Saint Augustine said “God had one son on earth without sin, but never one without suffering.” Suffering is a universal experience. Every life is marked directly or indirectly by suffering, loss, pain, agony, despair, illness, death.
Most wordly approaches to living well involve the pursuit of comfort and the avoidance of suffering. But what if that approach is a lie? What if the Christ-centered, Spirit-empowered approach to life invites us to something else?
Here is the bottom line of the uncomfortable territory we are wading into as we discuss suffering: Do not seek to avoid suffering. Instead seek to be transformed.
It has so often been my experience that instead of transforming our circumstances, God chooses to transform us. If that is true, then let us look at what is helpful and discover what is not helpful in suffering as we wait in expectation of God's transforming touch.
Seek a reason for suffering. Knowing why does not alleviate the suffering and if anything worsens it with guilt and shame. This action often serves to distract from the real issue at hand, which is how do I faithfully endure?
Compare your suffering to that of others. There is no comfort derived from knowing you don't have it as bad as others. In this moment, suffering just is. This action often serves to deflect the intense discomfort we have in the presence of brokenness.
Offer false platitudes. “It will get better” is not always true. You are not God. You do not know what the outcome ahead is. It may be bad and then get way worse. This action often serves to minimize the reality of someone's suffering.
Insist on learning from the experience. It is true that some suffering helps reframe truths for us. It may bring clarity of what you value. It may foster gratitude or simplicity. However, some loss and suffering is without a lesson that is worth the cost of bearing the burden. This action often serves to devalue the experience of suffering unless you come away with a learning outcome.
I have done all of these unhelpful things. I will likely do them again. It is not my intention to shame us for having compassion that is imperfect, or hearts that just want to make things better. It is my hope to point us to a truly better way. Let us examine the passage found in Luke 22 for more insight.
Maintain patterns. (verse 39) Help those who suffer to participate in their habits and rituals. Even if some of the menial tasks seem unnecessary, connecting to the patterns of daily living can breath life into our situation. Jesus made his way to the Mount of Olives, as was his custom. What are some ways we can help maintain patterns? We bring food to help to keep family mealtimes. We offer help to keep even trivial traditions going. And then there is worship. Worshiping in the midst of suffering feels counterintuitve perhaps, but it is at the center of Christ's movements in this passage.
Proceed in community. (vs 40-41) Those who suffer will benefit from remaining outwardly connected, even as they withdraw inwardly. The stone's throw detail is important. In every definition I have searched, the expression clearly indicates a closeness in proximity. It is not far. It is not distant. It represents a slight separation in a close space.
Pray honestly. (Vs 42a) There is no need to be polite in the midst of suffering. God can handle our disappointment, agony, hurt, anger, and alternative wills. If you can't be honest in prayer, it is not prayer. Bring your mess to God.
Trust the goodness of God's will. (vs 42b) While outcomes may not seem to us “good,” we do know that God is good. His will is perfect and pleasing. Those who face suffering may never see the good they seek. Still this need not be in opposition to the God they seek.
Welcome Divine strength. (vs 43) As Jesus prayed, an angel attends him and strengthens him. There is no magic spell or incantation that will make God conform to our will for strengthening. If it comes it is a grace. If it comes, those who suffer will do well not to question it, justify it, or try to explain it. Welcoming it is the only needed response. It is a grace.
Allow anguish and prayer to coexist. (vs 44) As communities that desire to support those who suffer, we will need to ensure that our culture around prayer allows room for lament, anguish, sorrow, and cries of the heart. Prayers of intercession are fine – but prayers of lamentation must also be fine.
Prayer is not a cure-all, once and done, and should not be treated as such. Prayer is intimacy with God. God is intimately aware of our suffering and is found in its midst. Prayer allows us to encounter the very glory of God displayed in His nature, Emmanuel. When God is with us, though nothing may change, everything changes.
Understand human limitations. (vs 45 - 46) Even though our hearts will be set toward supporting those who suffer, it is likely that our ability to be helpful and supportive will fall vastly short of the suffering endured. Humans disappoint. We tire in sorrow. We succumb to our own needs. While it may feel tempting at times to “go it alone” the example of Jesus reminds us that we are always living our lives in a manner to be given to community for others. Suffering does not exclude us from the otherishness we have imprinted on our image.
Jesus could have chosen to avoid suffering. But the way of our Lord led Him straight through its path. It is a transforming pathway – and as we follow Him we should expect to encounter suffering too, yet we do so with the hope that is sure – Jesus' life, death, and resurrection power has transformed everything – and it will transform you and me too.
Do not seek to avoid suffering. Seek instead to be transformed by the God who is with you, Emmanuel.
This post is an excerpt from a message given by Pastor Kyla on February 24, 2019. You can listen to the full message here.