This post first appeared on LessonsFromPain.com on February 17, 2016.
This week my community lost a 23-year-old young man. He was ice-fishing on the lake with friends and, through a series of circumstances, was alone in sub-zero temperatures when his truck broke through the ice. He extricated himself and tried to make it to shore. He never made it.
My friend's father is dying. The day is unknown, but inevitable, and I watched helplessly as she drew strength from a woman who had lost her mother in similar circumstances years ago. The pain was still fresh for the motherless woman, and still piercing for my friend.
My own struggling health is a weight of fears and pain. "Can I have my own family if I can't care for myself? Is my life a waste?"
Women I love still silently grieve for their children they never met and carried only a short time. Some grieve for children they long for, but cannot have. Men stagger under the burden of providing for families on incomes that cannot possibly support. Death, disease, and depression oppress us in so many ways.
And through it all runs the silent question that the world asks always: "How do you suffer?"
It grieves me when I see the prosperity gospel's answer to suffering. "You suffer because you don't have enough faith. You suffer because you are resisting God. You suffer because you have not asked the right way or done the right things."
According to all these Bildads and Eliphazes, Christ Himself, the "man of sorrows and acquainted with grief," would be an outcast. "Christians are supposed to be happy! Prosperous! Blessed!"
When did the gospel become a matter of artificially constructing a mindset that denies the reality of suffering? Christ suffered. He wept over the suffering of others. Should we not do the same?
It also grieves me when I see other Christians respond to suffering with the same despair as the rest of the world. We ask, "Why me?" and cast accusations and withdraw into the prison of ourselves. We wallow in doubts about God's goodness and rage against the broken world and our more broken spirits. Has God abandoned us? Is He punishing us?
Or, perhaps, we accept it stoically as a confirmation that we are meant to be sorrowful vessels in this world. God is God, inscrutable. You suffer because He has some so-called redemptive purpose in making you miserable. Yours not to reason why. Yours but to do and die.
Or, in a final kick against both doubt-filled rage and tight-lipped stoicism, we decide that we will be happy, happy, happy no matter what. Stage 4 cancer? Praise the Lord! A miscarriage? God is good! A lost job? Hallelujah! It is the sort of utter disconnect to life that caused a woman to tell a bereaved mother my family knew, "Why aren't you happy that your three children died in that car accident? After all, they are with the Lord!"
Is it a wonder that when the world asks the Christian, "How do you suffer?" it sees nothing that it recognizes as real? The prosperity gospel offers only guilt or demands more effort. The rage and doubt only affirms that we are abandoned and persecuted without explanation. The stoicism only represents God's love as a harsh, corrective measure from a stern father. The false happiness only denies the entire reality of suffering.
How does a Christian suffer? By grasping reality--the full reality--as Christ did.
Life hurts, so deeply, so wretchedly. Pain is real. Grief exists. This is what it means to live in a world so stained by the disease of sin that even the innocent suffer. We can stand at the tomb of a loved one, as Christ did, and weep openly--even when we know that the resurrection will come. We can acknowledge all that suffering is, and feel the ruggedness and horror and ache of it more deeply than anyone else, because we know where it comes from, what its end is, and what it costs.
We know that suffering is unnatural. We were not made for it. We were made for life and happiness, but that all changed in the Garden of Eden, and we became stricken under the great unnatural tragedy of sin and death.
Yet, in the midst of that pain, we, out of everyone else in the world, should also know that we are not alone. We are not overcome. We are not destroyed.
We have a reason to hope, an assurance that suffering does not last forever.
For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
All the other ways of suffering are two-dimensional. Flat. Artificial. Depthless.
But this suffering, of mingled pain and power? It is three-dimensional. Full. Real. True.
Do we suffer like this? Do we grasp the reality of the pain and the hope simultaneously? Do we acknowledge the depth of suffering while holding tight to the assurance of redemption? Do we offer the world both our tears and our comfort? Do we acknowledge our own Savior as both sufferer and conqueror?
It is only when the sky weeps and the sun shines that a rainbow appears.
Christian, when the world watches you suffer, what does it see?
None of my life has gone the way it was "supposed to go," but I don't love my life any less because of the hardships and new directions. I see so much unexpected good in it, and I want others to see the good in theirs.