I don’t like to talk about suffering. My brain skitters around it. It’s no fun. You know who did like to talk about suffering (or at the very least talked about it a lot)? The apostles. And Jesus. Check it.
James 1: 12 (ESV)
12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.
John 16: 33 (ESV)
33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
1 Peter 4: 12, 13 (ESV)
12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 1: 6, 7 (ESV)
6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
James 1: 2-4 (ESV)
2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Romans 5: 3-5 (ESV)
3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
(I want to take a brief moment here to say that I believe Christians today allow certain kinds of suffering in their lives that shouldn’t be there. For example, our healing is promised to us many times, and I don’t believe Christians should just accept chronic pain or sickness as their lot or “their cross to bear.” But, I also believe that too many Christians are so focused on avoiding suffering that we miss a lot of the best and juiciest bits of what it actually means to be a Christian.)
But, but, but….If God is good and loves us then why would we have suffering in our lives?! Right? Let me share a little bit about my own personal version of suffering: I hate running. Hate it. If you ever needed to torture me, you could just wake me up at 5 am every day and force me to run for a few hours. I’d crack in a week or less. It makes me nauseous and achy, my joints hurt, my muscles hurt, my head hurts, my ears hurt. I don’t understand why people do it.
And here’s the thing: everyone hates running. Ok. There are one or two weird exceptions. But when I talk to runners about why they run, it’s almost NEVER because they actually like running, but because it’s good for them or they can get out in nature or it clears their mind and helps them think or they get this thing called “runner’s high” afterward (which I personally believe is fictional). Friends, these people have learned how to rejoice in suffering. Sound familiar? Sounds kind of like the verses up there, actually.
What if we thought of suffering not as suffering, but as resistance training? Because, folks, it’s going to happen. Jesus promised that. It may come in all sorts of ways; the death of a loved one, mistreatment, betrayal, extreme embarrassment, financial trouble, uncertainty, fear, and on and on it goes. We can’t avoid it. (I’m so wary of this being misunderstood, because I in no way want to advocate being the type of people who let the world trample upon them and accept it as the will of God) but sometimes we need to “embrace the suck.” Not in a tragic, resigned, suffering-Christian way. But in a dig-your-heals-in, grit-your-teeth, and decide-that-the-trial-will-make-you-stronger-rather-than-kill-you way.
I have personally, just in the last month, dealt with hard times in both ways. I have been sad and self-pitying. And I have attacked the situation head on with the ferocity of the person in the front row at spin class. Guess which is more productive? More fun? Going through trials is actually really good “exercise” for our faith, our patience, our trust in God. We can talk about trusting and loving Him all day, but how will we react when it’s actually tested? Trials are the times we get to prove to ourselves and God how much all that talk is actually worth. Are we going to keep our gaze on Him? Or cave inward? When we crave answers or comfort, will we turn to Him? Or to the world?
How we react in these situations can not only be very telling, but also very strengthening. When you exercise, if you only go until it starts to get uncomfortable and then stop, you’re never going to get stronger. You may be able to maintain, but the actual strengthening comes when you start to push yourself until it hurts. You have to go through discomfort to build strength. Don’t push yourself too hard or you risk injury, of course, but you’ve got to tough it out a bit or you won’t see the results. It’s also when you push yourself to your limits that you actually realize how strong you are.
A little resistance in life is a good thing. I would even advocate for seeking out uncomfortable situations. Have a conversation with someone who doesn’t believe the same things as you, who asks good questions that you don’t know the answers to. Remove yourself from your trusted circle (via a new activity or even a move) so you have to rely more on Him. Face your fears. Put yourself out on a limb now and then so you can watch God see you through. And when something really tough comes along, don’t shy away from it. Let it make you stronger.