Surviving Suffering: Part III- Spiritual Acts

In two earlier posts I spoke about some practical aspects of suffering as a follower of Christ. I wrote about how placing ourselves in the right kinds of spiritual environments and surrounding ourselves with the right kind of people when battling suffering can help us to victory. Then I spoke about uniquely sensitive times that manifest themselves when we are enduring pain and suffering. In this post I address the kinds of activities we can engage in to help us embrace our own pain and sorrow as co-sufferers with Christ (Phil 3:10-11).

To embrace emotional pain in its fullness, yet not to lose ultimate faith in God, or ultimate hope in His plan, is the existential core of the Christian life. It is the life of the Christ follower most profoundly actualized. Paul says it this way:

But everything that was a gain to me, I have considered to be a loss because of Christ. More than that, I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things…My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death…

Philippians 3:7-10

“I have suffered the loss of all things,” and “My goal is to know Him…and the fellowship of His sufferings.” Let there be no doubt about suffering then, for this is entirely perspicuous. But, Paul is not the only one to tell us directly that to suffer is to in some way come to know God more fully. Jesus Himself says that it is through our pain that we will know His ways:

If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it.

Mark 8:34

Now, it may be possible that these verses have become hackneyed in our eyes. Perhaps they seem tread-worn or trite to those who have heard them for the umpteenth time at home or church. Alas familiarity does not affect veracity. Familiarity doesn’t diminish or change truth values, nor does it alter meaning. Familiarity does not amend what these passages actually refer to, or mitigate the phenomenology of the experiences that they entail. For the reality of suffering is coming, if it is not already here- here with me, and here with you. So, what should we do about it? What do we do when that particular suffering that is particularly yours, or particularly mine, truly arrives?

Prayer and Suffering

The sooner we embrace the reality of our suffering, the sooner we can pray rightly about what we are experiencing. In embracing suffering we acknowledge first that it is in accordance with God’s permissive will that this suffering has been allowed. This association also entails that the suffering is against God’s perfect will, meaning that it is neither authored by God, nor somehow some kind of non-suffering in disguise. Cancer, divorce, murder, injustice are all inherently bad things. But, suffering, nor any particular instance of it, is not random, and while not desired, it is purposeful. Further, within the context of God’s ultimate plan for the world and His chosen people, it is also by design. Purposeful pain and suffering by design, all within the broader context of God’s providence for the entire salvation of the world; this is our starting place as Jesus people. This is the context we must have, lest our suffering begin to appear pointless.

Second, and regardless of who coined it, this phrase rings true (this saying is trustworthy): “A faith gone untested is a faith that can be little trusted.” If you know you truly are a son or daughter of the living God, then you must also know that pain, although having no intrinsic value, is always an opportunity for growth in spiritual strength and spiritual wisdom. Pain, and the endurance of pain, will become that which will make you trustworthy in the eyes of others. The noble endurance of pain is the most poignant mark of true Christian saint. Therefore, one part of pain’s purpose is simply this, your continued growth into becoming a saint among saints.

So, the earlier we embrace our pain as part of God’s redemptive plan, the more readily our prayers become effective prayers, prayers that are reflective of what we know is true about God and how He works in the world. Any notions of God as the great candy man in the sky, or ultimate genie in the bottle, will immediately collapse once we realize the depth of the reality of pain and suffering that a sovereign God allows us to endure, and that he permits to accompany us in this life.

But, this does not mean that our prayers become sanitized or sanctimonious once we accept this fact. Quite the opposite, they become like the prayers of the Psalmist, on the one hand like this:

There is no soundness in my body

because of your indignation;

there is no health in my bones

because of my sin.

For my sins have flooded over my head;

they are a burden too heavy for me to bear.

My wounds are foul and festering

because of my foolishness.

I am bent over and brought low;

all day long I go around in mourning.

For my loins are full of burning pain,

and there is no health in my body.

I am faint and severely crushed;

I groan because of the anguish of my heart.

Psalm 38:3-8

“For my loins are full of burning pain.” Well, there it is, that is real prayer, is it not? But, on the other hand, there is also this:

I waited patiently for the Lord,

and he turned to me and heard

my cry for help.

He brought me up from a desolate pit

out of the muddy clay,

and set my feet on a rock,

making my steps secure.

Psalm 40:1-2

Burning loin pain and feeling like one needs rescue from a deep pit are and always will be the paradoxical experiences of those who follow Christ through suffering. Loss, then gain, lostness, then rescue. Where the difficulty usually comes in for the majority of us is the time in between the two states. It is the time of “patient waiting” that often overwhelms us. It is the “how long, oh Lord” that crushes us.

However, while the world often sees such prayers as desperate last resort, an act one generates when all natural means are exhausted and human hope lost, for the Christ-sufferer prayer is not that at all. Fervent prayer is not a last-ditch attempt to get some new deal from God. It is quite different than that, even if we naturally pray as such, i.e. it is natural to pray that our circumstances would change for the better, after all Christ prays the same way in Gesthemane.

However, fervent prayer for the Christ follower in the midst of great loss, especially persistent fervent prayer over a long, sustained period of loss, just is the concrete expression of authentic Christian faith. It is where Christ-likeness takes shape. It is where the character of Christ is placed upon the co-sufferer, as we are united in our experience of suffering for the Good, for the True, and for the Beautiful. Prayer is the primary locale, the physical and psychical location, where the structure of our soul, our soul’s very ontology, is transformed into something that will be glorious when revealed in all its fullness. It is here, in painful and honest prayer that your soul becomes something other than what it once was. Here is the chance at a more authentic sainthood, here the opportunity for a holiness not of this world, here, in prayer, the moment of transformation. Suffer in this place, and you will know Him. Run, and you will miss Him.

Charity and Suffering

So, if prayer is the first act in the life of the co-sufferer with Christ, and the most transformative one, then what is act two? Act two must be the outward expression of that very inward transformation. Thus, the second act of the Christ-sufferer is to exercise, to practice, and to exert all that has been learned through pain, and this by pouring out wisdom and love in the service of others. In other words, the sufferer now becomes the healer to others who are suffering.

Tragically, those who have suffered, but who have failed to become healers through the acceptance of their suffering, are often the most pitiable of all, since their pain not only remains with them alone, but is left untransformed. Pain not transformed through the acceptance of God’s will and the co-suffering with His Son is often expressed in ways that cause more pain into the world, not less. Untransformed pain generates more hurt, it doesn’t mitigate the hurt already there. Untransformed pain is an embittered pain that seeps out in unsavory ways, rather than exploding in acts of charity, and joy.

Untransformed pain is ugly. Transformed pain, glorious.

Thus, for those whose soul is shaped according to Christ-shaped suffering, it becomes clear that others, that the world itself, will benefit from their Christ-shaped pain. Pain that has been transformed begins to heal the world around it, and when we see it, we rightly know its beauty, as we have for example here:

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of our friend… [He] lived a life dedicated to the simple but inviolable belief that each of us is created in God’s image and that every single life is sacred and deserving of respect, protection, and most of all, love. In a world in which the vulnerable are held in contempt and life is increasingly expendable, [he] offered the antidote – an antidote of hope and an antidote of truth. For [him], human life was beautiful from beginning to end. And so, at a young age, he dedicated his own life to serving those in need.

Carl A. Anderson at the passing of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche May 7th, 2019

In short, the co-sufferer in Christ has two main spiritual acts to her suffering: first, prayer, the kind of prayer that transforms the soul through the embrace of purposeful pain that has a design behind it. And, second, the act of charity, the act of expressing transformed pain out into the world, which then becomes a healing ointment to those who are bleeding out, a light to those in dark places, a hand reaching down into the pit.

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