. One of the students raised an honest question: “If you’re truly in the middle of God’s will for your life, won’t you be happy?”. She pushed further: “Doesn’t the Bible teach that if you’re doing His will, God will give you joy?”. As the larger group began to discuss her questions, it became clear she wasn’t the only student who thought faithful disciples would be largely protected from difficulties and harm.
After some healthy exchange, I redirected the group to her second question: what does the Bible say about the relationship between obedience and suffering? There are multiple helpful sections in the Old and New Testament on this subject, but the most detailed is in one of the Apostle Paul’s epistles. The passage is 2 Corinthians 1:3-11; nine verses of straightforward answers and practical encouragement.
Hard Truth #1: All disciples suffer, sometimes even to the point of despair.
The Apostle Paul was an extraordinary disciple who accomplished great things for God. He’s the author of 13 New Testament books. He planted uncounted churches. He had direct communication with Jesus and even received visions of Heaven. No one can argue that Paul wasn’t in the center of God’s will. In the midst of his remarkable obedience and fruitfulness, Paul experienced overwhelming suffering (see 2 Corinthians 11:24-27). In our passage, Paul refers to his troubles (vs. 4), his sufferings (vs. 5), and his distress (vs. 6). He mentions great pressure (vs 8) and deadly peril (vs 10). These weren’t small inconveniences that Paul good shake off by singing a couple praise songs. His sufferings were profound and protracted. As he says in verses 8 and 9,
“We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.”
Paul is not employing hyperbole. His sufferings were so severe and unrelenting that they exceeded his ability even to hope for relief. The extreme end of discouragement is despair and the full fruit of despair is a desire for death. Paul had abandoned every hope for rescue and had reconciled himself to dying. Paul of Tarsus, God’s apostle, the Church’s greatest missionary, the New Testament’s theological anchor, wanted to die rather than continue under the weight of extreme godly suffering.
The first application is simple enough. If God’s most faithful servants aren’t exempt from hardships, we lesser disciples should expect difficulties. Over the last seventeen years, I’ve watched Christian healthcare workers in this country and abroad come under a wide variety of pressures, including threats and acts of violence, false accusations, physical illnesses, depression, and family conflicts. If we hope to make God look great and expand the Kingdom of Jesus, we’ll need a theology of suffering that’s robust enough to sustain us all the way to and through despair.
Practical Encouragement #1: God really is with us, even when things seem darkest.
Paul reminds us that God is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (vs. 3). The ironclad proof of God’s compassion (literally to suffer with) is the Incarnation. By becoming a man, Jesus entered fully into all our hardships. In his final suffering, he endured an ultimate degree of abandonment and despair that we’ll never have to face. By continually preaching the gospel to ourselves, we’re reminded of the life-giving hope that God will never abandon us.
We can rejoice that the Father of compassion directly helps us (vs 4), but we’re not the only intended beneficiaries. Paul teaches us that God’s comfort is a blessing meant to be passed on. God “comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (vs 4). Suffering is unavoidable, but disciples who have endured hardships are then equipped to help others persevere through their difficulties. In this respect, the Church should be a reverse Ponzi scheme: the suffering of older members yields a return of comfort that can be passed down to newer members. This assumes, of course, that we’re in relationships with other disciples, older and younger - so the comfort can freely flow. CCHF is one apparatus for God’s comfort and compassion to move from more seasoned healthcare disciples to students and newer workers.
Hard Truth #2: If we want to share in the comfort of Jesus, we must share in His sufferings.
Verse 5 states this truth in its reverse: 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.
Paul is perhaps the best example of what is an undeniable pattern. Beginning in the Old Testament and extending through thirty centuries, suffering serves as an irreplaceable path to maturity and a necessary prelude to spiritual fruitfulness. Without exception, our heroes from the Bible and Church History were subjected to the refining fire of persecution and suffering. Reflect on the lives of young Moses and Joseph. Both had gifts of vision and leadership, but until God allowed them to face rejection, loss, and exile, they weren’t prepared to properly use their gifts for God’s glory. I’ve found the reading of missionary biographies to be of great spiritual profit, particularly those of William Carey, Adoniram Judson, John Paton, and Amy Carmichael. All four of these spiritual giants endured overwhelming difficulties and extended seasons of despair. In all the above cases, persevering through manifold forms of suffering eventually yielded huge returns. Moses and Joseph were both used to rescue the nation of Israel. William Carey became the father of the modern missionary movement. Judson, Paton, and Carmichael powerfully served the needy and saw the church established among unreached people groups.
Practical Encouragement #2: When we’re beyond our own abilities to continue, God promises to deliver us.
Most of the time we labor under the false notion that we’re in control of our lives. Suffering takes us to a brutally honest place where we realize that relying on ourselves is foolish and ineffective. When we admit our helplessness and turn to the Living God, he rescues us and, in doing so, gets the glory he deserves.
“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers.”
We’ll bring glory to God and do far more good for our neighbors by setting our hope on God and his deliverance, rather than counting on our own strength.
Don’t miss the last phrase. “as you help us with your prayers”. In his wisdom, God allows us to participate in the deliverance of his saints through the work of intercessory prayer. This past week we received communication from one of our Christ Community medical workers in Central Asia. Within less than a month, she’d suffered through a recurring GI illness and a painful case of shingles. In addition, she was experiencing culture shock from acclimating to a conservative Muslim culture. She asked our house churches to pray for her and we took that request seriously. A few days later I wrote to her - to let her know that many of us were interceding on her behalf. I received back the following message:
“The prayers of many have indeed made all the difference over the last week! Even the first couple of days after requesting you lift these things, I knew the presence of the Father. The elements of stress and difficulty had not changed at all, but my response to them and the inner turmoil were completely changed!”
We can help each other not only by sharing the comfort we’ve previously received from God, but also by faithfully praying for our suffering brothers and sisters.
Two More Brief Words
God graciously blesses us, even in the midst of our troubles. For years, I’ve had a pat response whenever I’m asked about my life and ministry. “It’s great and terrible”, I say. By that I mean I’m always experiencing challenges and obstacles, but also simultaneously receiving blessings and joy from God. Our hardships are rarely unadulterated. Even when things are terrible, they’re also great. We have God’s promise that he won’t leave us entirely to our trials and difficulties: “No temptation (the same word can be translated trial) has seized you, except what is common to men. And God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted (or tried) beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted (tried) he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Lastly, our sufferings are only for a time. Perhaps our greatest limitation as humans is our inability to see, really see, the full horizon of time. We’re closely tied to the present through our senses and bodies, especially when experiencing physical or emotional suffering. Innumerable biblical exhortations press us to see the present clearly, but to do so in light of eternity. Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul makes this point: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
CCHF has a bold vision. We want to see a national movement of God’s people who choose daily to promote health and healing within marginalized communities in the name of Christ. Disciples of Jesus who embrace that God-glorifying vision and move to act on it will undoubtedly face hardships and sufferings. I’ve seen firsthand examples in Memphis, Birmingham, Augusta, Staten Island, and New Orleans. If we want to make God look great and expand his Kingdom in the world’s toughest places, we’ll need a sturdy theology of suffering. Specifically we’ll recognize the inevitability of hardships, their maturing power, and how they turn us from self-sufficiency to a holy dependence on God. “On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.”
Dr. Rick Donlon is the co-founder and COO of Christ Community Health Services in Memphis, TN. He and his wife, Laurie, and their seven children live in the inner city neighborhood where he works and where he serves as an elder in a community-based house church. He has spoken widely, calling young health care professionals to authentic, risk-taking discipleship.