Suffering as just another means to the End
(adapted and expanded from writing originally posted on 9/23/07)
“Moreover [let us also be full of joy now!] let us exult and triumph in our troubles and rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that pressure and affliction and hardship produce patient and unswerving endurance. And endurance (fortitude) develops maturity of character (approved faith and tried integrity). And character [of this sort] produces [the habit of] joyful and confident hope of eternal salvation. Such hope never disappoints or deludes or shames us, for God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit Who has been given to us.”
(Romans 5:3-5, Amplified Bible translation—emphasis mine.)
“Troubles…sufferings…pressure…affliction…hardship”–no matter what you call it, it’s pain. Perhaps physical, maybe emotional or mental or even spiritual. Is there any necessary degree of pain required to earn the name of suffering? This is one facet of human life where it seems to me that everything truly is relative. How do you judge the comparative pain of two mothers, one whose child was stillborn, one killed by a car as a teenager? Is there any reason to quantify the suffering of parents of a child who has walked away from the Lord and stopped speaking to them, versus those of a son who will never walk or speak at all? What about the affliction of someone born blind as opposed to one who goes blind as an adult? One who loses the use of a limb versus one with chronic debilitating arthritis?
But don’t we often try to compare our trials with those of others? And how exactly are troubles supposed to produce endurance? Won’t they just as likely produce frustration and fatigue? When people are afflicted, what they long for is peace, the end of the problems. Do people under siege become more patiently persevering than those with serene lives?
A young man I know has joined the military. His parents have forwarded his letters to me, along with other friends and family, for the past six months or so. At first he wrote daily in diary fashion, and mailed a week’s worth at a time. The letters he wrote during Basic Training reduced me to tears at the thought of the hardship he was enduring. What is the army trying to achieve in these men’s lives? Are they trying to kill them? To wear them out and make them sick? No. They’re trying to make them strong enough to endure the hazards of defending their country in a war. If there are no hardships, no privations, no grueling exercises to survive, how will they develop the toughness, the resilience, the discipline and perseverance they’ll need in battle?
The young man didn’t give up, didn’t say, “This is too hard, I can’t do it.” He kept going and discovered new reserves of strength and skill in himself. He knows that hiking ten miles with a 50-pound pack won’t kill him, nor will any of the other seemingly impossible tasks the army set him in those grueling first weeks. He has learned to trust that a) his commanding officer knows what he can endure, needs to endure; and b) his body is capable of more than he’d ever dreamed of before now. He has learned to keep his eyes on the goal and not give up.
Chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews is a memorial of God’s miraculous work among His people. It’s also a hair-raising list of struggles, tortures, and deaths suffered by His faithful. And then chapter 12 begins with this statement:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (NIV)
We struggle and we persevere, because we trust that God knows what He’s trying to accomplish in and through our lives. We have a perfect pattern in our Lord, “who learned obedience from what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Because He is at work in me, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength”(Phil 4:13)…precisely because His power is made perfect in my weakness (II Cor. 12: 9). The success of enduring makes it feel possible to keep going. Hope is born out of affliction, because He faithfully sustains me as I keep my eyes on Him. Peter walked on water as long as he didn’t watch the waves.
Does this mean I’m going to go looking for trouble? Not hardly. “Each day has enough troubles of its own” (Matthew 6:34). And just as God’s mercies are new every morning, so are the struggles that go with being alive on planet Earth. But each one is doing its work in me, chipping away at the old nature and forming in me the woman God created me to become.
Is there going to be a time when there are no more trials, and life is as calm as the glassy surface of a pool on a windless day? No. If anything, as I mature the trials will intensify. Will I notice? Or will I have built my endurance so that I have sufficient strength for what comes today–though if it had arrived last year, last week or even yesterday, it’s not clear how I would have coped.
As my friend Anna pointed out when we talked about this, C.S. Lewis says it’s “further UP and further in,” rather than just further along the level ground. And if the road lies all uphill until the end of time, each step will bring me closer to the One I love. Faith and hope will sustain me until the day when they are swallowed up in eternal Love, eternal Now, where there is no night, no pain, no tears…and no more suffering to endure.