When we suffer, we experience an invasion of frail mortality. Whether it is physical pain, emotional distress, spiritual darkness, combinations, or additions, the illusion of permanence and stability that we normally carry with us is shaken. For example, for most of us the normal physical condition is wellness. When we experience the suffering of deep illness or significant injury, we are reminded of just how frail and temporary our bodies really are. Or, when we suffer emotional distress due to rejection or some other dislocation of human relationship we are reminded of just how vulnerable we are socially.
These invasions bring far more than “reminders” with them. We all know well that the dominant feature of suffering is pain. Pain that sears our bodies, our minds, our souls with torment that can drive all other experience out to the edge of consciousness. Pain can be the deadly deception of suffering, by which it draws our attention away from the potentiality for holiness and towards the temptation for selfishness, bitterness, and, in the extreme, nihilism.
Before we throw pain to the wolves, though, perhaps we should take one more look. When we do, it becomes clear that pain is the signal telling us that something is not as it should be in our world. It is indeed a very blunt, indirect instrument of communication. That is, the immediate source of pain in many cases has no or only the most tangential relationship with the spiritual issues that we have been considering. Rather, it breaks down the defenses that protect our fantasies of self-sufficiency, permanence and contentment. It invades our lives with a message that reads simply “Not so!” It doesn’t tell us which way or to whom to turn; rather it simply negates that which is false so that we have the opportunity to begin the search anew with our illusions discarded.
This is where the resources that God has graciously and abundantly provided through Jesus Christ can make all the difference – God’s Word and Spirit. These two work together to provide a map and motive force, respectively, for the journey into answering the question of “Then what?” to pain’s shattering message of “Not so!”
This all sounds so clean and simple on paper. In reality it is messy, complex and often drawn out over many months, years or even decades. We (and most assuredly I included) are particularly incorrigible pupils in the schools of salvation and sanctification. What we may learn in a bought of suffering is all too often forgotten once normalcy has been restored. Or, as was noted above, we all too often fall into the trap of self-pity, thus missing the lesson entirely.
Regardless of our response, God is always there ready to provide His guidance, encouragement and strength if only we will ask. He is always faithful, always available. So, when we find ourselves in a time of suffering, our first goal should be to pull our focus away from ourselves and refocus on Christ. Realize that He is there with you. His heart is indeed filled with compassion, because he has taken up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. Only Christ can fill the loneliness of suffering to the point of true peace. Invite Him in, He will come bringing blessing beyond comprehension.
With Christ as our companion we will be given access to the power of the Holy Spirit. It is by the Spirit’s light that God’s Word comes alive, allowing flat toner on white paper to become God’s Living Word to you. It is by the Spirit’s influence that our prayers flow into paths of new relationship, new discovery, new hope, new awareness. And, it is by the Spirit’s power that we begin to hear the strange, inexplicable language of suffering.
We hear suffering speak holiness when the pain becomes so great that we call out to Christ in the humility that only total desperation can motivate. It speaks holiness when we realize that our relationships are so tangled in webs of failure and misunderstanding that we are utterly incompetent to set them right, and we cry out to our Savior in the despair of the knowing lost. If the language of suffering has a sound it is that of a soul being emptied of its false pride.
This language is strange and inexplicable because, although we can’t identify anything in particular that communicated something of great significance, we nonetheless know for certain that we have been profoundly changed. The best that we can do is to say, “The experience has changed me.” This is true enough, for suffering is indeed a language of experience.
And so, we find ourselves still trapped in a mystery. It is, though, a mystery only in terms of the reasons why, not in the outcomes offered. God has offered us the opportunity for deeper identification and fellowship with Jesus Christ through the experience of suffering. This, in turn, can allow us to meet our family, friends, co-workers, acquaintances, even our enemies, with greater peace, humility and love. We can become cleaner mirrors, reflecting more brightly Christ’s light into this dark world. The experience itself is painful but the opportunities it leads to are boundless because they are of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I set out on this journey simply because of the felt call of the Holy Spirit to do so. I am content, having reached this conclusion, that to have simply obeyed provides all the reward that I could ever desire. If others should benefit as well, which surely is my hope, then may God be praised!
Suffering is surely one of the least desirable topics upon which to devote sustained study. Yet, as Christians we must seriously consider its mysteries if we are ever to fully grasp what Christ has done for us and what He offers in fellowship. Now that the toil is done the rest can be confidently left in God’s sure hands.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (Ephesians 3:20,21)
If you would like to obtain the entire Language of Suffering manuscript, it can be found at the Document Repository page.