the shape of leadership

Theology of Suffering

Biblical guidance for difficult times

Kristi Northup on October 22, 2020

It has been a year of suffering. When I look back on early March, it seems like a tsunami we never saw coming. Every person has experienced loss. Loss of milestones. Loss of companionship. Loss of income. Loss of progress. Loss of independence. Loss of learning. Loss of loved ones.

What do we do when there is no breakthrough? What do we believe about suffering? This has laid bare all our shortcomings, including those of our faith.

When we are accustomed to living under tremendous blessing, long-term suffering messes with our view of God. But trials are ultimately able to produce perseverance, and make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:3-4).

In my observation, absent a deep embrace of the sufferings of Christ, this long crisis has produced tremendous anger. It has poured over our nation like hot lava. The interpersonal hostility pointed at pastors is at an all-time high, just as morale is at an all-time low. How can we develop a better biblical understanding of suffering, and help those in our spiritual care do the same?

Lean Into Jesus

My favorite verse in the Bible deals with suffering: “I want to know Christ — yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10).

We love the power of Christ’s resurrection. Yet we resist the fellowship of His sufferings. No one likes to suffer, but suffering helps us draw closer to Jesus.

Look at the many ways Jesus suffered in the Gospels: rejection by His followers; constantly moving and having no home; continual attacks on His character; knowing the religious leaders wanted to kill Him. We tend to not see Christ in our suffering until we surrender to identifying with Him rather than begging for instant eradication of our pain.

People ask, where is God? God is in Christ! Colossians 1:19 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”

God is in Christ, and no matter the struggle, where Christ is, that is where God can be found. Draw closer to Jesus through suffering, and you will find God.

Lean Into Scripture

Sometimes the voice of our emotions is so powerful, it can actually sound like the voice of the Holy Spirit. I find this is especially true for us as Spirit-filled believers. In those times when we can’t tell the difference, it is important to lean heavily on Scripture.

Psalm 119:28-29 says, “My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word. Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me and teach me your law.”

The Word of God keeps us centered, and keeps us from lying to ourselves through the voice of our own spirit and the lies of the enemy. It is like a compass that continually directs us to true north.

Commit Scripture to memory. Post it where you see it most. Post it all over your house, your car, and your workspace.

One woman in my small group who was going through a divorce wrote out Scriptures on cards. She carried them in her purse and would look at them any chance she got, including at stoplights!

Draw closer to Jesus through suffering, and you will find God.

I have started putting Scripture cards in my jacket pockets, so I find them at random times to encourage my spirit.

Lean Into Eternity

We don’t talk much about eternity. The notion of a thousand years being a day to God is far from our thinking. When we begin to understand our present sufferings in light of eternity, we remember this is just a fleeting moment in history.

Paul said, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

Eternity give us perspective. It helps us look past the surface world and recognize the spiritual big picture. Eternity helps us remember suffering is not the end of the story.

In generations past, Christians sang about eternity all the time. That continual longing for heaven helped believers embrace present sufferings, because they knew something better was waiting for them.

We have messages about heaven, but it’s not the same as singing about it week after week. There is a reinforcement of theology that comes through singing that stays with us even beyond conscious thought.

Lean Into Prayer

In addition to navigating 2020, our family has walked through a major health crisis. In May, my husband, Wayne, had a nagging ear infection that wouldn’t go away. After several weeks, we learned it was MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection.

One evening, he spiked a fever of 104. In the middle of the night at the emergency room, we learned the infection had eaten through the bone and breeched the barrier to the brain. The drainage coming out of his ear was actually spinal fluid, and it would require major brain surgery to repair it.

After conflicting reports from different surgeons over whether it would be a full craniotomy, and rescheduling so many times I lost count, I felt angry and confused. I thought God had given confirmations, but as bad news was followed by more bad news, it felt like I was left with nothing.

Wayne’s life hung in the balance for several weeks. We did not know whether he would struggle with his speech after the surgery, or what other challenges would come. I couldn’t even bring myself to pray for healing; all I could pray to God over and over was, “His life is in Your hands.”

I knew friends and family all over the world were praying for healing. I just held on to the promise of Jesus.

When Wayne came out of surgery, I raced up to the neuro-ICU where he had been moved.

The first thing he said was, “All the prayers made a difference.”

They did not have to do a craniotomy, because the leak from Wayne’s brain had healed! They were able to repair the bone through the less invasive path.

It was a long summer, but Wayne made a complete recovery. In the end, the changes that seemed to rob my peace were for the best. Most important, God was with us because He is in Christ.

No matter how long the road is, keep leaning into Jesus and His words. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
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