Majoring in Life
What about the tough times? Is there any value in suffering?
Scripture passages in this lesson are linked to this page for easy access.
Lesson 29: Making Sense out of Suffering
(When hard times won't quit)
Text written and copyrighted © 2002 by Manfred Koehler. Used by permission. All rights reserved.)
Looking back, my early Christian years—Bible college included—were lived on a rather superficial plane. As long as things went smoothly, I felt great, Jesus was cool, church was wonderful, ministry rocked, and the whole anguished world smiled because I was so happy.
That was a rare feeling.
The spine-jarring bumps in the road of life were far more common. With few exceptions, they all knocked me flying, leaving me an emotional basket case tumbling into the ditch of disappointment, disillusionment, and discouragement.
At the admittedly ancient age of thirty-three, I finally learned some huge and indispensable truths, things that now enable me to more wholesomely process life's inevitable hard spots. It's my simple prayer that God gives you the grace to learn these things far sooner than I did. I wouldn't want anyone to be as slow on the uptake as I have been.
My Story of Suffering
It started with the rats and constant lack of water. Beth and I were now full-time missionaries living in a desert mountain town where the rodents thrived a whole lot better than we mere humans—they didn't need as much water. Our days seemed filled with nothing but sloshing buckets and filthy traps. Sleepless nights were spent to the sound of our Tupperware being chewed to shreds. Those nuisances soon became the least of our worries.
The wild gunfire really caught us off guard. Our next-door neighbors loved the sound of machine guns—at about 2:00 A.M. every other night. One time, in the middle of the day, several stray bullets ricocheted in our direction—we heard them buzz by. On another occasion, someone shot over my head—his way of warning me he was not in a visiting mood.
Then came the suspicious, callous nature of the people to whom God had called us. Abused for centuries by outsiders, the Pima had grown a thick shell of cold stoicism. Even among themselves they were unfriendly. Deep conversations consisted of the weather, the new red truck in town, or what day of the week it was.
I once asked a Pima, "Do you enjoy hunting?" He took two steps back and growled, "What are you asking me that for?" I had crossed the threshold of "too personal." Another time I chatted with a friend, meeting all the small-talk requirements before venturing, "You have a Bible, don't you? Have you ever read the Gospel of John?" His response: "It sure is cold these days, isn't it?"
In the midst of all these adjustments, one bright moment filled us with joy. Beth was pregnant, the answer to seven years of prayer. We talked about names and did all the things that expectant parents do. We envisioned the child being used by God to open Pima hearts. Before the end of the first trimester, the good news turned to tragedy. Our hopes of a child vanished.
Our despair and confusion were absolute. We went the gamut of self-pity, anger, and remorse. We asked "Why?" a thousand times without a single, solid answer. Although we never entertained specific thoughts of leaving the mission field, we wanted to quit. We didn't even consider quitting our ministry to the Pima—we wanted to say good-bye to Christianity altogether.
I remember praying, tears pouring down my face, "Lord, you promised us abundant life. Well, this isn't. It's pure misery."
Disappointed, disillusioned, and discouraged, I could make no sense of my suffering.
The Sooner Accepted, the Better
In seeking to process my misery, I realized that a certain unfulfilled expectation lurked within me: I wanted life to be hassle-free. No problems allowed, God, thank you. Theoretically I knew that was a silly wish. Even Jesus made it clear that my desires were pure fantasy, something to be reserved for heaven alone: "Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows" (John 16:33, NLT). But those were words I wasn't willing to consider on anything but the most superficial level.
Deep down where it counts, I demanded smooth sailing. When I didn't get what I wanted, my soul threw a royal, spitting, red-faced tantrum. Disgust, disrespect, and disobedience would fill me.
Something had to give. It certainly wasn't God who needed to change. His Son had done everything possible to prepare me for the reality of life on earth—"Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows"—but it took quite a while for me to accept it. When I finally faced truth squarely, it was time for my next lesson.
Not God's Fault
It slowly became clear to me that every bump in the road caused me to question God's goodness. There he goes again, zapping me. Can't that Old Man with the lightning bolts in his hand give it a rest?
Satan had used my trials to paint an ugly picture of the God who loved me. It was a picture so hideous that I wasn't willing to admit it was there, lurking in my heart. I was a missionary. Missionaries aren't supposed to have bad ideas about the God they serve. It took a dear friend to show me how twisted my thinking had become.
Realizing my need for a fresh view of God, I humbly but openly confessed the distorted image I had carried so long: You know, God, I really think you're an ogre. I know that's wrong but that's just where I'm at. If this is going to change, you're going to have to help me.
I never sensed God's censure, never felt like, Oops, he's really taking this personally. He knew the enemy had pulled the wool over my eyes. And he was most gentle in pulling it back, allowing me to agree with the psalmist's view of God: "You are good, and what you do is good" (Psalm 119:68). With tiny baby steps, I inched toward the truth of that verse. God is all good, no bad. I needed to believe that in a place where it really mattered.
Part of what helped get me there was understanding the true fountainhead of all the bad things that happen in this world: sin. You would think that a Bible school graduate would have been able to figure that one out far sooner. But I hadn't—at least not where it could touch me.
Sin is not God's fault. It was never his will to see sin enter the world, nor does he enjoy seeing mankind suffer under it (Ezekiel 18:23).
Sin hurts everyone, even the "good guys"—God's children. Sin's consequences attack us from every side, from within and without. What we suffer is not merely the result of our personal sin. The sin of others can reach out and slash us in the most devastating ways. Drunk drivers kill families, then walk away. HIV tainted transfusions infect innocent people, giving them an unjust death sentence. And little babies miscarry, simply because Adam and Eve couldn't resist.
Sin is a horrible thing. Sin is at fault for all our suffering (Romans 5:12). Sin is the ever-present ogre in our every waking nightmare.
It was about time I pointed my accusations in the right direction.
Tough Times Pay
Having accepted that trials were inevitable this side of heaven, that God was truly good, and that sin was the source of all my hurts, I still needed more hope. Even though God wasn't at fault, suffering just because I had to wasn't in the least appealing.
The next lesson was straightforward:
"Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him" (James 1:12).
Wow! Suffering now had purpose and meaning. It gave me the opportunity to win something truly valuable. All I needed was a God-loving perseverance, something Jesus would gladly give me if I looked to him (Hebrews 12:1-3). It was time to stop muttering and start suffering graciously.
With more study, I discovered the dividends of suffering get even better:
"If we suffer, we shall also reign with him" (2 Timothy 2:12, KJV).
Those words were written by a man who was within hours of having his head chopped off. Paul knew what he was talking about. He willingly suffered as a courageous missionary in a host of ways (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). He now will enjoy the great privilege of reigning with Jesus as one of Christendom's chief statesmen. I realized that the same opportunity could be mine—if I learned to handle suffering as God would have me.
I know this will sound bad, but I still wasn't satisfied. A big crown in heaven and a chance to reign with Jesus wouldn't do much for me here on earth. Wasn't there something that could make suffering pay dividends right now?
Better believe it.
Suffering Gives a Person Depth
The conclusion seems inevitable: There is something shallow about a soul that has never really suffered. If there are deep souls out there who haven't been greatly wounded by life in a sinful world, I haven't met them.
I've met a lot of people.
The ones that strike me as sincere, God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled people invariably have suffered deeply in some way. I know because I ask a lot of questions when I meet those kinds of people. The details are different, but the conclusion is always the same: "We've learned to accept suffering as something God uses in our souls."
Most of the time, there's one passage that arises in that kind of conversation:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)
Translation? Until I've suffered myself and allowed God to comfort me in it, I'm not going to be much comfort to anyone else. Allowing God to comfort me is key. If I go through suffering without enjoying God's comfort, I'll come away bitter. A bitter soul is no comfort to anyone.
But having enjoyed God's comfort, I can pass that comfort on to the many around me who also suffer. In the wake of a shattered World Trade Center—and the events that followed—there will be no shortage of people to comfort.
"Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows."
This once-shallow soul is no longer so afraid of suffering. I want to encourage people in the midst of hard times. If hard times are what it takes for me to learn true encouragement, I'm ready to pay the price.
Suffering finally makes sense.