I was once asked to share an “inspirational message” with people who were serving at a camp for kids with disabilities. Many of the workers themselves were living with disability. When I heard that the topic they wanted me to address was “How to overcome suffering,” I felt out of my league. These people had far more experience in dealing with suffering than I (at least thus far in my life as a temporarily able-bodied person). So I prayed… they obviously thought I had something to share, so I asked God to use me to strengthen and encourage my fellow-servants.
So how do we overcome suffering? I turned first to logic. Think broadly: “How do WE overcome anything?” We fight it, kill it, avoid it, escape it, buy it off, trick it, destroy it, zap it… Do any of these approaches seem likely to be effective against suffering? Hardly.
So where do we look to learn how to overcome suffering? Well, suffering, raised to the highest exponent, ultimately brings death. And we do know someone who has overcome death.
So how did Jesus overcome death? He overcame the last, greatest adversary by submitting to it. By going through it. He showed He was stronger than death NOT by “blasting” it to smithereens, but by submitting to it. Building on that thought, here’s what I shared.
1) We actually overcome suffering by submitting to suffering. But that can only be done authentically out of submission to God: Job, while often praised for his “patience,” is truly a champion of submission; he’s willing to trust and bless God even if there is nothing good in it for him. (Job 1:21; 2:10)
2) Be honest about your suffering. Don’t sugar-coat it, brush it off, wave it away. The Bible embraces realism above stoicism. In the psalms of lament, the words of a man crying out to God in his pain, become God’s Word to us.
“Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear to my cry; Do not be silent at my tears; For I am a stranger with You, A sojourner like all my fathers. / Turn Your gaze away from me, that I may smile again / Before I depart and am no more.” (Ps 39:12-13)
In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. (Ps 77:2)
3) Recognize that suffering is not exceptional or problematic… it’s normal. Peter writes, “Dear ones, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1Pe. 4:12). Don’t be surprised, he says; be joyful. We can rejoice NOW (because we are participating in the sufferings of the Christ); and we also rejoice LATER (when the glory of Christ is revealed in eternity).
Peter continues, “Therefore, let those suffering in accordance with God’s will entrust themselves to a faithful Creator, while continuing to do good.” We commit our souls to God; that’s faith. We trust God, not in some purifying or redemptive aspect of suffering itself nor of our own heroic ability to get through it or stoic resolve to outlast it.
1Jn 5:4-5 reminds us that this faith is the victory that overcomes the world. This is not just abstract faith in anything, but faith in Jesus, proven through victory over death.
4) Focus on Jesus, whose word brings peace. It also fosters the “heart” needed to “overcome tribulation.” Peace comes from the promises. Tribulation leads to victory. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). True peace comes to me when I pursue God’s glory (not my own) in God’s strength (not mine. as God’s strength is revealed in my weakness) (2Co. 12:9).
5) See how we can learn to serve – In our suffering we experience comfort; sharing that comfort becomes a means for us bless others. Jesus (the one who came not to be served, but to serve) is present in our suffering (2Co. 1:4-5). If that’s true, then Jesus is also present in others; Jesus is present in the suffering of others. We see the face of Jesus in others; we see Jesus as the face of the child with disability. When we encounter Jesus in our suffering and in the suffering of others, we recognize we are in the presence of God.
6) And that recognition leads us, inevitably, to WORSHIP. And worship can be transformative, individually, corporately, cosmically.