What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.
Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New Living Translation)
There is a way to overcome suffering; there’s a path you can follow, leading to the overcoming of your struggle.
That struggle with suffering comes in many forms:
- Wrestling with guilt and shame;
- Dealing with the meanness of others
- Chronic physical pain
- Continual financial trouble
- Ongoing estranged relationships
- Past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present
- Constant feelings of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems
- A crippling Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression)
These and a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world can discourage and debilitate us.
I invite you to consider that the road ahead will likely be counter-intuitive to how you may currently be thinking about overcoming suffering. In fact, it might be so far off your radar that you might simply discard what I’m about to say to you.
But before I get to that, I’ll say first, that suffering is endemic to the human condition. Everyone suffers. Since we live in a fallen world, there is not one person who hasn’t suffered in some way, whether it is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional.
None of us will ever be immune to affliction. There is no way to insulate yourself from pain. If you are not currently suffering in some way, it means that you are either coming off a time of hardship or are about to enter a new period of distress.
Holiness and godliness don’t keep suffering at bay. Just the opposite. The Lord Jesus promised us that following him will involve suffering:
“While you are in this world, you will have to suffer.” (John 16:33)
The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand the reality of suffering. Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Lord. If Christ suffered, his followers shall suffer, as well.
“Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered.” (1 Peter 4:12-13, CEV)
James, the Lord’s brother, wisely discerned that suffering could become a teacher for the Christian; all the adversity the believer faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.
“My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested.” (James 1:2-3, CEV)
The Apostle Paul was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus; he continually faced terrible circumstances. His reflections on the matter are sage and true:
“Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others.” (2 Timothy 3:12, CEV)
“Suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5, CEV)
“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29, NIV)
The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it. Although suffering is a part of being in the world, yet Jesus said:
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV)
Now, let’s wheel back around to the overcoming of suffering. Here is the truth and the practice we must adopt when it comes to suffering:
The truth about overcoming suffering comes not from us, but through Christ; and the practice of overcoming suffering doesn’t come from fighting against it but by sitting with it and learning from it.
Stated a different way: Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross, he absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone. Your suffering, then, may hurt and it might be senseless; yet no matter it’s source, that suffering will always rule over you unless you invite it to take a seat with you and have a conversation with it.
More pointedly: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.
Your suffering is trying to tell you something.
If you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you. You can’t beat suffering. You can only learn from it. And you’ll only learn from it, even overcome it, when you embrace it.
So, here’s the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural practice that you might not like and might think I’m off my rocker for suggesting: Submit to suffering.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles or trauma. Evil is evil, and no amount of saying otherwise will change the leopard’s spots. However, only through submitting to the process of what suffering teaches us will we ever have power over it.
Perhaps an illustration is in order. Let’s liken suffering to encountering a bear in the wilderness. The National Park Service gives us this advice if facing a bear while out hiking:
“Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, these strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating:”
- Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
- Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by wooﬁng, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
- Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
- If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do not run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase ﬂeeing animals. Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.
Fighting suffering is about as useful as taking on a bear. Both bears and suffering can be dangerous. We don’t blame bears if they act like bears. Likewise, we ought not be surprised when suffering hurts. But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for its large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.
Face suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble. Calmly identify yourself. Talk in low tones to your suffering. Speak to it. Remember who you are. You belong to God. Treat suffering as if it is curious about you. Stay calm. Freaking-out only encourages suffering to attack.
If you’re alone, that’s not good. Walking with others in Christian community is one of the best practices of the Christian life. Suffering is intimidated by groups of people encouraging one another and showing hospitality to each other. Keep your eye on suffering. Don’t ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there.
Don’t run. The Lord is with you. Face suffering. Keep it in front of you. It will pass, but you must be patient and calm. Once it is gone, then you can reflect on what happened and debrief with others about the experience.
The path to overcoming suffering is to acknowledge it, respect it, submit to it, and let it pass. Then, you will be able to consider it joy whenever you face various struggles, knowing that your faith is being exercised, and perseverance developed. (James 1:2-4)
Stop fighting. Stop going it alone. Don’t be a martyr. Be silent. Listen. Change suffering from an adversary to fight to a companion to learn from.
You and I have nothing to lose. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.