Ian MacLaren, a noted Scotsman, once said these wise words of counsel, “Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.”
I think back to a time when I was going through a lot of suffering. It was a point in my life when I wanted to do so much, but I didn’t have enough strength to tie my daughter’s shoes. It was a time when my days were mostly spent in bed, and I literally had to remind myself to breathe because I could hardly wear my own skin. It was, in many ways, a time of deep shame.
By no means do I feel I have suffered more than others, or that I have unique insight into pain. I trust we have all walked through difficulties- an illness, injury, loss, injustice, barrenness, loneliness. Suffering is sadly a part of our experience.
But when I was at my sickest with Lyme Disease, I began to contemplate this question: what does it mean to suffer well?
It wasn’t that I felt suffering was somehow in itself a virtue. I didn’t want to suffer; there was no hidden need for attention or pity. I had tried everything to get better. I had, at this point, seen so many doctors and tried countless treatments. I had prayed and believed so hard for God to take my pain away and heal me. But there I was, one, two, three years later, still sick as ever. I felt I had no other choice but to accept that this was something I needed to go through, and if I had to go through it, I wondered how to do it well.
The Bible tells us that God’s grace is sufficient and made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that we should consider it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds (James 1:2-4).
The idea that we should know “pure joy” in the face of pain because of the fullness of God’s grace is still a deep and profound mystery to me. I realize now though, it’s something we can only comprehend in faith.
I admit, it was hard to be honest about how much I was struggling. I didn’t want to tell others that I was overwhelmed and still flailing about. Where was my faith in a sovereign and good God? Where was this joy I was supposed to have?
It has taken a while, but I understand more clearly that this “pure joy” cannot be pretended. It cannot even be rushed or produced with sheer will. It really doesn’t come from our own strength or doing.
And this joy doesn’t always look like we expect it to look either.
The challenge, however, is that many have come to see the Christian call to “suffer well” as to somehow suffer without struggle. There is an unspoken belief that if we trust in God’s sufficiency, we should no longer hurt or have questions. God’s grace is enough, period.
It is enough, but we are oh so human.
And it can be a process to get to this joy – a messy, sanctifying, burning away the dross kind of process, let me add.
I see now, Jesus came for the very ones in process, the ones still dragging themselves mid-journey, the unwell, the misunderstood, the weary, the greatest sinners of all. Jesus’ words were this: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17)
Ultimately, finding joy in and despite afflictions is possible only through grace. It has very little to do with our own fortitude and all to do with surrendering to Him.
I believe suffering well means being brave enough to admit we are indeed weak, and yet in that same cry, proclaiming with faith in the unseen hope that no matter the circumstance, God is greater.
Let’s remember Jesus’ own words on the cross. His words of exhaustion, pain and despair: “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
And before that in the garden of Gethsemane, His words to His disciples were this, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” (John 12:27)
This is not an absence of faith or disobedience. He had emotions and didn’t deny them. Jesus expressed His need for the comfort of His friends in His distress, but this was not weakness. He knew the outcome would be victory, but still, He cried out to His Father in that moment – in honesty, humility, humanity. In the face of suffering, we so often forget, that Jesus struggled.
And who has suffered more perfectly than the Savior Himself?
If you are seeking Him and yet still struggling, did you know? You are needed.
Ann Voskamp has summed this up well. “It is the wounded ones who makes us heal. And it is the hurting ones who make us honest and it is the broken ones who put us back together again and it is the scarred ones who make the Body of Christ sensitive.”
My friends, remember, everyone is carrying a heavy burden. No one has truly, completely arrived.
And if the world has needed the One with the greatest scars…who are we to be ashamed of ours?