A Brief Meditation On Suffering
Variegated Manifestations of Suffering
James writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2, emphasis added). I find encouragement in the phrase “various kinds.” In the past, I assumed that the only suffering that counted was religious hardship like martyrdom, getting fired for being a Christian, or being harassed for not seeing the latest raunchy comedy with friends. But James urges us to count it as joy when we meet trials of various kinds. This includes the AC going out in the fever pitch of summer, flat tires on the way to work, paper cuts from your child’s science project, indigestion from the Chinese buffet you had for lunch, or worst of all, a string of sleepless nights with a colicky baby. Whatever form your trials/hardships take, they fall under the umbrella of various kinds.
Rejoice in Suffering
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing 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” (Romans 5:3–5, ESV).
How do we respond to such suffering? Paul gives the same answer as James: rejoice! As I said, I wrongly believed that the only suffering that counted was that incurred on account of my faith. In contrast to this, James and Paul teach that what makes suffering count is not the type but your response to it. Paul assumes that clueing us in on the purpose of our suffering (i.e., endurance) will help us frame the right response to it.
For the mom who has not slept since Reagan was President, Rejoice! For you belong to a God who never sleeps nor grows tired. And he has promised to be with you always, to never leave you or forsake you. He gives strength to the weary, and sleep to his beloved. Cry if you must, but know that he holds your tears in a bottle, and he will wipe them all away one day. Most importantly, know that he is using this season to shape and form you. He is teaching you that like your child, you are equally as helpless, and need him to feed, protect, and provide for you. He is taking you to a place where you can move beyond cliché Christian platitudes, and into the throes of real, vulnerable, messy faith.
Mind Over Matter?
Rejoice in the midst of suffering: easier said than done, right? Maybe. It depends on how we define “joy.” We must note that Paul does not tell us to rejoice for our suffering, depicting Christianity as a religion of masochism. Rather, he tells us to have joy in our suffering. Keller recapitulates Paul’s exhortation to rejoice while maintaining the balance of rejoicing in our suffering and not for our suffering when he writes:
God hates the pain and troubles of this life and so should we. Rather, a Christian knows that suffering will have beneficial results. A Christian is not a stoic, who faces suffering by just gritting their teeth. Christians “look through” the suffering to their certainties. They rest in the knowledge that troubles will only increase their enjoyment and appreciation of those certainties.1
The foundational tenant of Buddhism is overcoming or lessening suffering (i.e. evil) in this world. Ironically, since the material world is just an illusion, suffering must be categorized as an illusory reality, as it is part and parcel of the created realm. Unlike Buddhism, however, Christianity does not see the world as a temporary holding cell for the not-yet-enlightened. We believe that God created the material world. Therefore, Christians are called to rejoice in our suffering because the material world was good, and will be made new one day.
Suffering in and of itself is a parasitic aftershock of the fall that leaches onto God’s good creation. It stands as a testimony to the reality of evil (ipso facto, all matter). When Jesus relays the signs of the end of the age, he tells his disciples that “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Mt 24:7–8, emphasis added). He speaks of the sufferings we will witness and perhaps endure as the beginning of the birthing process. Paul contributes to this equally puzzling allegory when he writes, “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom 8:22). The natural question should be, what is being birthed? Freedom—“creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:21). The road to this freedom, however, is marked in suffering.2
When Christ returns he will bring heaven to earth. As Christians, then, our current mission, the whole reason we are sent into the world, is to open windows of the future-kingdom-life for those engulfed in the darkness of this present age. But we do not overcome suffering by denying the metaphysical or the goodness of this world (i.e., mind over matter).
When you are victimized by the sin of gossip, you can embrace the one who wronged you and speak forgiveness over them. When your neighbor’s dog incessantly exercises his bowels on your lawn, you can pick up his deposits and place them in the trash. When you encounter a child who has suffered at the hands of negligent guardians, you can clothe, feed, adopt, protect, pray, and provide for him or her, as a way of unfurling the effects of the fall.
These examples of suffering (and many others) will no doubt affect us. But encountering suffering in this world is not merely an exercise of mind over matter. Rather it is finding joy in the fact that God is shaping our minds through matter, so that—through our transformed minds—he can affect the material world. The biblical-expectation is that, with the Spirit’s help, we will internalize suffering in such a way that joy in suffering is fueled by our eschatological vision, which will stir up our ever-increasing obedience of faith.
- Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2014), 112. ↩︎
- If you are confused as to why the biblical authors use the analogy of pregnancy and birth pains, I encourage you to ask a woman who has birthed a child if she agrees with this verse: “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world” (Jn 16:21). ↩︎