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Suffering. The very mention of the word evokes feelings of discomfort and conjures an unwelcome memory of some recent trauma or tragedy. Suffering is the great equaliser of humanity; everyone suffers—the rich and the poor, the young and the old, the (comparatively) healthy and the sick, the city-dweller and the villager, the businessman and the farmer. So then, what do we do with our suffering that is sure and certain in this life?
Attention, Not Avoidance
Emotional pain is undesirable. The 21st century has given us many options to address our pains by numbing them. The usual numbing mechanisms are excessive use of entertainment, work, food, sleep, drugs, etc. Avoiding our suffering through such means is a temporary solution to our deeper need: processing our pain before God.
Paying attention to our suffering is the better alternative. As CS Lewis once said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When something is insisting upon attending to, we only compound our misery by denying it attention.
We can also face our suffering because we know God is good and merciful. After all, the Father has sent his Son to suffer in place of sinners deserving eternal misery far outweighing and outlasting any of our suffering on earth. At the hand of Christ, suffering is a megaphone to awaken our spiritual senses for deeper fellowship with the Father. As Jonathan Edwards has said, “There is in Christ rest for God’s people, when exercised with afflictions.” So, let us pay attention to our suffering.
Engage, Not Withdraw
As we avoid suffering, we often utilise means that lead to our withdrawal from life and reality. Instead of withdrawing, we are encouraged to attend to and engage with our suffering correctly to acquire the rest of which Edwards speaks.
As we grow in our conviction that the Father is good because we have tasted it in Christ and are nourished by the gospel, though suffering remains undesirable, we also tend to grow in our ability to engage with our suffering.
Let us extract these convictions from Scripture. We are told in Hebrews 12 that the Father disciplines us (whether as a correction to sin or for our general growth in holiness) because he is good (v. 10). Our good Father disciplines us because he wants us to enjoy deeper fellowship with him (v.9).
Then, in verse 11, the God of comfort sympathises with us in our pain as he acknowledges that in the moment of affliction, “discipline seems painful rather than pleasant.” Yet, this unpleasant and painful moment can produce “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” However, this fruit is not attained passively. The fruit of righteousness—deeper fellowship with Jesus, satisfied longing hearts, resilience in the face of greater or prolonged adversity—is for “those who have been trained by it.” Training, the opposite of passivity, is hard work, nullifying any notion of passive growth. To engage with our suffering is to enter the gym of adversity to attain the physique of a well-formed Christian.
Draw Near, Not Drown
Weak Christians avoid suffering and withdraw from work, the church, and family responsibilities. Sadly, the waves of hard providence have made suffering saints despair, drowning their hope in Christ, obscuring their sight of Christ, and even their memories of fellowship with him.
We have all been here at some point and to some degree. We are all weak Christians, the very reason the Father ordains that we still need to suffer. Christ alone is truly strong. He grew in strength (not from sin to holiness like us, but from one degree of strength to another). If our Saviour underwent suffering to gain strength, how much more do we sinners need suffering to enjoy God? And yet, how are we to keep ourselves from drowning? Or, if we are already drowning, how can we swim back up to the shores of Christ’s light?
James states, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Amid hard providence, drawing near to God can seem like the hardest thing to do. Yet, this is precisely why we receive suffering from the Father’s hand: to throw us into Christ’s warm and firm embrace. Our experience of his embrace is not achieved through self-effort. God’s Spirit energises us to draw near to the Father, and the Father promises to draw near to us.
We also must cast aside any notion that drawing near to God to the end of attaining the fruit of righteousness will be emotionally exhilarating or pain-free. As James continues, “Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” These words were written to Christians during a period of persecution. While suffering, expect God to never give up on his work in conforming you to the image of Christ, by his comforting word or through conviction of sin, or both simultaneously.
In the wake of dawn, dusk must give way. Darkness scatters in the presence of light. So, in suffering, as we draw near to God, we must expect God to reveal unbecoming parts of us because he loves us. We also remember the promise that “later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). So, in the face of suffering, press on in the faith.
The vicious circling drain of avoiding suffering, which leads to withdrawing from life and compels sufferers to drown in hopeless despair, has a creed: suffering is as purposeless as it is unpleasant. At any moment, the knee-jerk response to the question, “What is God up to in my suffering?” can range from doubting God’s goodness to denying God altogether.
Instead, the Christian is called to attend to the suffering that our good Father has sent our way to wean us off sin and draw us closer to his Son through active engagement of drawing near to him in the Word and prayer. As we perform these works of faith—attend, engage and draw near, we are equipped with Edwards’ mindset of curiosity and eagerness to gather lessons from our suffering and gratitude for how we have grown in adoration of our God and Saviour.
May this year be a year of remarkable growth in grace for all of us as disciples of Jesus Christ in giving us this Edwardian intimacy with God: “God's people, whenever they are scorched by afflictions as by hot sun-beams, may resort to him, who is a shadow of a great rock, and be effectually sheltered, and sweetly refreshed.”
* This article is a reflection based on Jonathan Edwards’ Resolution #67 - Resolved: After afflictions, to inquire in what ways I am now the better for having experienced them. What good have I received by them? What benefits and insights do I now have because of them?