I didn’t mean to blog for a whole week about suffering, but it’s shaping up that way. Partly because my heart goes out to so many people who are suffering: a good friend who buried his wife last year, a family member with mental illness, another friend with chronic pain. Not to mention people in our world whose suffering is so traumatic it makes the evening news: airplane crashes, natural disasters, slavery, war, oppression.
But I keep thinking about suffering for other reasons too. There is, in fact, a lot to think about. Today I’m thinking about what suffering does to people. Regardless of the kind — whether it’s illness or divorce, violence or just rotten luck — suffering points us all in one of four directions.
It can break us
Suffering can consume us, bury us, leave us empty and inept. In his famous book Man’s Search For Meaning, Viktor Frankl chronicled the various responses to suffering he observed from his fellow prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. He wrote that those who died, at their own hands or those of the guards, were not necessarily those who suffered the harshest treatment. Rather, the ones who didn’t make it were the ones who didn’t find a reason to endure — the ones whose suffering didn’t mean anything.
My boss, Andy McQuitty, has written a new book about his journey through cancer. In the chapter on suffering, he wrote, “If we do not trust God by embracing suffering to refine our character, then suffering will leave us who we were, only more miserable.”
One response to suffering is just to give up and, frankly, who could blame us? The torture Frankl witnessed at Auschwitz was some of the most evil and horrific ever devised. It was, in fact, designed for that very purpose — to break people. To rob them of faith, identity, and life itself. Any honest assessment of the reality of suffering has to include this as an option. Suffering can win.
It can strengthen us
Jesus’ brother wrote,
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.
The greek word “dokimos” means “stood the test” in this verse. Andy wrote, “In the ancient world, if a potter put a vessel in the furnace and it didn’t crack, on the bottom he stamped “DIKIMOS,” “approved.” This is a vessel of character. It has withstood the test of fire. It has been refined. It hasn’t broken. It is whole and complete, just what God wants in the character of his beloved ones.”
Turns out, the trite old coach-speak is true: no pain, no gain. That isn’t much consolation to someone trying to avoid eminent pain. But to someone who has accepted that suffering is part of life in this broken world, this can provide just the sort of purpose Frankl said we need. This perspective can rescue us by redeeming our suffering.
We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
It can soften us
Andy wrote, “Suffering makes those who feel invincible, vulnerable; those who pride themselves on being independent, dependent; the insensitive more sensitive; the arrogant humble; and the tough tenderized.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, was a victim of communist oppression in Russian Gulags. Solzhenitsyn believed that his unjust imprisonment prepared him for his life’s work. He wrote,
Formerly you never forgave anyone. You judged people without mercy. And you praised people with equal lack of moderation. And now an understanding mildness has become the basis of your uncategorical judgements. You have come to realize your own weaknesses — and you can therefore understand the weaknesses of others. Your should, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering.
Often, the most calloused and careless among us are those who have escaped, rather than endured, the most pain.
It can help others
In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul wrote,
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness — the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
Mysteriously, it is often our suffering that gives us a platform to bring good news to others. John Piper writes of this passage, “Christ’s cross was for propitiation; ours was for propagation. Christ suffered to accomplish salvation. We suffer to spread salvation.”
Those are the options. If you or someone you know is facing difficult circumstances, they can let it break them, strengthen them, soften them, or help others. Our response to suffering will push us in one of those four directions.
Where is your pain pushing you?