Friday, April 10, 2020

THE INEVITABILITY OF SUFFERING





We don’t need a supportive philosophy of life to get through the good times. Instead, it’s in the troughs of life where we need help to cope. When we hurt, we obsess, trying to make sense out of predicament. We ask questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” or “Why do bad things happen to me, and how do I make the pain end.”

In The Noonday Demon, termed by one reviewer as “the definitive book on depression,” Andrew Solomon, himself a long-time sufferer, recommended humor. However, humor is only a very temporary change of our mental venue. Solomon therefore admitted:

·       Of course it can be hard to sustain a sense of humor during an experience that is really not so funny. It is urgently necessary to do so…Whatever time is eaten by a depression is gone forever. The minutes that are ticking by as you experience the illness are minutes that you will not know again. No matter how bad you feel you have to do everything you can to keep living, even if all you can do for the moment is breathe. Wait it out and occupy the time of waiting as fully as you can. That’s my big piece of advice to depressed people.

However, it is hard to wait, especially when we lack hope that a new beginning awaits us. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the late psychiatrist and death camp survivor, Victor Frankl, correctly observed that we need to find more than just an understanding of our predicament. We also need hope and a purpose amidst our suffering:

·       The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and become subject to mental and physical decay.

Frankl wrote that it is imperative that we find purpose in the midst of suffering. The negative (suffering) has to be converted into a positive commodity – something that will motivate and place our focus on a valuable goal. For the death camp internee, the goal or focus should have been very clear – to survive, to be reunited with loved ones, and to tell the story. However, long-term suffering often becomes very debilitating, and hope often goes AWOL.

Instead, we need to change our orientation to suffering, from a negative to be avoided into a welcomed positive. Why? Suffering is easier to endure if we understand why it is necessary.

From God's perspective, it's a necessary positive, as Peter had written:

·       Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from [intentional] sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:1-2 ESV)

Suffering, in God's hands, turns us away from sin and to God. This doesn't mean that we will be liberated from sin, but from a sinful lifestyle. Instead, sin will cause us to despair of our own agenda and to seek our Savior’s agenda (Matthew 6:33).

 Suffering also prepares us for the joyous return of our Savior:

·       Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

Suffering prevents us from becoming too comfortable here. It refocuses our sight onto the things above, causing us to long for the return of Christ!

How unwelcoming we'd be to our Savior if we told Him on His return: "Great to see you, Jesus. But could you postpone your return for a couple months. You see, we’ve got a cruise coming up and I'm due for a promotion."

Suffering also readies us in another way:

·       For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Peter 4:17)

Suffering humbles us by exposing what we have buried - our self-centeredness. According to Peter, membership in the body of Christ requires us to be humbled in expectation that God will exalt us:

·       Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:5-7)

Humility will not come about without suffering. We would rather exalt and trust in ourselves and think, “I’ve got what it takes to deal with any situation.” Instead, suffering uncovers our inadequacies. In many ways, life is bigger than we are. A simple example should suffice. We all age; our strengths erode, we become more dependent, and we breathe our final breath. This example alone should be enough to tell us that we need to depend our Lord, who is adequate in every way.

I had been failing to see much of God's grace in my life. However, the more He has humbled me and the more I have experienced His deliverance, the more I have come to love Him. How? When we experience pain, it is like what Peter had explained:

·       In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)

To refine gold, the gold ore is placed in a cauldron and melted under great heat. The impurities rise to the surface and are then sloughed off. When we go through intense suffering, our hidden sins rise to the surface. We see how unworthy we are, confess our sins, and He forgives us (1 John 1:9). This causes us to adore our Savior even more than we had. How? Although this process of being forced to face our hidden garbage is painful and humbling, it continues to renew us in the understanding that He truly loves us despite our unworthiness.

Interestingly, the more I am humbled, the more I appreciate my wife who accepts and loves me despite myself and my many failures. Incidentally, the melting process must be repeated many times to purify our faith and trust in God.

We need to understand these things, lest we will think that our suffering proves that God has failed or rejected us, the very thing that Satan wants us to believe:

·       Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:8-9)

We need to know and understand that suffering is necessary medicine, which we all are called upon to ingest. If we don't, we will despair when suffering comes knocking. Besides, if we don't understand this, we will be fair game for Satanic doubts.

We also need to understand that suffering is not only a gift, but it is also temporary:

·       And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)

Nevertheless, suffering will continue to be painful. There is no way around it:

·       For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

No pain, no gain. I have gained much through suffering. However, it is still difficult. I have prayed that the Lord would never deprive me of my ability to walk and to ride my bike. However, I now have a bad knee, which has been preventing me from doing both things. Yes, I am deeply disappointed, but I have also learned to trust in my Lord to rescue me, one way or another.

Nevertheless, I do not seek to suffer. Instead, I look towards my Savior to provide a way of escape from the suffering, of course, in His own timing:

·       No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Cor. 10:13)

The late psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, wrote, 15 years later, in Further along the Road Less Traveled about his journey from Zen Buddhism to Christianity. He had repeatedly observed that his Christian clients would improve, no matter how serious their psychiatric condition. He concluded:

·       The quickest way to change your attitude toward pain is to accept the fact that everything that happens to us has been designed for our spiritual growth…We cannot lose once we realize that everything that happens to us has been designed to teach us holiness…We are guaranteed winners!"

Ironically, the very One we reject is the very solution to our inevitable suffering and the source of all hope. We cannot hope in humor or in waiting. Waiting for what? We will all die, and then what?

Secularism is unable to provide us with the hope that will sustain us through crisis, pain, and loss. It is only through our Lord, who continues to prove Himself to us.

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