One of the hardest things that I experience as a pastor is watching other brothers and sisters in Christ going through extremely painful circumstances. It's difficult for me to witness the suffering and agony they are experiencing, and it's challenging to know how to help them through those trials without having all of the answers. We all know what it is like to struggle through something, and that makes it all the more difficult to watch others we care about go through the valleys too.
Let's face it; this world can be a flat-out cold and cruel place. It seems that human beings have no limit on how horrible they can be to each other. Sometimes I want to run away and hide so that I can protect myself, and those around me, from the cruelty of others. I want to keep others at arm's length so that they can't hurt me. However, the reality is that this is the world in which we live. We can't seclude ourselves indefinitely, and so we must learn to navigate the heartaches of life. We must learn how to live in the midst of the fiery furnace.
One of my favorite authors is Timothy Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. Keller writes as a grounded theological scholar, but also with the heart of a pastor. In his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Keller writes, "Nothing is more important than to learn how to maintain a life of purpose in the midst of painful adversity." That is the key! How do we move forwards toward Christlikeness when everything is falling apart around us? How do we press on when we are firmly imbedded in the belly of the furnace? How do we continue to grow and extend ourselves to others when the world feels as if it is against us?
Suffering is a way of life for Christ followers. Jesus himself said in John 16:33, "In the world you will have tribulation." It isn't optional; it's a way of life. We don't get to simply grow in peaceful times. We have a choice. We can either get swallowed up in the agony and despair we face, or we can continue to become more and more like Christ Jesus Himself. Suffering can be wasted if we don't commit ourselves to depending upon and trusting in God through those experiences. Those times don’t have to be a waste though. Instead, while painful, those experiences can provide meaning to life and help us to live it well. We don't need to rejoice in the actual suffering, but neither should we run away from it. We need to remain patient in the midst of it, allowing God to work out his will in our lives and in the lives of others around us. It is only through patient endurance that we grow, and we can only patiently endure when our focus is on continuing to live out our faith in Christ, even as we bear the full brunt of this painfully cruel world.
As we suffer in this world, it is important for us to remember that we will never experience any kind of suffering that Jesus himself didn't experience. Jesus knows full well what it is like to suffer...what it is like to be brutally mistreated by others. Luke 22:63-71 tells us what Jesus had to endure on His way to the cross. He was beaten and mocked. He had vile insults hurled at Him while he received blow after blow. He was known as a prophet, so the men who were tasked with guarding Jesus decided to put His prophetic skills to the test. They blindfolded Him and punched Him, and then they challenged Him to guess who it was that had struck Him. Jesus was the recipient of the worst that humanity had to offer.
Yet He endured. He stayed the course and pressed onward, because He was focused on His Father and on His will. Likewise, we too need to keep moving forward in the midst of our suffering. The only way to do that when everything is crumbling down around us is to take the focus off of ourselves and place it upon Jesus Christ, who endured for our sake and promises peace, comfort, and rest in Him. Jesus' resurrection offers us a future hope that is greater than anything this world has to offer, and greater than any sorrow we may experience. What a wonderful and beautiful Savior we have in Christ Jesus our Lord!