Stewardship of Suffering

I’ve written about suffering here before; in some ways, it’s probably a topic that I shouldn’t even attempt to touch. . .to say that I’ve suffered would be a gross overstatement in comparison to most of the world. But I’ve been called to be a steward of what I’ve been given, so if my suffering now is of the small variety, then my job is to respond as best I can, strengthening my suffering muscles so that I can respond to greater sufferings with greater joy.

Through the course of the last few years, God’s chosen not to do some things for me that I’d really kind of set my heart on, one of which has become starkly apparent in the last few months.

I’ve thought a lot about how I want to handle this situation. My tendency with any negative emotion is to try very hard to run from it as quickly as possible, through whatever means possible, short of anything immoral or unethical (that typically involves a lot of running and sugar eating. My body gets very confused when I’m unhappy).

But negative emotion, as I always tell my clients, is not a bad thing in and of itself. It’s simply a part of life, and our chosen responses to that emotion can play a fundamental role in sharpening or weakening our character. God gives us suffering as a gift to help hone us into people who are single-minded in our pursuit of Him, and thereby able to reap all the benefits of wholly loving and being wholly loved by Him (Hebrews 12: 5-9; James 1:2-4).

When Jim Elliot was martyred, his widow Elizabeth wrote in her journal, “I don’t want to miss one lesson.” I love that idea, the idea that we can either fight suffering, forcing it to teach us in spite of ourselves, or be eagerly seeking to learn every possible lesson from those hardships. As I’ve approached this painful situation, I’ve been seeking to learn all that I can from it; so, for your reference, here’s my personal game plan for tackling this ‘suffering’ well. It’s not necessarily prescriptive of how everyone should respond to suffering; it’s just what is meeting my most poignant spiritual weaknesses head-on.

1) Allow God to do the heavy lifting

The old, grace-averse version of myself would have been working overtime to think and feel correctly about the situation without God’s help. This method gets in the way of an actual relationship, allows me to wallow in self-righteousness, and is ultimately pretty ineffective. So my first priority in all of this has been to pray, constantly, that He would be helping me to seek Him first and respond each moment in the way He wants me to; and He’s responded in kind.

2) Steep myself in God’s promises

A friend of mine spoke at a prayer meeting this semester about how the difference between the biblical characters who “made it” and those that fell away was that the survivors clung to God’s promises. And now, with the writing of the New Testament, we have many more promises to which to cling, all incarnate in the person of Christ.

I’ve spent most of the semester picking a specific promise to meditate on throughout each day, trying to swathe my mind in an understanding of God’s character. This doesn’t buffer against any sense of pain–but it does put it in a bit of perspective, a perspective that says, as Hannah Whitall Smith puts it so well,

“A great many things in God’s divine providences do not look like goodness to the eye of sense. . . .But faith sits down before mysteries such as these, and says, ‘The Lord is good, therefore all that He does must be good, no matter how it looks, and I can wait for His explanations.'”

3) Guard against lies

Throughout this situation I’ve been gritting my teeth against the sense of valuelessness that lurks behind this situation. It would be easy to translate God’s rejection of my requests as a rejection of myself, and I know that if my guard slips for a single second, I could very well end up in a cesspool of prideful self-loathing. But God’s been good in enabling me thus far to push my feelings through the grid of truth, thereby mining my value from who and what He says I am, as opposed to what I might allow this rejection to imply that I’m not.

4) Practice trust

I am the consummate over-thinker. My superpower is to take a simple thought, stretch it to rocket science complexity, and then bludgeon it to death with an arbitrary mix of logic and emotion. Thinking about this situation had not yielded any clear answers; I haven’t yet been able to find any logical reason to believe that this is God’s best for me. These things I’ve wanted had looked really, really good, even from a ministry perspective.

But my anemic trust muscles are getting one of the best workouts of their lives. I’ve been pleading with God to help me walk in faith, and He’s enabling me, sweet Father that He is, to trust that this is absolutely what is best for me, even as it clashes violently with my near-sighted understanding of “best”. I’m finding that the more I surrender, the more I pray that I’ll joyfully accept circumstances I may not like very much, the more I do. I certainly find myself saddened by the situation. . .but through prayer, I find myself almost stupidly grateful and irrationally joyful about the promised spiritual benefits of this. The pain remains, but it’s overshadowed by rich purpose.

5) Seek to encourage others

Prayer is my number one weapon against self-pity; reaching others is my number two. The entire world is hurting in one way or another, and I can either sit in my hurt and wait for someone to rescue me, or I can choose to look for someone to whom I can be an encouragement. When I seek to serve others (while neither ignoring nor milking my own areas of hurt) my focus changes and my pain falls prey to perspective.

I hope that this doesn’t come across as glib. I know that my ‘sufferings’ are minuscule compared to what others face, and I don’t want to sound like I’m putting together a 3 step guide to easily overcoming hardship or grief. There is no such thing. Suffering is the pits, and my prayer for any of you who are facing hardship is that you’ll be enabled to cling to God in the midst of it. If He cares enough to handle my itty bitty measure of heartache, how much more will He meet you in yours!

(Furthermore, if this post leads you to think of me as particularly righteous, please divest yourself of this impression. One of the main reasons I write is for my own reference, because I lose sight of truth far too easily, and when it comes right down to it, I’m one of the most genuine sinners you’ll ever meet. I am always at imminent risk of sulking or whining, and any proper response on my part is solely the work of Christ; how I wish that I could rip that statement free of cliché and make it as fresh and real to you as it is slowly becoming to me!

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