By Nate Green, Worship Pastor
No one enjoys suffering. Suffering is difficult. Whether it’s suffering for doing what’s right, or going through trials that God has allowed for various purposes that we may not understand, both are hard. So how do we continue to worship God in the midst of suffering?
Let’s start by acknowledging that suffering is part of God’s plan for all of us that love Him and have been called according to His purposes (Romans 8).
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
It is impossible for us to identify with Christ without suffering.
A huge part of knowing Him comes through suffering. The Apostle Paul, who was deeply acquainted with suffering wrote the following to Timothy: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). This kind of suffering should not be confused with suffering for doing wrong, we’re talking about suffering according to God’s will and for doing what’s right as explained in 1 Peter 2:19-25:
“For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that suffering is part of God’s calling and purpose for each of us. It was prophesied long ago in the book of Isaiah that the Messiah would suffer.
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:3-7).
You’ll notice that both in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24, God’s Word tells us that “by (with) His wounds we are (have been) healed”. We are guaranteed spiritual healing (the forgiveness of sin, renewed minds, being made alive in the spirit, transformed hearts, etc.) through Christ’ suffering. But, we are not guaranteed physical healing in our bodies. Although, in His mercy, sometimes God chooses to heal our bodies (many accounts of this in God’s Word and modern day accounts as well!). In 2 Corinthians 4:16 we are told not to lose heart though our outer self (bodies) are wasting away, our inner self (spirit) is being renewed day by day. I love that God renews us from the inside out even when our bodies are wasting away.
We don’t need to be happy about suffering, that would be weird! Thankfully, God doesn’t ask that of us or require that of us. When we suffer, it doesn’t need to be “well with our soul”, as if we are superhuman. It’s normal to feel hurt, abandoned, isolated, and misunderstood in the midst of suffering. After all, Jesus felt these very things. In the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus wrestled with the suffering that He was about to endure. He wrestled so much that He experienced hematohidrosis, a condition that may occur under extreme physical or emotional stress that causes blood vessels that feed the sweat glands to rupture causing one’s sweat to turn to blood. Jesus was in great agony even after praying “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but Yours, be done” (see Luke 22:41-46).
I’m so thankful that Jesus didn’t run away from suffering. He endured it. Hebrews 12:2 reminds us that “…for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” In the same way we’re told to endure the race that is set before us. His eternal presence in Heaven is our reward which causes all earthly suffering to be momentary and light by comparison to this great reward.
I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand suffering in this life. But, if we have a relationship with God we can trust Him even when we don’t understand.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:10).
“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:26-28).
In closing, there’s another story in the Bible that has helped me process this topic as I’ve struggled (and still do) understanding why some suffer more than others. In the last chapter of the gospel of John in one of Peter’s last conversations with Jesus in the flesh, before Jesus ascended to the Father, Jesus tells Peter about his future:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow Me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them… When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!” (John 21:18-22)
But what about him?? We all have a cross to bear, and our suffering might look different from someone else’s. Our concern shouldn’t be in comparing ourselves and our situations to others. Our concern should be in following Jesus. Just as Jesus told Peter – “You follow me!” we should do the same.
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).