The Gospel of Suffering
To be honest, we don’t understand human suffering. Across the globe we see innocent women and children starving and dying and enduring terrible diseases and illnesses, without hope. We see horrific and gruesome genocide carried out by tyrannical leaders who thirst for power and seem bent on chaos. We hear “of wars and rumors of wars” (Matt. 24:26), all further evidences of man’s depravity and desperation and eternal and futile search for peace, at any cost. And we’re left asking why: “Why, God! would You allow such tragedy among Your people? Why would You suffer the innocent to depart this life and let evil remain? Why? Why? Why?”
Among this incessant questioning of a holy God — whose ways and thoughts and intents infinitely transcend our own — we reveal our utter misunderstanding of and disillusionment with suffering. Because our affinity for strength and “overcoming,” any sort of suffering is consider weakness. Signs of struggle reveal how little you are and just how much you don’t measure up. And in a society inundated with performancism, that’s really bad news.
The Charade of Strength
I trust that when I speak of performancism, you understand what I’m talking about — it’s the mindset that equates who we are with what we do. Therefore, what you achieve or accomplish is the barometer upon which you’re measured with the rest of world. Thus, “in the world of performancism,” asserts Tullian Tchividjian, “success equals life, and failure is tantamount to death.” (One Way, 20) In our attempts to not seem weak or worthless or less valid or valuable, we shun the reality of suffering and put up grand religious fronts that mask our inner turmoil. Christians are notorious liars when it comes to suffering. They’re dishonest — to others and themselves — when adversity strikes so that people don’t see them as inadequate or uncertain in the faith. This is a prime example of “religious pretending”: faking emotion to seem more spiritual.
Listen, reader — especially those who are struggling and suffering at this very moment — God never condemns grief, he only condemns despair, that is, conscious or chosen prolonged grief. You who’ve endured or are enduring great tragedy or loss: grieve, emote, mourn, cry out to God, and seek the peace that only his presence brings. Don’t let others tell you that grieving is a sign of faithlessness. I’m reminded of a chapel message I once heard while attending the Christian university where I received my education. One such message struck such a nerve with me, it was all I could but to stand up and heckle the speaker. The man was speaking on death and how, if we’re believers, we shouldn’t mourn death because it’s merely the passing of our souls into something greater, something heavenly. The gist of his talk was that mourning reveals a lack of faith. But that isn’t Scriptural nor is it in line with the gospel of Jesus’s grace. The truth is, that speaker revealed more about his lack of understanding suffering and heartache more than anything else. And such is the state of many believers and churches in this nation.
As I’ve stated before, our Christian life, our growing in grace (sanctification) has become infected with this worldly philosophy of performancism, so much so that we who are pursuing God must be ascending or we’re deemed spiritual failures. With that kind of measurement to live up to, it’s no wonder that many would-be Christ-followers are leaving Protestant churches in droves. What kind of message is that? Because we’re inundated with our performance for God and because struggling is viewed as weakness, we are often met with two reactions to adversity, both of which are extremely debilitating and destructive — emotionally and spiritually. I’m speaking of either moralizing or minimizing one’s suffering.
Moralizing suffering makes our hardship out to be merely a disturbingly and strangely prestigious path to self-transformation and self-improvement. This view puts everything in your hands, puts you in control, in a way that’s very karmic. So much of what we do is put through that lens: what you give in life is what you’ll get. So, don’t do bad things or bad stuff will happen to you. Or, as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Mr. Sandyman declares, “Keep your nose out of trouble and no trouble’ll come to you.” Karma is naturally appealing to us because our hearts are bent towards control. We lust after it and will do all we can to preserve it.
Moralizing the torrent of life sees suffering as justice — your pain is proof you merited it. And, moreover, it sees suffering as a catalyst and conduit for heightened self-worth, betterment, and improvement. Any sort of struggle is seen as good if you can, somehow — through “blood, sweat, and tears” — remake yourself into a stronger and better person. This lofts the transformational aspect of adversity and heartache to greater degrees than the One who’s doing the transformation. God’s seen as standing at the top of the stairs yelling down to us to “get through it.” Again, this puts you in control, so that if you don’t “get better,” you’ve failed and, what’s more, you are a failure.
Alongside of moralizing the pain and tragedy of life is the idea of minimizing it. This view is, likewise, destructive, especially because it takes one of the most beautiful verses in the Bible (Rom. 8:28) and uses it as a spiritual “shut up,” or “Jesus juke” when we feel awkward or uncomfortable conversing with someone’s heartache we can’t seem to sympathize with or understand. How many of you have experienced this? Either on the receiving end or the giving end, I’m sure we’re familiar with the situation. “Yep, my mom just died.” “Oh, that’s tough. All things work for good, though, right?” Jesus juke. “Yep, I’ve just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.” “Wow, that must be difficult. But don’t worry, it’ll all work out . . . God’s the Great Physician, right?” Jesus juke.
Many times our attempts to “help” those who are severely struggling and suffering come across as flippant encouragements that have less weight than a leaf in the breeze. If you really want to encourage a sufferer, why not practice the forgotten art of listening. Being quiet and serving as a sponge for lamentation during heartache does far more than trying to decode or explain-away the pain. No amount of explanation or deciphering the tragedy will erase the toll on your heart and life. In fact, oftentimes “explanations are ultimately a substitute for trust.” (Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, 105) The gospel of suffering allows you to face suffering honestly, and that necessitates you embracing your heartache, for it is then that you’ll find Jesus. “When pain comes,” says Steve Brown, “don’t run away. Run to it, and you will find you have run into the arms of Jesus . . . Then you will laugh and dance in the freedom and the reality of God’s sufficiency and the power that becomes awesome in your weakness.” (216)
To you are struggling, then: Embrace your suffering, and you’ll find out that you’ve embraced grace. You’ll find that you’ve embraced a God and Savior who’s deeply moved and grieved along with you. (Heb. 4:14–16) God’s not the God at the summit, he’s the Comforter in the valley. “He is the man at the bottom, the friend of sinners, the savior of those in [dire] need of one.” (Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, 92) Jesus is right there, with us, in the pain and heartache and grief. (Isa. 43:1-3) He’s Emmanuel, “God with us” — that is, Emmanuel in cancer, Emmanuel in death, Emmanuel in a breakup, Emmanuel in failure, Emmanuel in a layoff, Emmanuel in a car wreck. He’s “God with us” regardless of our present circumstance!
This is what allowed the apostle Paul to confidently declare: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16–18) When Paul spoke of a “light momentary affliction,” he wasn’t minimizing suffering or moralizing it, he was suffering honestly with the reminder that “the gospel alone provides us with the foundation to maintain radical joy in remarkable loss.” (Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, 162)
Paul knew suffering (2 Cor. 4:8–9); he was an expert on it. But what allowed the apostle to “not lose heart” wasn’t that he was persevering through pain because he knew that someone else may have it worse than he did, or that he was trying to improve himself, it was because of the gospel of Jesus’s fathomless grace is the gospel of suffering, which allows us to declare that “Everything I need in Christ I have.” The constant commemoration of this gospel will push us further into our source of joy, into God himself. In these times of God’s apparent silence or absence — what the Puritans used to call “God’s dreadful withdrawal” — the indefatigable purpose is to remind how great our need is of him. “God withdraws from us in order to make our souls long for him even more,” says Tullian Tchividjian. “Instead of relieving us from our problems, God intends to demonstrate his sufficiency in our problems.” (Glorious Ruin, 180)
You can’t make it on your own. You can’t persevere and endure the pain without Divine intervention. You won’t emerge without a gracious tide interceding for you. You can’t do it alone. And that’s good news — because Jesus did! Our only hope and constancy in suffering is Jesus Christ. It’s knowing and remembering that our deliverance from this excruciating time will come, either in this life or next. And it will be a sweet and winsome rescue, an unflinching deliverance because of what’s been done, not because of what you do. This is the gospel of suffering:
Jesus suffered the full brunt of the Father’s unrelenting wrath for sinners like you and me; he experienced a withdrawal far more serious and dreadful than any you and I [have] ever experienced. And he suffered this withdrawal on our behalf, so that you and I would never have to experience God’s terminal silence. (Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin, 181)
My friends, embrace your suffering, run to grace, and cling to Christ. Meet your heartache head on, not out of some inner resolve, but in the confidence that Jesus’s strength is in you and that he himself is with you.
Steve Brown, A Scandalous Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009).
Tullian Tchividjian, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012).
Tullian Tchividjian, One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2013).