1517 Blogcast
How to Suffer Well 00:00:0000:00:00

How to Suffer Well

Reading Time: 5 mins

Your faith is not dependent on whether or not you suffer well. Your faith is dependent on the fact that Christ did.

“I once saw a sweet, loving grandmother in my practice,” the psychology professor began. “She loved to bake and cook. It was her life. She went on a trip to visit her grandchildren, and as a surprise, her family had the kitchen in her home remodeled while she was gone. New cabinets, new layout, new everything. They were sure she was going to be thrilled.” The professor paused for a moment. “Instead, when she got home and saw her kitchen, she couldn’t stand it. She spiraled into depression and then a breakdown. What happened?” A few of us shifted in our seats uncomfortably. “The one thing this grandmother felt she could do well was radically altered—changed entirely, in her view. It attacked her sense of identity.” The professor smiled sadly. “What may seem so small to one person may, in fact, be an integral part of another’s identity. And when our identity is attacked, it can be catastrophic.”

The kitchen can be considered the center of the home. To this woman, it was also the center of herself, the core of her being. It was the familiar, sweetly scented avenue by which she presented her soul to the world. The kitchen provided vocation and hobby, recreation and work, an occupation to keep the fingers and mind busy while allowing the spirit to wander freely. Suddenly, the daily rituals, the sacredly prosaic acts of gathering, preparing, and gifting nourishment for her loved ones, were bewilderingly altered. Her identity was lost.

I didn’t understand that story until years later, when I realized that my kitchen was being destroyed, too.

“This isn’t how suffering is supposed to work,” I thought.

Intellectually, I know that God is not a sadist in the sky, a cosmic home-wrecker who metes out pain on a whim. But if suffering is a test of character, I failed in every conceivable way.

The center of my being was rocked to its core. Every aspect of how I defined myself was targeted—not even my pious wishes for the kind of Christian woman I wanted to be were left unscathed. My prayers were screamed when spoken at all, and I sat hollowly in the pew on Sunday mornings, mechanically flipping through hymnals and reciting words that did nothing to relieve my physical state of pain.

“Well, what did you expect?” theology books admonish. “The life of a Christian is one of pain.”

“Others have it so much worse,” well-meaning friends counsel.

“Have you seen the real suffering all around us?”

“Suffering will make you stronger,” self-help books assure. “You’ll learn and become better.”

Intellectually, I know that God is not a sadist in the sky, a cosmic home-wrecker who metes out pain on a whim. But if suffering is a test of character, I failed in every conceivable way. I complained. I was bitter. The only thing I learned was that I was sick and tired of feeling the way I felt. There were no moments of reprieve where I felt closer to God than I ever had, no warmth enveloping my soul and allowing me to gaze calmly into the face of trials like the martyrs of old. My strength was too small, and I was too tired of trying.

Let me confess something to you. If you’re expecting this article to build to a glorious “aha!” moment, a righting of wrongs, and a neatly resolved ending, you’re mistaken.

Suffering doesn’t work that way.

Suffering is the great leveler of us all. It is the universal experience and the one that we would do anything to avoid. We medicate or meditate in an attempt to matriculate—that is, we attempt to avoid or accept our lot in life so that we can grow out of it. If suffering is a test, if I learn what I need to learn quickly, surely God will intervene to end my pain. If suffering occurs because of poor decisions I’ve made, surely I can make better decisions in the future and save myself.

The problem is, a lot of suffering can’t be fixed with a twelve-step guide, a better diet, or a tough-love, “What did you expect?” attitude. Suffering is like an undiagnosed illness. The confusion, frustration, and anger that comes from knowing something is wrong with you, but not knowing what is crippling. And so we sit in our desecrated kitchens, bewildered at what could have happened to our lives and bereft of any familiar indicators of who we are, what we should be doing, or where we should be going.

When cutesy self-help mantras try to diagnose us, they always get the story wrong. Each one flits into the sterile wreckage of our cores and prescribes different treatments: Change your mindset. Embrace the chaos. Work your tail off to remodel the kitchen the way you want it to be. Each may work for a time, the same way that aspirin might take the edge off your headache—but it will do nothing to cure the tumor that is slowly killing you. One can only pop so many placebo mantras before realizing that sugar pills don’t begin to touch the issue. An actual physician is required.

Suffering is the great leveler of us all. It is the universal experience and the one that we would do anything to avoid.

In The Lord of the Rings, the hero, Frodo, receives a wound from a morgul-blade. This lingering injury, if left untreated, is destined to turn him into a wraith: an undead cursed being. While Frodo has moments of relief—brief visits with elven healers, momentary respites from pain—overall, everything felt dark and cold and permanent. I hadn’t understood the language of losing a kitchen. But I understood the feeling of a searing infection working its way closer to my heart, to the core of my being.

If we view suffering as a way to focus on ourselves, either by bravely shouldering it or by bending it to our will, we are burdened with even more darkness. We are given no promise in Scripture that our suffering will end once we finally get the diagnosis right. By viewing suffering as a rule to follow—a sort of, “if you suffer well, God might relent” or “if I don’t suffer well, I’ve wrecked my witness”—we simply push the morgul-blade closer to our hearts.

Your faith is not dependent on whether or not you suffer well.
Your faith is dependent on the fact that Christ did.

Everything you are feeling, right now, in the midst of pain no one may understand, is understood by the One who felt it. Christ Jesus felt the weight of every sin—not just the wrong things we’ve done, or the good things we haven’t done, but the crushing weight of the suffering that occurs because everything is tainted. Since Adam and Eve broke the relationship with God in the garden, every other relationship has been ruined: the relationship between God and humans, between humans and nature, between humans and other humans, and between each human being and his or her own mind, body, and soul. No matter what form of suffering you endure, Christ has felt it because He became the brokenness in our world to overcome it.

Does that make us feel better right now? Maybe. Maybe not. Frodo’s morgul-blade wound stayed with him until he sailed away to the Grey Havens. Many of our own sorrows and pains will be with us until we die. But there is something that will outlast the kitchen, a Temple incorruptible who feeds us with His very self.

I don’t know if I’ll get my “aha!” moment this side of heaven. I don’t know if you will, either. But the comfort and peace of God is not found in a feeling, but in a Person. Because yes, God wrecked the kitchen—God the Father allowed his only Son to suffer and die in our place. He destroyed our identity as dead men walking: those who were enslaved to everything evil, everything contrary to who God is. But the story didn’t end there. After Christ suffered and died, he rose again from the dead—the suffering, pain, and sin he endured did not overcome him. And because they did not overcome him, they will not overcome us (John 14:19).

“In this world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In this world, we will suffer. But our suffering does not define us; our brokenness is no longer our identity. Christ’s suffering, brokenness, and glorious physical resurrection have become our identity. When trite words and well-meaning mantras fall short, when we have no strength left to hold on, we rest in the scarred hands of the God who has borne our sorrows. Christ’s suffering for you was not meaningless. His agony was not in vain. And an eternal weight of glory awaits us (2 Cor 4:17). So let us pray for each other, suffer together, and earnestly await the culmination of our new, glorious kitchen waiting for us in the Grey Haven of heaven: our perfectly sound mind, body, and spirit with which we will praise our Savior for all eternity.