by Shari Stratton
I was a teenager when it started. An irrational, paralyzing fear that some kind of tragedy might be in my future — especially one that might suddenly take the life of someone close to me. My parents were needing to make a trip out of the country for a few days and my younger sister and I were going to stay home by ourselves. We had family nearby in case we needed anything and I remember feeling quite grown up and responsible. The night before they left, however, I became overwhelmed with a paralyzing fear that something would happen to keep my parents from coming home. At first, I tried to dismiss the thought, but then…what if this was a premonition of something bad about to happen? The more I thought about it, the more suffocating my fears became. I was sure that I would never see my parents again. What would become of me? How would I move on?
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing the first of many anxiety attacks and my crazy, irrational fears would only grow worse as I got older. After I got married, I became fearful that I would lose my husband suddenly. If we parted on less than positive terms, I would call him crying just to tell him that I loved him because I was terrified that something might happen to him before I saw him again. I know he thought I was nuts… My fears were again magnified once I had kids. To make matters worse, one of my children went through a stage where she talked a lot about Heaven and dying. I was sure that God was trying to use her to prepare me for her death. After all, my fears weren’t entirely unfounded. I knew many people personally who had lost loved ones and suffered terrible tragedies. Who was I to expect to have a perfect life?
I know I’m not alone in my fear of suffering. After all, what kind of person in their right mind wants to go through difficult times? It’s human nature to try to avoid pain and suffering at all cost. As I’ve gotten older and lived life a little more, my perspective has begun to change. Here are a few things I have learned.
Suffering will mark the lives of all Christians.
“Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all” (Psalm 34:19).
Because we serve a Savior who suffered so much for us, He asks us to share in His suffering as part of our devotion to Him. The Bible is full of terminology such as “take up your cross” and “drink of this cup” in reference to Christians and suffering. I believe that if we are serious about serving Christ and being like Him, our lives will be marked with suffering.
Suffering will likely look different from person to person. Some may face suffering in the form of the death of a spouse or a child or some other tragedy. Others may experience suffering in the form of pain, illness, relationship struggles, financial struggles, mental or emotional stress and pressures from all angles. And although we probably won’t all suffer in the same way, we can be sure that we are each given our own unique “crosses” to bear so that we can suffer along with Christ.
Suffering draws me closer to God.
“That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Philippians 3:10).
Jesus not only cares when I am suffering, but because of His humanity, He fully knows and understands physical, emotional and psychological pain. I think one of the most comforting things to me during the difficult times in my life is knowing that He identifies with and fully understands my pain. And because of His victory over pain and death, I, too have hope of being victorious in the midst of pain and suffering. There is a feeling of solidarity that comes from knowing that He truly understands my suffering.
Suffering refines me and makes me more like Jesus.
“But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you” (1 Peter 5:10).
I recently became aware of a young couple who have literally gone through the fire of affliction in recent days. Not only did they lose all of their earthly possessions in a house fire, but they lost two of their three of their children as well. They themselves have spent days in the hospital recovering and finally, after several days of ups and downs, their oldest daughter also slipped into the arms of Jesus. As I have followed their story and seen this sweet mama make Facebook videos from her hospital bed, my heart just aches for them. I can’t imagine the pain and sorrow of losing so much. And yet I’ve watched her and listened as she praises God with a voice that is raspy from smoke damage. She speaks with conviction, knowing that God is still on the throne and in control of her life and suddenly it’s not her that I see, but the beauty of Jesus shining through her. She has not chosen her path of suffering, but she is allowing God to make something beautiful out of her pain. No doubt, she would be the first to tell you that she doesn't feel strong enough for this suffering. But God is helping her, giving her moment by moment strength, developing a stronger faith in Him than she has ever had before.
You see, we always have a choice in the midst of suffering and pain. We can allow it to make us bitter and hardened. Or we can submit to the refining and allow God use it to make us more like Himself. Growing up, my mom would often remind me that I had a choice: I could either allow the difficulties in my life to be a stumbling stone or a stepping stone. I have known people who have made these choices. Those who have chosen to allow their circumstances to embitter them found themselves miserable and unable to move on. In most cases, spiritual growth slowed dramatically and eventually stopped altogether. On the other hand, I have seen others who have allowed Jesus to “redeem the pain” that they have suffered to make them into a beautiful testimony of God’s grace. It’s not that they didn’t wrestle with feelings of doubt and pain in the middle of their suffering, but at some point they gave their pain to God and chose to allow Him to use it to make them more like Jesus.
We don’t have to suffer alone.
“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
As Christians, we have an advantage over non-Christians because we have the Holy Spirit who has promised to not only walk the path of suffering with us, but to carry us in times when we can’t walk on our own. I love how the Holy Spirit is referenced in the Bible as the “Comforter” because that is literally what He does for His children. Whether we are facing loss, illness, discouragement, failure or just are overwhelmed with the circumstances of our lives—He literally comforts and lifts us up and carries us through!
Earlier this year, I sat by the bedside of my dying mother-in-law and held her hand as she struggled for every breath. The cancer had ravaged her body and she was just a shell of the person I have known and loved ever since she welcomed me into her family with open arms. We had spent a wonderful Christmas together as a family, knowing that the cancer was spreading and that it likely would be the last we had with her. In spite of the fact that her body was showing signs of weakening, she was able to host family with the same grace and warmth as always. We never dreamed that, less than three months later, we would once again be all together—but this time around her bedside saying goodbye. The tears flowed freely as we sat around her bedside, singing, reading Scripture and sharing memories of her. It was a time of incredible sadness and pain for all of our family. It was unbelievably difficult to watch my kids say their goodbyes and grieve for their grandma. But, through it all, the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit was in that room in a way that I’ve never felt before.
Though the path of suffering and death was not the one we would have chosen to walk, we found that Jesus walked right beside us each step of the way. Even as our hearts grieved our loss, there was such a peace and comfort in knowing that Jesus was not only beside us, but His presence was in our very midst, upholding & comforting as only He can.
Suffering is only temporary.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying., neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Best of all, when I view the difficulties of this life through the lens of eternity, I can see that it’s only temporary and that there is hope. Pain and suffering in this life remind me that this world isn’t my home. It reminds me of what I’m living for and gives me the hope of a heavenly reward. Someday, the tears and sadness will be wiped away and the suffering of this life will be but a distant memory.
And when viewed through the lens of eternity, I realize that suffering isn’t something to fear. If my faith is in the One who is in control, I can have confidence that everything that comes my way will have passed through His hands. He will not allow me to face anything alone. And whatever pain I may face will not be wasted, but used for my ultimate good and His glory.
Suffering is always for my good.
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).
I’m learning that God’s perspective on suffering is so different than mine. I see suffering and pain as a bad thing, but in God’s eyes, it’s actually something that is for my good.
Songwriter Laura Story even goes so far as to say that trials and suffering are God’s way of blessing me.
"We pray for blessings
We pray for peace
Comfort for family, protection while we sleep
We pray for healing, for prosperity
We pray for Your mighty hand to ease our suffering
All the while, You hear each spoken need
Yet love us way too much to give us lesser things
"So, what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights is what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?" (emphasis added)
Although my human eyes may not see it, suffering is always for my good. It draws me closer to God and reminds me just how much I need Him. And as much as my humanity shies away from pain and suffering, my heart says that if this is the path I must walk in order to be more like my Savior and make it to Heaven, then I choose to embrace it.
At long last, I am finally understanding that my fears of suffering have been nothing more than a tool that Satan used to torment me for far too long.
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