Last week, I came back to the office after a 6 week ministry break with my family. God blessed me in so many ways while I was gone. I worked in the garden. I worked on the house. I read fiction books that were completely unrelated to sermon series and graduate school. I took my kids to the zoo. I watched movies with my wife. And started to process all that’s happened in my life over the last year.
One of my recurring questions for the Lord went something like this, “Why is Christian ministry so hard?” which overflowed into an even bigger issue, “Why is the Christian life so hard?” Pretty much ever follower of Jesus I know (both inside and outside our church) can point to at least one, if not several situations in their life that have been tremendously difficult to navigate. The older I am, the more I realize that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33a).
Nor was he kidding when he added, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b). On one level, that’s tremendously comforting. God is honest about my suffering and God is greater than my suffering. On another level, that’s hard for me to believe because there are so many situations where it seems downright impossible to perceive the triumphant purpose of God. Where is the triumphant purpose of God in the sorrow of church conflict? Where is the triumphant purpose of God in grief of infant morality? I believe a future day is coming when Jesus returns to make all things new. But Jesus doesn’t say, “I will overcome the world.” He say, “I have overcome the world,” describing a past victory with present consequences.
What does that look like? In what sense can we presently experience, even in part, the power of Christ’s victory over the suffering and death of this world? I think a portion of the answer is found in Jas 1:2-4. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
James doesn’t say you can explain all suffering in terms of some sort of internal character deficiency God is trying to fix. To assume as much would be to ignore the multitude of biblical examples of men and women who suffered for no fault of their own. No, he’s not providing a comprehensive answer to the question of why we suffer. He’s simply observing, as a wise pastor, that suffering creates opportunities – including the opportunity to grow in steadfastness.
In his short book, “The New Pastor’s Handbook, “Jason Helopoulos offers a list of other opportunities God gives in the mist of suffering (p. 116):
- To test our desire for God’s glory rather than human approval (Isa. 51:7-8)
- To look to Christ, who suffered silently (Isa. 53:7)
- To truly love our enemies (Matt. 5:44)
- To remind ourselves that the Great Judge knows that is true (Matt. 12:36)
- To learn afresh how dependent we are on Christ (John 15:5)
- To be identified with Christ (John 15:18-21)
- To suffer with him, knowing that as we do, we shall be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17)
- To know more fully the extent of Christ’s love toward us (Eph. 3:14-19)
- To complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24)
- To be tested by fire so that the genuineness of our faith will shine to the glory and honor of Christ (1 Pet. 1:7)
- To suffer because it is a gracious thing in the sight of God (1 Pet. 2:20)
- To become more like Christ as we endure suffering (1 Pet. 2:21)
- To share in suffering with Christ (1 Pet. 4:13)
- To suffer because it is a blessing and a sign that the Spirit of glory and of God rests on us (1 Pet. 4:14)
- To be reminded that our current suffering is nothing compared to the glory that awaits (1 Pet. 5:10)
I know I will never find peace in the midst of sorrow by trying to figure out why it’s happening. I’m a creature. God is the Creator. I must neither expect nor insist on understanding all his ways. But I’m learning to recognize the opportunities he graciously gives me in the midst of my sorrows and learning to thank God for the work he does in and through them. So if life is hard for you right now, join me in meditating on the above list and ask God to reveal the opportunities he’s placed before you, even in the midst of your greatest suffering. Then ask a Christian friend to join you in praying for faith to embrace them with tears of joy.