Today, I felt sad when I thought about my girls starting high school through 100% distance learning. They won’t have the chance to make new friends or get lost on campus. They won’t get to try out new clubs or play basketball or learn about how to do lab experiments in chemistry. I know that this is not the zenith of suffering in the world right now, but it’s the reality that is in my face today, and I feel the loss of it for my daughters. It’s also a reminder that this pandemic is going to be much longer, much more painful and much more consequential than most of us thought.
I’m guessing that you are also feeling the loss of very specific things in your life right now. Perhaps it’s the very real loss of income or hugs or mental health stability or getting to be with family members. There’s no point in comparing who’s got the most suffering right now because we’re all suffering in ways which will never be apparent or comprehensible by others.
I hope that a few reflections on suffering might be useful to all of us, wherever you are at. How does following Jesus shape our experiences of suffering and loss? How does this help us to endure it or even walk through it with peace?
The night before his crucifixion, Jesus gathered with his closest disciples and he warned them that suffering was coming. Suffering was a common part of first-century Mediterranean life. In fact, in some ways, the Hebrew people had been defined by it for more than 400 years. His disciples were no strangers to suffering. But Jesus wanted to remind them that, although suffering was a part of life, it would not define them.
Jesus made two promises:
1. Your sorrow will turn to joy.
“Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy” (John 16:20).
Life is full of sorrow.
But, Jesus assured them that sorrow is not the end of the story.
Lying in a Roman prison, his character questioned by certain Jerusalem Christians, and facing almost certain death at the hands of the most powerful man on the face of the earth, Paul wrote:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”
In other words, Nero can kill me, but he will never define me. My circumstances may be painful but the hope that I have in me is sure to be the finale of my story. Knowing this helps us as we walk through suffering which we cannot fully understand.
2. You will eventually understand.
Jesus wanted his disciples to know that things look very different depending on your view. For instance, on the other side of the resurrection, everything looks different. Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, everything changes. We look at reality through a completely different prism and it all makes sense. Paul seems to be holding onto that same promise when he says,
“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
(1 Corinthians 13:12)
For now, all we can do is cling to each other, work for justice, and trust that Jesus is right – suffering will not have the last word and one day “He will wipe every tear … There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain …”
There is one more thing which we have as believers. This is the sweet, rich presence of God. The Psalmist says in Psalm 84:10,
10 Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
We’re all spending a lot of time in houses these days. Some of us are so sick of our houses that we want to scream. But what is this house that is so wonderful that the Psalmist would rather be a mere doorkeeper there than to have his own place among the wicked? And why? Because it’s God’s house and our Father is there. He invites us to not be doorkeepers but family members of the owner! The scriptures are full of descriptions of being with God as the apex of our purpose, satisfaction and pleasure. Being close to God and connected to God is literally what we are made for. The promise of this future grace enables us to endure suffering now. There are no quick fixes to suffering in this world. There is no magic balm to make the pain and isolation go away.
But let me leave you with a reminder of what we can hold onto in the midst of this pandemic:
• Your suffering or discomfort is not the end of the story.
• The God who loves you wants to be present with you in all circumstances.
• God’s promises for the future will enable us to endure any discomfort or suffering now.
Much love in Christ,