[a response to the sanitisation and silencing of our suffering and a call to honour ALL that God is doing in us]
When life is painful, when we are hurting, confused and afraid, how should we respond? How do we live in the ruins of sickness, loss, mourning, brokenness, deprivation and injustice. When life is hard and isn’t about to get any easier, how do we cope? When we look around at a world with so much suffering, so much pain, how should we deal with it? What should we do and what is it all for?
What we often hear, explicitly and implicitly, is that our circumstances don’t really matter. We are saved, which is the most important thing, and we are going to heaven, which will be perfect and wonderful and so whatever happens in this life doesn’t matter at all because it will all be wiped away.
It’s an appealing answer, and there is truth in it. It is absolutely true that in heaven, Jesus himself will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain. And oh, how glorious a truth that is! That this old order will pass away; that our suffering is not for ever. When you are living with a suffering-without-end in this life, the fact that there will be an end is a truth that is soothing balm to a soul crushed by relentless battling and hopelessness. The truth is that when we get to heaven, Jesus himself will take our tear-stained face in his hands and he will tenderly wipe away every tear, he himself will restore joy to our hearts, will heal our wounds and with him we will dance again. And on that day, all that we endured in this life will not matter anymore, our time on this earth will feel like the blinking of an eye and the pain will be gone.
When we get to heaven. When we get there, He will wipe every tear. When we get there, there will be no death. When we get there, there will be no mourning. When we get there, there will be no crying. When we get there, there will be no pain.
When we get to heaven, when Jesus returns and makes for himself a new heaven and a new earth, then the old order of things will have passed away.
Until then, tears, death, mourning, crying and pain are the order of things. What does life feel like for a Christian? It feels like tears and death, it feels like mourning and crying and pain.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if none of it mattered. If the circumstances of our lives didn’t hurt. If when sin and brokenness careened through our bodies, our relationships, our minds and our souls, it just didn’t hurt that much because heaven is our destination and this just a bump in the road. It would be nice. I can almost forgive the mental and theological gymnastics that we put ourselves through to avoid really having to live in the pain of this sin-ravaged and broken world. Almost.
But not quite, because Jesus didn’t side step the mess, he didn’t overlook the pain, he didn’t tell us to buck up and be grateful.
Jesus wept at the death of his friend and the grief of his family, even though he was just about to raise him from the dead! Jesus was ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ by the grief of those who were mourning (John 11:33). He asked to see his friend Lazarus and at the sight of his dead friend, he wept (v35)
Jesus saw the paralysed man at the side of the pool in Bethesda and he learned that he had been in his condition ‘for a long time'(John 5:6) What is a long time to the God of the universe who created time? What is a long time to be paralyzed in the context of an eternity of wholeness? 38 years.
When a man with leprosy asked Jesus if he was willing to heal him, Jesus’ answer was ‘I am willing’, and he touched him. A man who would not have been touched for as long as he had been sick because he was seen as unclean; a man whom nobody would have been willing to help because he was under judgement. Jesus was willing and Jesus touched him (Matthew 8:1-3)
A woman unclean because of her bleeding touches Jesus and is healed. A woman who should not according to the law, have touched him at all because of her uncleanness did just that and she was not reprimanded, nor was Jesus made unclean by her touch. Instead because of her faith she was healed. Jesus says her faith healed her, he could have stayed silent and continued on his way. He was busy after all, on his way to Jairus’ house to heal his daughter. But instead he stops, he acknowledges this woman who has been so cut off from the fellowship of her people by her ailment, and he removes her shame. He calls her daughter, recognises her faith and tells her to go in peace (Luke 8:43-48)
When a sinful woman came weeping to anoint Jesus’ feet, he did not send her away or shrink from her touch. He didn’t despise her tears over sin for which she was at fault. Instead he accepts her love, affirms her forgiveness and defends her against those who want her out of sight and condemned. This woman would only have been spoken to by men who wanted to exploit and use her, righteous men would not have even looked at her, let alone spoken to her. Jesus speaks to her, speaks forgiveness over her and tells her “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Luke 7:36-50)
Time and again in Jesus’ encounters with people we see compassion, connection and a deep appreciation for the suffering they have endured. Why then do we not believe that he has compassion for us when we suffer. Why, when confronted with the suffering of our brothers and sisters is our first impulse to explain away their pain, silence their lament and minimise their experience of suffering.
Jesus says to his disciples in John 16 “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” Yes we can take heart, and yes he has overcome the world but we will have many trials and sorrows.
We see in the Bible that God will comfort us in our sufferings, and we can then comfort others in theirs (2 Corinthians 1), that after we have suffered for a little while, he will restore us (1 Peter 5), that our present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory God will reveal in us (Romans 8), that nothing we will suffer in this life can ever separate us from the love of Christ (Romans 8). There are so many verses in the Bible talking about suffering, hardships, troubles and burdens and all of them tell us that they are and will be redeemed.
Do they tell us therefore that they don’t matter? Absolutely not. Why would God dedicate so much of his word to something that does not matter. Why would he deem it necessary to acknowledge and name our pain if it doesn’t matter. Why do we regard something he spoke so much about as unspeakable. Why do feel ashamed that our lives feel full of trials and sorrows and sufferings and burdens, when that is exactly what God told us to expect.
Did Jesus stand back or turn his face from the suffering and the sinful? Did he tell them to stop complaining and be grateful? Did he minimise their pain and tell them that it’s not that bad and remember you’re saved from hell. No, he tells us that our sufferings will be worth it, and that He himself will be right by our side through it all.
So much of what is promised to us in our sufferings is only available to us if we will actually acknowledge our sufferings. How will we know the comfort of our Lord if we will not weep on his shoulder. How will we know the joy of restoration when we refuse to acknowledge the devastation of destruction. How can God’s glory been seen in our sufferings if we hide them away and minimise them. How will we know the joy that is to be found in the absolute security of God’s love, if we will not admit that the hardships of this life make us feel cut off and unloved.
The compassion of God shines through in his word and his actions. Jesus’ humanity was as complete as his divinity. When he suffered it hurt. In the garden of Gethsemane he was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Matthew 26), when he was whipped, he bled. His sufferings were not theoretical or merely theological, they were real and visceral and they hurt, and so do ours. When we suffer God doesn’t just sympathise with us, he empathises because he knows suffering; he knows loss, mourning, abandonment, injustice, hunger, pain. More than that, by his Holy Spirit God actually enters in to our suffering with us, when we suffer he does too. We are members of Christ’s body, does he not hurt when is body hurts?
The Bible calls us again and again to enter in to our suffering because we will find Christ, and we will find redemption and glory and purpose. We should not flinch in the face of our own suffering or that of others, we should not minimise it or say it doesn’t matter. Because it matters to God, so much so that he reserved some of his most precious promises for those that suffer.
Why must we suffer? I don’t know. I don’t know why God allows such pain to go unchecked, nor do I know why he allowed your particular agony to afflict you. If I was him, I’d restrain evil more often, I’d heal quicker and fully. I don’t know why he doesn’t or why it seems to be through suffering that we gain him most fully.
I do know that his love and grace can withstand my questions; my doubts, my anger and my laments. I do know that if I want to get anywhere close to understanding why he deems my suffering to be worthwhile, I have to enter in to the depths of it. I have to trust him enough to risk despair, relying only on his promise that I will not. I have to be strong and courageous and believe that he will be with me wherever I go, even though I feel so very alone. I will have to trust that even if the mountains do in fact fall in to the heart of the sea,even if the worst that I fear does indeed happen, somehow in some way, He will be my refuge and he will be my strength.
It is not brave to say our wounds don’t hurt, or that uncertainty doesn’t make us afraid. It is not faith to say that our questions and doubts don’t exist or are not valid. It is not wisdom to say that we know the mind of God and understand the decisions he has made.
Courage, faith and wisdom are believing that God is who he says he is even when nothing makes sense. Courage lives the whole of life with the whole of our hearts, risking it all on God’s promises being true. Faith wrestles with God because we are secure in who we are in Christ, and in God being who he says he is. Wisdom lives in the agony of mystery and accepts that it will seem weak and foolish.
So then, how should we respond? How do we live in the ruins of it all when life is hard and our suffering unending – how do we cope? How do we deal with a world and a life with so much suffering and pain? We don’t. We don’t cope, we don’t fix, we don’t rationalise and we don’t push it all away from our hearts. Instead we enter in, we weep and we lament. We question and we petition. We expect that God will remove some burdens and heal some wounds. We expect that others he won’t. And we believe what the Bible says to be true, which is that there is purpose and glory in our suffering, and that however bad it gets, he will be worth it and he will be enough.