“Enjoying the joys of others and suffering with them; these are the best guides for man.”
I’ve made over 60 trips around the sun, and not all of them have been a piece of cake. I’ve experienced challenges in the categories of health, career, relationships, children, and finances. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding these trials, they’ve always been accompanied by some sort of suffering.
If you’ve lived a few years, I’m sure you’ve experienced all or some of these challenges and the side effects that come with them. We don’t like them, and we don’t want them. We expend a lot of effort and energy trying to avoid them, even though they’re inevitable. In the words of the great philosopher Jimmy Buffett, upon reflecting on another birthday: “I’m just hanging on while this old world keeps spinning, and it’s good to know it’s out of my control. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from all this living, is that it wouldn’t change a thing if I let go (from the song “Trip Around the Sun”).”
Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that if we give our heart to Jesus and follow Him, things will go just the way we want them to go, as if we are in control. If this were true, God would have let Jesus bypass the cross. The scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where He falls facedown and prays, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me (Mt 26:29),” gives us all the evidence we need. Yes, Jesus completed a task He preferred to avoid, but He did so out of obedience to His Father. Jesus concluded His prayer in the garden with, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
Embracing suffering as a part of the human experience doesn’t sync up with what our culture has scripted for us. In her book “Prayer in the Night,” Tish Harrison Warren states this idea so poignantly: “We are tempted to see wellness, wealth, and success as evidence of God’s favor, and suffering as the place of God’s absence or a punishment for sin. We are seeking a God who will keep bad things from happening to us. To love God through suffering means learning that when we look for evidence of God’s work in our lives, it is often in the last place we’d want to find it; in weakness, in pain, in the cross.”
I pray for good things to happen, and when they do, I often drink up the blessing without thanking God for providing it. However, when the you-know-what hits the fan, I find myself facedown calling on the Only One who can rescue me. The experience I have – the connection I experience deep in my soul with the God of the Universe while I’m facedown – is far greater than my mechanical dinner prayer that’s more ritual than spiritual. I connect in deep ways with God that I cannot explain when I am at my wit’s end, rather than when I am approaching my self-actualized best.
As Paul wrote to fellow believers in Philippi, as Christians our desire should not only be to know the resurrection power of Christ but to understand His sufferings as well. Whether you are a Christian or a non-Christian, if you think a trouble-free life is within your reach – one you can control – you are living a fantasy. Jesus reminded us that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. Trouble comes to all of us no matter whose tribe we belong to.
If there’s no way to escape suffering, then what should we do? The Apostle Paul says that we should “give thanks in all circumstances (1Thes 5:18).” This does not mean we have to thank God for our spouse walking out on us, our child’s poor choice to live as a prodigal, or the cancer diagnosis we just received from the doctor. It means that we are to thank God in our circumstances because we have One “who comforts us in all our troubles.”
Yes, Mr. Buffet, you are correct; this world is out of your control. But letting go does change things. Thanking God amid our troubles is acknowledging the poverty of our current condition. It is choosing to let go and let God.
When we are led to a place we would prefer not to go, we experience Christ to the fullest. Suffering is not the place of God’s absence. It’s the place where we experience Him the most. A god who eliminates all pain and suffering is a social construct – a lie. The God who will never leave us nor forsake us is the One True God and the One we need. This is the God who goes with us through sorrow, pain, and even death, and resurrects us to new life in Christ on the other side.
How you suffer is up to you. You will suffer in this life, but you don’t have to do it needlessly. You can suffer purposefully if you choose not to waste your pain. God’s Word reminds us that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rm 5:3-5).”
May we be found praying as Jesus did: “Not as I will, but as you will.”