We sat in our living room. The kids had gone to school. A busy day of responsibilities waited. But first, we sat and cried.
We were in our mid-forties at the time. By the time any of us reach this age, we arrive limping, beat up by the various hurts and hardships of life.
But this particular time in our lives was especially difficult. I could relate to what Paul wrote: “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). We’d entered the school of suffering.
Surprised by Suffering
I’m surprised how surprised we are by times of suffering.
Read Psalms. The biggest category of psalms is lament. Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Psalms should calibrate our view of life: it will involve suffering, sometimes seem ephemeral and unsatisfying, and we will need to learn to cry out to God in the pain of our lives.
In North America, we like to think that we can design our lives to avoid suffering. I love the title and a lot of the content of Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. We can do a lot to shape how we live our lives. But if we’re not careful, we can begin to think that we can craft a life for ourselves that’s free from suffering or pain.
We shouldn’t be surprised by suffering. We live in a Genesis 3 world. Jesus told us to expect suffering and persecution. God’s choicest servants experienced suffering (Hebrews 11). The real surprise shouldn’t be that we have to suffer; it’s what God does in us as in the middle of our suffering.
That We May Share in His Holiness
“What’s encouraging you?” I asked Dr. Gregg Allison, professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“What’s encouraging me right now? God is sifting me in a way that I’ve never been sifted before,” he replied. “Very solid, steady, hard discipline. I am more aware of my sinfulness, my need to not just daily, but hourly confess my sin not only to myself, but to my wife, to my friends. I’ve been coming undone and it’s been really, really hard, but very sweet because I am learning in a way I’ve never learned before that the gospel of Jesus Christ is my only hope and self righteousness. And trying to merit and earn God’s favor and trying to clean up my life, it’s absolutely futile. And, so I’ve been blessed by God through very difficult Hebrews 12 kind of discipline. And I’m I’m experiencing in part the good fruits of holiness and righteousness. And I long for that to continue and to multiply.”
Allison sees suffering and discipline as a sign of God’s work in his life.
Indeed, Hebrews informs us of the purpose of God’s discipline: “that we may share his holiness.” It doesn’t seem pleasant in the moment, but it yields “the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10-11).
Are you enrolled in the school of suffering? Don’t be surprised. Suffering is as normal as it is unpleasant. And yet we can know that God is at work, loving us and shaping us. Even in suffering, God is good.