Thursday, August 8, 2013

A Simple Theology on Suffering {Part 2 of 2}

A Simple Theology on Suffering, Part 2

Recap: I wanted to share what God has been teaching me lately about suffering. Over the past month, the topic has surfaced again and again in books I'm reading, sermons, and personal Bible study. And, consequently, I think my entire view of life is being vastly altered. Let me try to sum up what I've learned in 7 pivotal thoughts about suffering.

{See Part 1 here}

#4. Suffering is . . . meant to make us long for heaven.

"The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in His sufferings in order that we may also share in His glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:16-18, emphasis mine).

It's almost as if Paul is saying: "Remember! This is not all there is! Hold on. Heaven and glory are yet to come." Elizabeth Prentiss writes beautifully of this expectant hope: "Oh, if the unseen presence of Jesus can make the heart to sing for joy in the midst of its sorrow and sin here, what will it be to dwell with Him forever!" and "I see that it is sweet to be a pilgrim and a stranger, and that it matters very little what befalls me on my way to my blessed home."

Without sorrow in our lives, we may be tempted to settle down and become a little too comfortable here on earth. Instead, trouble causes us to always look up, to hope for what is yet to come, to long for a place of no more sin or sorrow, to look forward to Christ's return, and to wait in eager expectation.

"Heaven is not here, it's There. If we were given all we wanted here, our hearts would settle for this world rather than the next. God is forever luring us up and away from this one, wooing us to Himself and His still invisible Kingdom, where we will certainly find what we so keenly long for" (Elliot).

#5. Suffering is . . . never absent from many mercies.

"For He has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;
He has not hidden His face from him but has listened to his cry for help" (Psalm 22:24).

"For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives,
so also through Christ our comfort overflows" (2 Corinthians 1:5).

Elisabeth Elliot writes: "He knows better than any of us do what furthers our salvation. Our true happiness is to be realized precisely through His refusals, which are always mercies. His choice is flawlessly contrived to give the deepest kind of joy as soon as it is embraced."

Even in the midst of trial and trouble, there are still mercies to be found, if only in the very Presence of Jesus. Quoted above, the Psalmist speaks of seeing God's face in the midst of suffering. Similarly, Paul says that even when suffering is flowing into our lives, we can trust that the comfort of Christ will also be filling us and overflowing even! In the midst of severe sorrow in her life (for one, losing two young children), Elizabeth Prentiss always was able (purposefully, it didn't happen accidentally) to see the mercies of God in the midst of trial—a light piercing through when all seems as darkness. She writes: "I feel like a ball that now is tossed to Sorrow and tossed back by Sorrow to Joy. For mixed in with every day's experience of suffering are such great, such unmerited mercies."

#6. Suffering is . . . an avenue for rejoicing!

"The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of
suffering disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41).

Quite a few of the previous Scripture references mention "rejoicing" or "joy" in connection with suffering. How can this be?

Are you suffering? Rejoice! Is there a trial in your life? Be joyful! Are you filled with sorrow? Celebrate! How difficult and foreign is this concept for the human soul! Elizabeth Prentiss writes: "I look back to two points in my life as standing out from all the rest of it as seasons of peculiar joy, and they are the points where I was crushed under the weight of sorrow. How wonderful this is, how incomprehensible to those who have not learned Christ!"

According to the above passage from Acts, the disciples rejoiced because the very fact they were suffering indicated God counted them worthy of receiving it. "Worthy" can denote a sense of "deserving." In our culture, naturally one would think that those who are righteous should deserve a good life, an easy life, a blessed and fruitful life. And yet perhaps this verse suggests the opposite (here is a perfect example of the upside-down Kingdom!). The very apostles of Jesus Christ were counted as worthy: and therefore, they received sufferings. And this caused them great rejoicing!

#7. Suffering is . . . a means of bringing increased communion with Jesus.

"I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in
His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the
resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11).

Oh the sweet, sweet presence of Jesus that continually abides with those who suffer (and choose to abide with Him in the midst of the suffering). Have you ever spoken with one who has suffered greatly and walked along the way with Jesus? You will notice a closeness and communion with Jesus that cannot otherwise be explained or produced. There is a great mystery in suffering, which Paul speaks of: through suffering we enter into fellowship with Jesus and somehow share in His sufferings. Elisabeth Elliot ponders this: "To me this is one of the deepest but most comforting of all the mysteries of suffering. Not only does He [Jesus] enter into grief in the fullest understanding, suffer with us and for us, but in the very depths of sorrow He allows us, in His mercy to enter into His [sufferings] . . . He makes, in other words, something redemptive out of our broken hearts, if those hearts are offered up to Him."

This last "pivotal thought" is truly the most foundational. Suffering is crucial and necessary in the life of a believer if, for nothing else, to provide a means of gaining intimacy with our Lord. The depths of His Presence that we reach during the midst of suffering (I venture to say) would not be reached without the presence of sorrows and trials in our lives. How else will we learn His sufficiency and learn to trust in His love?

In writing to a friend who just lost a child to sickness, Elizabeth Prentiss mentions this principle: "I trust that in this hour of sorrow you have with you that Presence, before which alone sorrow and sighing flee away. God is left; Christ is left; sickness, accident, death can not touch you here. Is not this a blissful thought?" Wonderful thought indeed. Suffering brings Jesus. And He is enough. He is worth it all.

All quotes from Elisabeth Elliot (1926 - ) and Ugo Bassi (1800 - 1849) from Keep a Quiet Heart by Elisabeth Elliot.
All quotes from Elizabeth Prentiss (1818 - 1878) from More Love to Thee: The Life and Letters of Elizabeth Prentiss by George Lewis Prentiss.
All quotes from Oswald Chambers (1874 - 1917) from My Utmost for His Highest by the same.


  1. Thank you for pouring this out Jana. These are not popular writings or teachings, but true and life giving, turning hearts from stone to flesh kind of realities. Steve (and I) experienced and absorbed to a greater degree than ever before the suffering life for 5 months of this past year. A very short time in the grand scheme of things, but it did not feel small at the time. Physical suffering is yuck. Taking the max narco pain pills per day just to make it through is not cool. Watching your love in extreme pain is heart melting. Melting can also be good for what gets frozen in a heart. 2 things that Steve said of this time that stuck with me are 1. He had learned to depend on God so much during this time that he was a bit tentative of being physically made well and spiritually less dependent and 2. Jesus was in the center of all of the suffering. After things became more normal for us after Steve's surgery and recovery, I visited a Benedictine monastery for some silence and solitude. While there, the sisters were observing silence, but we ate together and someone read to us from Henry Nouwen about suffering during the meal. Honestly, I probably would have been uncomfortable sitting, eating, listening to such a painful reading, but after the previous months I felt I could embrace this new life view as you put it. I almost felt comforted by it. I think I spent so much of life pushing away discomfort when as the monk Fenolen says, "Take every opportunity to embrace the cross, for there you find the great bond of love between you and Christ." I still have a long journey ahead, but more and more living awake that our lives in Christ are primarily a suffering life and there are mercies to choose to be grateful for each day is part of the upside-down kingdom life you write about. I’m blessed by your life and writing. - Renee C.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Renee. Such beautiful reflections. I love the two points that you gathered from Steve's stint with suffering--so encouraging to hear from someone who has actually lived in a period of intense suffering. I can only pray that I will cling to Jesus in the same way, as the two of you did, when times of deep suffering come my way.