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God does his most stunning work where things seem hopeless and wherever there is pain, suffering and desperation, Jesus is. – Pastor Jim Cymbala
Because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ. Philippians 1:5-6
We closed our cafe this week. After six excruciating months of disappointment, it was time. We were dangerously close to being completely out of money. The last of what we have will be used to pay severance for the beautiful women who worked for us and for lawyer’s fees and government fees. It’s simply over.
As I looked in the teary eyes of those four precious women, knowing I have completely changed their life, my heart broke all over again. I not only provided their means of support for their families, but I was also the light in their life. I intentionally and painstakingly pointed to Jesus every day, weaving the the scripture I was memorizing in Arabic into conversations, proclaiming truth and love.
Where is the good in this? How will these women come to know Jesus if they aren’t told? Who will continue what I started with them?
I have been initiated into a fellowship of suffering. Tonight, months after discovering we will never have biological children I find myself awake and weeping over a loss I will never really get over. Then my thoughts turn to the cafe and suffering refugees I left behind and the tears run afresh as more torment pours out of my heart.
But in the grand scheme of things, my life isn’t all that bad. I have a good job, a nice apartment, and friends who care for me. And there are some who even find me heroic.
This baffles me because all I’m really doing is what people have been doing for eons: suffering, grieving and moving forward in the pain.
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us. Romans 5:3-5
Rejoicing: recognizing an inner peace that comes with knowing that I am in God’s presence regardless of what my circumstances are.
I used to glide over this part of Romans. I figured since I had made it through Bible school with my faith intact, I had learned perseverance. No, I’m just stubborn.
But now, having experienced layers of suffering one after the other, like hurricane waves crashing over me one on top of the next, I read this differently. I see Paul in his jail cell writing furiously to the church in Rome he desperately wanted to visit. I see him in tattered clothes, hair uncombed and long, with rotted teeth and rotted flesh. I see him in pain. True physical suffering. But I also see a light in his eye. I sense the hope in his heart because he knows he is doing the work of The Lord. I feel the love he has for the receivers of this precious message.
And I see more pain as he understands that the ones who will receive this letter will suffer. Over and over I see Paul and Peter and the writer of Hebrews reminding those who will follow them that suffering is as normal a part of the Christian walk as praying or breathing.
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange we’re happening to you. 1 Peter 4:12
For months I have asked why. Why me? Why shouldn’t we have a baby? Why didn’t the cafe succeed? Why?
How arrogant of me to think that I would not suffer, that simply because I am a child of God things will all work out just the way I imagined them to.
Why not me?
Why shouldn’t God in all his love and wisdom allow suffering to draw me closer to him, to make me more like him? He truly is working all things for the good. The pain I am enduring is part of that good.
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, and so, somehow, to attain resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10-11
The beauty of this is that we are sharing in the suffering of Christ. Jesus felt pain. And he feels the pain we’re experiencing now. When we’re able to, when I am able to, lift my eyes from the pain I’m enduring to the beauty of Jesus, I am able to see clearly. The pain may not go away, but a strength, a joy, a peace will overpower any fear or hatred or anger.
And we aren’t alone. This is a fellowship of suffering.
When my dear friend was going through horrible persecution, she found a way to call me. Not to brag about how well she was taking her beatings. Not to whine that it hurt. But to share with me her pain and her joy. She was feeling real pain. That comes when one is beaten with a piece of wood and then burned. I cried with her as she described what was being done to her. And she was also experiencing real peace. That comes with knowing Jesus, with fellowshipping in his suffering, with choosing not to suffer alone. We cried and prayed and quoted scripture to each other as we took our focus off of the physical and emotional pain we were enduring and put them on Jesus.
When we have our eyes lifted, we see that God is fair. But life is not God. Expecting life to be fair like God sets us up for disappointment. Jesus saw life as unfair. He pointed out social inequalities, had compassion for the sick, and he wept when Lazarus died. He even asked God if he could be spared from the pain. But God’s existence, love for us, doesn’t depend on our good health. We must develop a relationship with God apart from our circumstances and then we have a foundation to stand on when things around us fall apart.
Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light an momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
No one is exempt from tragedy and disappointment, even God. Jesus didn’t offer a way out, but a way through. Good Friday shows the unfairness of life. But Easter Sunday holds the promise that light will shine in the darkness.
Yet not as I will, but as you will. Matthew 26:39
We all yearn for fairness and justice in the world. A world were those deserving prosper and those undeserving find their demise. A world where mothers do not mourn the loss of their babies. A world where those bringing the good news are welcomed with open arms. And yet, even those who have been miraculously healed throughout the ages have died.
No sorrow is unredeemable. No pain is wasted. It can be used for God’s glory.
It’s not a miracle we need but God’s New Heaven and New Earth. Because until then life is unfair. There will be pain. The cross still stands as the ultimate reminder. But Easter still holds the promise that although we suffer now, one day it will all be put to right.
…[T]o comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow upon them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of The Lord for the display of his splendor. Isaiah 61:2-3
Jesus suffered horribly, but prayed not my will but yours be done. He held on to hope. He held on to joy. He believed in the greater plan. We have a choice: to let depression and rage overtake us or to let go and see what God will do.
A number of years ago I had a tumor removed from my wrist. It was painful and prohibited my hand from moving normally. The results of the surgery were even more painful than the tumor had been. I couldn’t take the pain medicine, so I just had to bear it. It was like no pain I had ever felt. But the pain I was feeling was part of the healing process. What was hurting me needed to be removed so I could be whole. I had to learn to stretch the muscles even though it hurt. And now I can play my piano again.
The pain I’m feeling now is also part of healing. It’s part of the good. It’s part of the plan.
And it hurts. And it’s not fair. But even in this God deserves my worship.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not destroyed; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 1 Corinthians 4:7-11