Do not be surprised, dear friends, at the painful trials you are now enduring as though something strange were happening to you, but rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 1 Peter 4:12
It’s always seemed to me that there is something inherently wrong with pain, with suffering, with hardship. There is something deeply disturbing about looking into the hurting eyes of brokenness, betrayal, and distress. Seeing someone cry to this day elicits a deep uneasy feeling in my gut compelling me to do anything and everything in my power to just make it stop. Historically it has played out in the form of ice cream, empty assurances that “it will be ok” [whatever that means] and an attempt to practically resolve the matter. Unfortunately none of these were sustainable solutions: ice cream just masked the problems, verbal assurances (based on emotions, not truth) had no foundation, and practical solutions were temporary at best. I found myself incapable of doing what only God, himself can do. I tried harder and harder in so many ways to resolve the pain and suffering I experienced in my own live and saw in the lives of those I loved. And failed miserably.
It seems most people today, myself included, have a distorted view of suffering—that is that it is a thing to be prevented, avoided, and remedied at all costs. We seek pain killers, anti-depressants, and anti-anxiety medications which are readily prescribed at the smallest hint of emotional distress. We can lean on alcohol for depression, cigarettes for stress, tv and video games for boredom, pornography for self-consciousness or laziness, and social media for insecurity. We have a quick fix available for every negative feeling we encounter. And yet, it seems from scripture and other historical writings that the apostles, the early church, and Jesus himself didn’t adhere to this mindset. Nearly every generation since the fall seems to have accepted and expected suffering as a normal part of life.
I’ve noticed nearly every time someone learns I have a headache, the first response is to offer me asprin or ask me if I’ve taken some. While a very caring response not inherently wrong, it simply supports the reality that we have developed incredible means by which we can alleviate pain, are conditioned to do so, and it is stunting our abilities to cope with and grow in our experiences. It’s fascinating to read the accounts of scripture and to imagine what it would have been like to cope with the type of pain the early church endured without an alternate fallback option. Sometimes I intentionally wait a day or 2 of feeling horrible—to the point where I can no longer stand it—before I take medication or go to the doctor, then think—what if the medicine I need had not yet been invented? Or available? Or I couldn’t afford to go to a doctor? At that breaking point, how would I have responded? What would I have used to cope? Would my tolerance simply grow in endurance? Would the reality that life isn’t just puppies & rainbows truly set in and my perspective become more accurate? (Ecc 1:18) Would I have become bitter and angry at God, curse the world and wish for a quick death to escape it all? (Job 2:9) Would I draw closer to my community and friends, depending on them, relaying on them to support me and pray for me? (Gal 6:2) Would I cry out to God with more vigor and intensity than ever before, with deeper longing that he would answer my agonizing prayer? (Ps 77:1) Would his grace of health taste all the sweeter having known a whole new level of potential misery? (Ps 30:11-12) And would I have an enriched ability to relate to Jesus, the one who suffered more horrendous pain than anything I will ever be able to imagine? (Phil 3:10-11)
What if, by masking the pain and avoiding the suffering, we are, in a sense prohibiting one of God’s greatest graces-which is to teach us something about life, something about the world, or something about himself? Would it be worth it? I wonder how different our attitudes might be if we viewed suffering as a means to a potentially more glorious end rather than a simple inconvenience to ignore, avoid or escape. Many societies and cultures historically and today have a vastly different perspective when it comes to hardship and trials. More important than how to avoid it, was what was to be learned from it and gained by it. If suffering were without purpose, our current attempt to resolve it quickly, though sadly inadequate, would make sense. But what if there were mysterious reward on the other side of suffering that our current pain blinds us to? Would it be worth it?
“The human spirit will not even begin to try to surrender self-will as long as all seems to be well with it. Now error and sin both have this property, that the deeper they are the less their victim suspects their existence; they are masked evil. Pain is unmasked, unmistakable evil; every man knows that something is wrong when he is being hurt…God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscious, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” –CS Lewis