How to Respond to Suffering

Suffering

Suffering is hard. So we work just as hard—if not harder—to avoid it. We don’t want to talk about it. And we run away from it. We devise detours that often end up causing even more complications.

Of course, no one wants to suffer. It’s even more difficult when we have to watch a loved one suffer. But the reality is that suffering is guaranteed for Christians.

  • Paul said it: “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (II Timothy 3:12 ESV).
  • Peter confirmed it: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you” (I Peter 4:12 ESV).
  • And Jesus, Himself, said it: “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33 ESV).

The timing and degree of suffering may vary. Still, the one constant is that in this broken world, suffering is an experience few, if any, escape.

Two movies

Our aversion to viewing suffering was especially evident in the response to the recent release of two movies. I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ were released within a week of each other this spring.

Both movies have strong Christian themes, however one brought in box office receipts of more than $79 million to date, while the other grossed $17 million. The casts of both include well-known actors. One movie is based on a popular song. The other depicts the suffering of early Christians and the end of the apostle Paul’s earthly life.

Both movies also included a measure of suffering. And both ended with the death of a main character. But I Can Only Imagine had a happy ending, while the characters in Paul would experience their happy ending only when they reached heaven.

I wonder if the significant difference in box office receipts is related to the level of suffering depicted in each movie.

Choices

We have choices in how we respond to suffering. And some choices are more biblical than others.

Consider the following options:

  • Avoid it at all costs

Our natural tendency is to run from suffering as fast as we can. But this habit can develop into a lifestyle of hedonism: the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence. A hedonistic life values pleasure above all else. When experiences become inconvenient or unpleasant, our overriding focus is to escape as quickly as possible, regardless of the cost.

  • Seek it out

At the other extreme is masochism. A masochist actually finds pleasure in their own pain. Not only do they not avoid suffering, they seek it and relish it when it occurs.

While you may not know many people who are masochists, most of us know people who like to wallow in their suffering. Their lives are a continual pity party and their motto is “Woe is me” as they seek a steady stream of sympathy.

While the Bible gives us a lot of information about responding to painful circumstances, it never calls Christians to be masochistic. We are not to delight in suffering for suffering’s sake.

 

But there’s one more response to suffering—a response every Christian is called to have:

Walk Through It

Christians are called to walk through suffering. The Bible describes us what that looks like:

  • Consider yourself blessed

Jesus told His followers they are blessed when they are persecuted for righteousness (Matthew 5:10). Suffering and trials will come (John 16:33).

  • Share the comfort

The apostle Paul tells us that suffering develops empathy. We are able to take the comfort we received and in turn, comfort others (II Corinthians 1:4).

  • Maintain an eternal perspective

Paul also notes that suffering and affliction produces a glory than enables us to maintain an eternal perspective (II Corinthians 4:17).  It’s easy to focus on the present when we’re hurting. But this life is not all there is.

  • Be the Body

Paul reminds us that Christians are not called to suffer alone. We are to help each other, bearing each other’s burdens whenever possible (Galatians 6:2).

  • Learn from it

The writer of the book of Hebrews notes that sometimes pain and hardship occur as a result of the Lord’s loving discipline (Hebrews 12:5-7). C.S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Are we listening?

  • Grow from it

James wrote that we should count it as joy when we undergo trials. Not masochistic joy for the trial, but joy because we know the testing of our faith produces perseverance or endurance (James 1:2-4).

  • Continuing to do good

Peter tells us that while good deeds may cause suffering, we should not stop doing good just because life becomes difficult or painful (I Peter 3:17; 4:19).

As a 21st century, Western Christian, the concept of suffering, especially suffering for my faith, is fairly removed from my day to day experience. But early Christians (as well as contemporary Christians in other countries) knew what it was to live in fear for their lives simply because they self-identified as followers of Jesus Christ.

Going back to the two movies I mentioned earlier, when I watched Paul, Apostle of Christ, I was struck by a reminder. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to those early Christians who suffered for Christ as they passed the baton of faith to the next generation.

When it’s my turn, I pray I will follow their example.

How do you respond to suffering?


Two Deaths and a Movie

DeathBilly Graham died 2 weeks ago. Stephen Hawking died today. And this week, I Can Only Imagine releases in movie theaters.

What do these three events have in common?

Billy Graham was a well-known evangelist who spent his life sharing the gospel. His message was that God loves you and sent His Son to die for your sins to restore your relationship with Him. Rev. Graham was known as a gifted communicator, a “pastor to presidents,” and a man of integrity. His biggest fear was that He would do something to bring disrepute to the gospel of Christ.

DeathStephen Hawking was a brilliant and well-known professor of theoretical physics. He spent his life studying the mysteries of the universe. His other claim to fame was being the longest survivor of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a diagnosis of ALS generally leads to death within several years. But Professor Hawking defied conventional medical knowledge and lived with ALS for more than fifty years.

While both these men were exceptional in their own ways, their most significant difference was in the area of faith. Rev. Graham knew beyond any doubt that he was a child of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ. As he approached death, he confidently expected to be ushered into the presence of the God of creation.

Dr. Hawking was equally certain that there is no God. Of course, no one can know another person’s heart, but we do know what he said. In his words, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”

Which brings me to the movie releasing this week: I Can Only Imagine, a story of redemption, forgiveness, and transformation. The movie’s title, taken from the song written by Bart Millard (profiled in the film), refers to the anticipated response of believers when they stand before God in the afterlife.

I can only imagine.

I can only imagine the joy Billy Graham experienced when he first stood before his heavenly Father and heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21 NIV).

And I can only imagine the horror Dr. Hawking experienced the moment he realized that, for all his brilliance, he got it wrong. There is an afterlife for both believers and unbelievers. And he will be face to face with the Creator of the universe as His enemy.

Because, you see, there is no neutral position before God. The Bible tells us “we were God’s enemies” before we were reconciled to Him in Jesus Christ (Romans 5:10). And Jesus said, “Whoever is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30).

Please, please, please don’t fool yourself into thinking that anyone can be neutral about their relationship with God. Choose Him and know a peace that passes all understanding now, and a certainty of eternity with Him later – a certainty you won’t have to imagine.