Everyone suffers in some way: large or small, frequent or infrequent, acute and time-limited or chronic and ongoing. And sometimes, it challenges our sense of living an orderly, meaningful life. We can be left grasping at explanations for the bad things that happen.
As observed in the first post in this series, one common explanation is that God either sends or allows suffering in order to teach us some lesson. And while that’s possible in some cases, I don’t think it explains our every misadventure. In this final post, I want to suggest that we need a bigger story–a biblical one–to make sense of what we suffer.
First, however, we may need to acknowledge that we live in a culture that promotes variations on its own story of suffering. Life, it is suggested, is about comfort and contentment. Suffering is therefore an unfortunate anomaly, a mistake, a problem to be solved with the proper application of technology or expertise. And if the solution doesn’t currently exist, we’ll find it.
Our imaginations flirt with utopian scenarios. In one, technology eradicates hunger and disease. In another, humanity comes to its collective senses, we lay down our weapons, and learn to play nice.
Please don’t hear me as dismissing cancer research, international diplomacy, or just plain finding reasons to get along. But in the Christian story, the problem that drives the drama is not a puzzle to be solved by scientists, politicians, philosophers, or therapists. The problem is sin and the brokenness that comes with it, and the solution begins with the cross.
I say “begins with” because the cross and resurrection of Jesus are not the end of the story. What follows is the creation (or one could say re-creation) of a people who will walk in the footsteps of their crucified and risen Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit. And eventually, when Jesus returns in glory, sin and death will be fully and finally defeated and we will live resurrected lives on a restored earth.
So what does all this have to do with the way we face suffering in the present? Remember what Jesus said to Paul: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a, CEB). And equally important, remember Paul’s response: “So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong” (vss. 9b-10).
The point is this. How we respond to suffering should show which story we believe. Divine strength in the face of human weakness only makes sense of a life that’s already dedicated to following a crucified Savior.
I personally do not believe that every event we suffer comes directly from the hand of God for the purpose of teaching us a lesson. But that said, every such event is an opportunity to grow in grace, to learn to respond in such a way that communicates: Yes, I believe that God is sovereign; that he’s at work restoring a broken world; that I am called to be part of that work; and that I am therefore part of a story in which sin and death don’t get the last word, a story that ends in glory, even if I don’t get to see it during my short existence on this earth.
That’s the story to which we need to cling when threatened with meaninglessness. That’s the story we need to encourage in one another, in our worship together, in our collective imagination. Being living examples of faith, hope, and love in the midst of everything from major suffering to minor inconvenience is our best witness in a world that has a hard time making sense of suffering.
What do you think?