Helping Our Students Interpret Their Suffering
Daniel was a junior in high school who enjoyed hanging out with his friends, attending youth group, and participating on the track team. A talented shot-putter, he worked all season to improve and earned a spot in the regional meet. Then everything fell apart. Daniel has an underlying health condition, which flares up from time to time, occasionally putting him in the hospital. Just before the regional meet he had worked so hard to attend, a flare-up caused another hospitalization. Daniel was devastated. He was going to miss the regional meet and all his hard work and dedication would be out the window. He wondered, “How could this happen to someone who has worked so hard for something? Why does this have to happen to me?”
None of us are exempt from suffering and hardships in this broken world. In one way or another, our students will be faced with reconciling suffering and the “good life.” If we do the right thing most of the time, why do we suffer? What is the point of suffering, and why does God allow it? As youth pastors, we need the resources of the gospel to point teenagers like Daniel to a biblical perspective on suffering.
A good place to begin is Philippians 3:4-11. Here, Paul explains he counts everything as a loss compared to knowing Christ. This includes all his former successes, or gains. These are nothing to him, but Christ is everything—and therefore he can gladly suffer with Christ. In verses 4-6, Paul lays outs his earthly resume, the human “good.” Yet, in light of knowing Jesus, he counts it all as loss, rubbish, dirty rags. Paul had accomplished so much – but in Christ, he realized it didn’t amount to anything. For Paul, knowing Christ exposed his need for righteousness in Christ. In the same vein, knowing Christ exposes our short-comings and desperate need for righteousness in Christ. Therefore, it calls us to join in suffering for Christ, because there is nothing better than knowing him.
The gospel shines a bright light on our weakness and invites us to enter into the sufferings of Christ.
Suffering Deepens Our Faith
Suffering always leads to faith, whether it’s faith in God and His goodness, or in something else entirely. Our students may put their faith in friends or social status, athletics or a musical talent. Like Paul, who worked hard and rose through the ranks of the Pharisees, we often rely on our accomplishments and talents to carry us. However, as we see in Philippians 3:8-11, Paul has learned to count all of this as rubbish, in light of knowing Christ and joining in His sufferings. Paul realized no amount of earthly success measures up to knowing Jesus. Paul invites his readers to join in the sufferings of Christ, to endure suffering, because it is a far greater joy.
When we interpret our suffering through the lens of suffering with Christ, our faith becomes richer. We remove the need to stand on our own two feet, instead placing our trust in someone who can carry the load. Daniel can have peace in the truth that Christ is sufficient for him, even when he misses an important goal or life experience. Suffering works in a way of stripping everything else away, reminding us we are not good enough on our own. We are in need, desperately, of a Savior, one who can carry the weight of our sins. Suffering highlights—sometimes very loudly— our shortcomings and need for dependence of someone greater than ourselves.
Suffering Points Us to the Gospel
Paul accounted suffering for the sake of Christ as a gain, something to be celebrated. Suffering or loss exposes our weakness and inability to carry ourselves. Suffering highlights our insufficiency and inability to fend for ourselves. It is the reason as humans we tend to avoid suffering.
When our students or we ourselves suffer, we are exposed to the lack of something. We become uncomfortable, and seek to find an end to the suffering, like avoiding the summer heat by escaping into an air conditioned house. We seek to avoid suffering by building walls, removing situations in which suffering has shown itself to be present. We create opportunities and options to become less likely to endure or face suffering.
But our insufficiency is also one of the most beautiful and freeing aspects of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – we can embrace our suffering, our short-comings, our own limitations because it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus. He came and suffered on our behalf to impute onto us His righteous and His perfection. When we join in His suffering we are made whole. In suffering our faith is made stronger because we are relying on Him, not ourselves.
We can pray for our students to experience this reality in the midst of their suffering. As he begs for God’s deliverance from his situation while is in the hospital missing the regionals, Daniel begins to see with new eyes. His current suffering works to point him to Jesus, as he realizes his hopes of being in the track meet fail to measure up to the hope and faith He can have in Jesus. No matter what level of success he would have in the meet – Jesus is the only one who can provide true contentment.
Suffering Unites Us With Christ
Paul states in Philippians 3:10 that he wants to “know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death.” It is odd for us to reconcile Paul’s wish to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Why would anyone want to share in the suffering of Christ? Jesus endured the wrath of God for our sake, so we wouldn’t have to. Paul is referring to what he pointed out earlier in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus endured this suffering in obedience to the Father’s will, “humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.” Death is the final measure of obedience, and Paul wants to join Christ in this obedience to the Father.
So are we willing to embrace suffering for the sake of Christ? Do we recognize the suffering we face, in whatever form is may currently take, leads us to understand God’s grace and provision in our lives? We need to wrestle with these questions in our own lives if we hope to come along students in the midst of their suffering, pointing them to the one who is fully sufficient. Our calling is to shepherd teenagers in the midst of our own messy lives. We have the privilege of demonstrating to them how suffering leads us to admit our own short-comings and to embrace Jesus as the only source of righteousness.