Persecution, false accusations, neglect. Are you familiar with these kinds of sufferings? Perhaps you do not suffer as the result of other’s ill-will toward you, but rather, your suffering is physical, mental or emotional.
How does suffering fit in with our Christian life? Do we try to press on, ignore our suffering, and, gloomily, just try to do the best we can? I am afraid that I often react to suffering in this way and forget that God is Sovereign in the events in the world and in my life. But when I remember that things don’t happen to me just by chance, then I am forced to think about the what’s and the why’s of my suffering.
Since all things work together for my good (Romans 8:28), I am challenged to see how my suffering is producing good in my life. Sometimes, I can clearly see the good in the now. Other times – because of a lack of spiritual sensitivity, or because of plain old weariness from the trial – I am not able to see the good in the now. In that place of shadows, I seek to cling to Who I have found God to be and Who He promises to be. Then I know that there is good, even though I cannot see it.
But there is a beauty in suffering that the Lord has given me to see recently.
Suffering always has an element of death to it. Suffering reminds us of the frailty of our life, of the ease with which our life can be put out of homeostasis. Jesus, our Elder Brother, had a life that was replete with suffering. From infancy to adulthood, He experienced all the physical and mental discomforts common to these stages of human life. “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Hebrews 4:25. He also experienced anguish above and beyond typical human suffering in His redemptive work for His children. “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.” Lamentations 1:12. All of Jesus’ suffering was purposeful suffering and led to the ultimate suffering of dying – dying in our place – under the unmitigated wrath of His Own Heavenly Father God. He died in order to rise, so that we, His children, would not suffer the hell of death but be raised to newness of life. This is a harsh beauty that takes my breath away.
Believers are called to be constantly dying. The Scriptures refer to it as dying to self. “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Romans 8:13. When the Lord gives us trials of body, soul and mind, our first reaction is to find some way of escape from this intrusion into our homeostasis. I know that is my first reaction. But what if God is giving us this interruption of the smooth flow of life to cause us to die? To die to self? To die to our grasp of what we thought was rightly ours: our health, our sleep, our financial stability, our relationships, our freedom? What has the dead seed sown learned that we have yet to learn? With death, comes life.
Paul, before his conversion, held to all the ways in which he properly obeyed the law. But when the Lord opened Paul’s eyes, he saw that all his works were less than useless, and he rejoiced in the loss of all things that he once zealously held on to as being his.
“But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead.” Philippians 3:7-11
When we suffer, whether as the result of persecution from man or as the result of other trials of life, could God be telling us to die to what we thought was useful and necessary in order that we may learn that He is our portion? “My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:26. Jesus’ suffering led to death, yes. But then it led to life. Farmers sow a dead seed, but life emerges as the result.
John Calvin says: “Christ crucified is set before us, that we may follow him through tribulations and distresses; and hence the resurrection of the dead is expressly made mention of, that we may know that we must die before we live. This is a continued subject of meditation to believers so long as they sojourn in this world.” Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume XXI
Let our hearts and minds drink from the well of beauty that serves up exhaustion, false accusations, mental or emotional strain, heart aches, physical pain, persecution, etc. God may be causing us to learn to die, so that we may live.