HOW TO SUFFER WELL
Where was God when my loved one died?
Why did God allow me to be abused when I was young?
How could a loving God allow His children to experience such suffering?
These are questions that I'm trying to answer. A lot of folks at my church are asking these questions. They are very similar to the questions that I asked about God myself.
The "problem of suffering" is something humanity has had to deal with since Adam and Eve left the garden and entered into a broken world. It didn't take long for heartbreak and tragedy to find their family.
Even though suffering is a constant reality in our world, many Christians wrongly see it as a problem. Many believe that being faithful followers of God should protect them from experiencing suffering. But that is not the case. Just look at how much suffering the prophets and apostles experienced as they faithfully followed God.
As I was preparing a sermon for my church, I got a text message from a church member. They asked me and my wife to come over to offer comfort and pray for them because they just recently had a death in their home.
Then God put on my heart the other faithful church members who are currently suffering from many heartbreaking circumstances. Broken marriages. Financial troubles. Wayward children. Disillusionment. Loneliness. Rumors and gossip. Inward self-doubt. Feeling rejected and unworthy. Depression. And a whole host of other things.
That's when I decided to scrap the sermon I was working on (it wasn't that good anyway), and prepare a message on suffering. So I decided to go to the most familiar passage on suffering in the Bible. As I read James 1:1-8, God spoke to me and gave me some new insights about how to get the most out of suffering.
If you are currently experiencing a season of suffering or hardship, I would like to try to encourage you with a few simple insights. If you know of people who are going through a difficult time (and who doesn't?), perhaps you can pass this them.
Below is a list of six things to do when facing hardship and suffering.
1) Realize that you are not alone.
Nothing makes suffering worse than the mistaken belief that you are alone in your suffering. It is very easy to fall into this trap.
Have you ever said or thought these words?
No one understands what I'm going through
It looks like everyone else has their life together but me.
Why am I the only one struggling?
In the very first verse of this Epistle, James opens up his letter with this greeting:
"To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings."
James was writing a letter that would be hand copied and distributed to the believers who were driven out of their hometowns due to persecution. They were "scattered among the nations." They lost their homes, communities, friendships, material possessions, and some may have lost the lives of their loved ones. They were suffering.
And to make matters worse, many of them thought they were suffering alone. They were "scattered among the nations." They didn't have contact with one another as they lived in hiding.
So James begins with his letter by reminding them that even though they were suffering for Jesus, they were not alone in their suffering. All the believers were suffering along with them.
The idea that I'm not alone in my suffering, doesn't take away the pain. But it doesn't remove the loneliness and the stigma that creeps in when we face hardship. We have a tendency to hide our hardship and suffering in plain sight of others. We smile and put on a happy face at church.
I'm not sure why we do this. Maybe we're embarrassed, but mostly it's probably due to a wrongly-placed sense of shame. We mistakenly believe that we're suffering because we did something wrong, and we're getting punished for it.
No one ever escapes this life without experiencing deep suffering. And once we realize that we're not alone in our suffering, we can re-join the community of God. We can begin to fulfill the commands of Christ by "bearing one another's burdens."
2) Embrace the purpose of suffering.
An embrace. A warm welcome. A big hug.
I like the idea of "embracing suffering" because it's a lot easier to swallow than what James originally wrote.
In verse 2 he says,
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers whenever you face trials..."
I understand what James is saying, but I just can't really picture myself doing this. I can't picture myself being filled with joy when problems arise. Maybe I'm not that mature in my faith yet, but I just can't imagine shouting "Hallelujah" when I get bad news. I just can't imagine rejoicing in the face of suffering.
Here's the best I can do. When I face hardship and suffering, I will not whine, complain, or question God. But I will accept that God has a greater purpose for my suffering.
The best I do is advise you to "embrace the purpose of suffering." Yes, God has a purpose for your suffering. Your experience of hardship is not random and it won't be wasted. God has a grand purpose for every tear you shed.
What is that purpose? Verse 3 says,
"because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance."
One of the primary purposes of suffering is to develop your character and faith. It is to test your faith and make you a stronger person. Suffering is one of the primary tools God uses to develop your faith and character. So don't run from it. And if you can't come to the place of rejoicing in suffering, at least learn to embrace the purpose of suffering.
3) Develop your blindspots.
Verse 4 says,
"Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
Why are you still experiencing suffering? And why do you continue to experience suffering in the same area of life?
Well, it's because God knows that's an area of your life that needs the most work. It like when you start to work out in the gym. The parts of your body that need the most work get the most sore.
I believe that one of the reasons we keep repeating the same trials over and over again is because we never learn what we're supposed to learn. Why do you constantly have the same money problems? Or the same relationship problems? Maybe it's because you haven't learned what God is trying to teach you. You keep failing the final exam, so God is forced to make you repeat that course.
4) Ask God for wisdom and insight.
James 1:5 contains a promise of answered prayer. There's a specific prayer that God promises to answer every time. What prayer is that?
It's a prayer for wisdom when you're going through trials.
Verse 5 says,
"If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him."
When you're going through a difficult patch in life, and you don't know why. You're confused and struggling. Go directly to God, and ask him for wisdom. He promises that he will answer that prayer every single time.
If you're suffering, and you ask for wisdom, God will give it to you. It's a clear promise.
Instead of complaining and being depressed. Or trying to figure a way out on your own. Why don't you just go to God and ask for wisdom?
"Lord, I'm having a hard time. Please give me wisdom on how to handle this situation."
If you pray that, God promises that he will answer that prayer. So when you're facing hardship, instead of complaining or trying to solve your problem on your own, ask God for wisdom. That's one prayer he promises to answer every time.
5) Have confidence in God's faithfulness.
It so easy to doubt God when we're going through the valley of the shadow of death. When the disciples faced the storm of the sea of Galilee, they woke Jesus up and accused him of not caring.
"Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"
They were in a little boat in the middle a storm. The wind was howling and the water began to swamp their boat. They looked over to Jesus and saw that he was asleep. They added two and two together and their only plausible explanation for this predicament is that Jesus doesn't care.
But that's not the truth. Jesus woke up. He rebukes the wind and the waves. Then he rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith.
"Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" (Mark 4:40)
James 1:6-8 says,
"But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like the wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is double-minded man, unstable in all he does."
It is so easy and natural to doubt God while we're experiencing hardship. But that would be a huge mistake. Why?
Because that trial you're experiencing is a "test of your faith." That's why it's there. And when you allow that trial to cause you to doubt God, you just failed the test. You get sent back to second grade and you have to repeat that test until you get it right.
6) Look for ways to encourage others.
If you take a step back, you can see the ministry of encouragement James has. He has seen so much tragedy, turmoil, and heartbreak in the lives of the believers.
Many of his friends get tortured and killed. He's seen, and possibly experienced, more horrific things done to believers than we can imagine. As believers run for their lives and go into hiding, it is James that encourages them.
He writes them and letter to remind them that they are not alone. He asks them to trust in God. To walk faithfully. To live righteously. To pray and be patient in suffering.
He is suffering too. Eventually, he is killed for his role in the Gospel ministry. But he takes time to encourage the brothers and sisters in their suffering.
In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, Paul reminds the believers of how God will use their suffering to help others. He writes:
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 receive from God.
If you're suffering, I encourage you to do the same. You don't need to have solutions, stories of victory, or answers. Just find others who are also suffering as you are. Go to them. Look knowingly in their teary eyes and say, "You're not alone."
Thien has been working in the area of church planting in various roles for more than a decade. He has personally planted three churches in Southern California.
Thien and his wife Kerry have been married for 17 years and have three children and live in Fountain Valley, California.