There is a way to overcome suffering. There’s a path that you can follow which will lead to the overcoming of your struggle against sin; your dealing with the meanness of others; your chronic physical pain; your continual facing of financial trouble; your estranged relationship(s); your past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present; your constant feeling of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems; your Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression); and, a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world. The road ahead, however, will be completely counter-intuitive to how you might currently be thinking about overcoming suffering. It might be so far off your radar that you might just discard what I’m about to say to you.
Before I get to that, I’ll just 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 just 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. In fact, the Lord Jesus himself promised us that following him will involve a kind of suffering that those who are not Christians will never face. “While you are in this world, you will have to suffer,” are the blunt words of Christ to his disciples (John 16:33). The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand this reality. “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). Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Master. If Christ suffered, his followers will suffer, as well.
James, the Lord’s brother, understood that everyone faces difficulty. But he wisely discerned that suffering can become a teacher for the Christian. “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). All the adversity the Christian faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.
The Apostle Paul, a man who was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus in history, had this to say about all those terrible circumstances: “Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others” (2 Timothy 3:12). “We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us” (Romans 5:3-5). “God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake” (Philippians 1:29).
The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it. Yes, we will have to suffer. It’s part of being in the world. Yet, Jesus said, “but cheer up! I have defeated the world” (John 16:33, Contemporary English Version). Or, in another translation, “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world” (Common English Bible). Yet another translation, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (New International Version).
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.
Okay, let me state this again in a different way. Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross, he has absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone. Your suffering, then, might hurt and it might be senseless, but 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.
Let me say it another way, and to the point: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.
In other words, your suffering is trying to tell you something. But if you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you and never topple. 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. Yes, I will say it again: Submit to suffering.
Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles, adverse circumstances, or even your terrible trauma. Evil is evil, bad is bad, 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. Bears, like suffering, can be dangerous. We don’t blame bears if they act like bears. Likewise, we ought not to be surprised when suffering hurts. But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for it’s large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.
I suggest we treat suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble. Calmly identify yourself. Talk in low tones to your suffering. That’s right, speak to it. Remember who you are. You belong to God. Treat suffering as if it is curious about you. For God’s sake, stay calm. Doing the big freak-out is only going to encourage suffering to do damage. 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. 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 pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
Stop fighting. Start maturing. Stop going it alone. Start living in vital and vulnerable community. Stop being a martyr. Start letting the martyrdom of Christ be your center of life. Stop talking. Start listening. Stop treating your suffering as an adversary. Start talking to suffering as a companion to learn from.