As I reflect this week on my life and visit with others about their journey, I feel compelled to record some of the thoughts emerging from those “post-sermon” conversations. I have often said I want our sermons to be merely the first words that inspire many more words about whatever topic we cover. It seems that suffering — or in theological terms, theodicy — has a particular spark that keeps people talking long after the sermon has passed.
For my own benefit, I am writing a few thoughts to help process the bigger conversation going on at Real Life right now. Maybe they will be a blessing for you, as well.
1. Suffering doesn’t mean God is far off or ashamed of me.
In fact, suffering is how we are refined for glory. We receive glory and honor, according to Hebrews 2, because of our suffering. God isn’t mad. You stand as a sign and a symbol (Isaiah 8) of what it looks like to suffer in a way that honors your convictions, your God, and the created order of things.
2. Jesus became man in order to understand suffering so He could be a gracious and merciful high priest for us.
It would be one thing if God sent you an angel to tell you how to handle your circumstances. But the angel wouldn’t really understand what you are going through. God became man so He would know and understand how you feel. It wasn’t enough for Him to know the answers to how and why we suffer. He wants you to know He is willing to join you in your suffering. That is powerful.
3. There are pieces of understanding God we get from suffering that only suffering provides for us.
In Philippians 3, Paul writes, “that I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” There is a reality of suffering like Christ suffered that opens up new and transformational ways to know Him. A new level of depth in our relationship with God emerges as we suffer well.
4. Understanding why is not what helps suffering. The community joining us in the mess gives us the power to weather our storms well.
Each year our church celebrates the Advent. I didn’t do that growing up, so it is still very fresh and powerful for me personally. The resounding theme of Advent is that Jesus is born into a shepherd’s cave in the middle of sheep manure to paint a very important picture for each of us: We don’t follow a God who pulls us out of the mess — He joins us in the mess.
5. Falling isn’t failing. Quitting is.
Here is a great quote from one of my friends: “If suffering and stumbling is part of our journey as believers, maybe salvation isn’t just the prayer and the repentance, the evangelization and the ‘fixing my mistakes.’ Maybe it is found in the direction we choose to run in our darkest valleys and our worst suffering. Maybe salvation is found when we choose to run to God and at last, when we fall — stumbling, spent, out of breath — we find that we have fallen across the finish line, into the arms of Author and Perfecter of our faith.”
Whatever you do, don’t give up. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us to prove you can make it. Keep going! May you be inspired by the community of people around you, and may your story be the inspiration someone else needs to keep going!