Suffering has a way of forcing us to think about the meaning and purpose of life. Suffering leads us to encounter the ultimacy of our situation because someone close to us has died, we’re struggling with an illness, or an important relationship has ended. When this happens we naturally want to know “why” our comfortable life is now filled with pain and struggle. Suffering is a catalyst for change and hopefully that change will be a positive one. Suffering should cause us to find people to love and love them. In suffering we should find people to forgive and forgive them. Most importantly, from suffering we should find people in despair and show them hope. In short, we must live life and keep ourselves from sleeping through it and sometimes suffering is the very thing that wakes us up. In the end, the ultimate question you’ll ask yourself as a result of any suffering is am I loved and do I love others enough. For the Christian, suffering is something that draws us together in community in order to be helped and to help others.
If indeed suffering is part of the human condition and cannot be avoided what is the Christian response to it? What do we need to do to work through our suffering and the suffering of others? The answer is we need other people. Because of our need to be loved, to love, and connect with others we suffer. Connecting with others means being vulnerable to them. The paradox of this spiritual maxim is that in the companionship of others we are healed. Suffering draws us together, but to be drawn together intimately with others we must be willing to suffer and be hurt by them. The Christian realizes they’re not alone in their suffering, even when it feels that way. We are one body and that one body suffers when any member is in pain. Some Christians have used a common phrase to describe how they feel when their fellow believers are martyred. The phrase goes something like this; “When one bleeds we all bleed” and in my experience that has been true a number of times. Here is an example from the writings of Aristides, a Greek Philosopher from the second century who gives an account of how Christians lived echoing how one person’s suffering impacts the whole Christian community:
“And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him into their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him, they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food.”
Suffering is a mechanism in this broken world allowing God to be manifest through the grace filled acts of Christians. This means suffering can become a means for spiritual growth. It creates a nagging prompt initiated by the Holy Spirit to go and be with the one who suffers supplying whatever relief he or she requires. Even if that relief is merely being present with someone so they know they don’t suffer alone, the Spirit beckons us to be with the one who suffers. One can sum up suffering in the Christian life wonderfully by reflecting on this quote by A.W. Tozer:
“Slowly, you will discover God’s love in your suffering. Your heart will begin to approve the whole thing. You will learn…what all the schools in the world could not teach you – the healing action of faith without supporting pleasure. You will feel and understand the ministry of the night; its power to purify, to detach, to humble, to destroy the fear of death… You will learn that pain can sometimes do what even joy cannot, such as exposing the vanity of earth’s trifles and filling your heart with longing for the peace of heaven” (Tozer, 1977, p 122).
The ultimate things in life help us refocus on what is important. But we are Christians and cannot merely stay in that anxious and frightful place that is human worry and concern for temporal peace. We must always see life where there is death, hope where there is despair, and love where it seems like all that surrounds us is hate. Use your suffering to refocus on what matters; a life lived well in the Spirit of God to give him glory and make heaven a reality in a broken world.