The Christian’s Call to Suffer in 2020 (and Beyond)
Suffering is like the dish at the family table that as a child you wanted to be able to say, “No, thank you. I don’t believe I care for any.”
Yet there is not a human on this earth, believer and non-believer alike, who is exempt from suffering in some form or the other. In 2020 particularly we are faced with raw images of suffering, from race riots to police brutality to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some experience suffering as they deliberate on the best school choice for their family or struggle with an ADHD child. Cancer is still diagnosed, treatments still administered. Suffering continues in marriages, parenting, and other relationships, just as it did in years before 2020.
Christians should not be surprised. Jesus tells his disciples explicitly in John 16: “In this world you will have tribulation.” By no means does this simplify suffering. By no means does this minimize suffering. By no means does this tell anyone to get over it or toughen up. He simply tells us what life this side of heaven will be like.
Jesus continues, saying, “But take heart, I have overcome the world.” In Jesus’ taking of our sin on the cross, defeating death when he rose again on the third day, he overcame the ultimate suffering, death. No matter the trouble, Christ has won. He has the victory.
It is with this Gospel-centered, foundational knowledge that we find Paul writing to the Corinthians from a Roman jail: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Paul does not offer the Corinthians, or us, any platitudes. He does not give us a nice pat on the back and say, “you’ve got this.” He reminds us who our Father is, what he has done for us, and what we are then capable of doing.
Presence: Comfort in Affliction
One of the worst parts of suffering is the isolation it produces. How often do we think: No one can possibly know how I feel? It’s true: none of us can know exactly how another person feels, but that knowledge isn’t necessary to offer comfort. In verse 4, Paul writes about what the Christian is then capable of doing because of the comfort God has given to us: “…that we may be able to comfort those in any affliction.”
Story after story in the Bible points to God coming alongside hurting people, from Adam and Eve to the Israelites in the desert to Paul in jail. The painful circumstance is not necessarily alleviated, but the burden is shared. As Christians, we receive comfort from God because He sees us, knows our suffering, is present with us in it, and ultimately has won the victory over it on the cross.
So then, we, too, can share the burden of suffering with those around us. When we share a burden, we are saying to the one suffering, “You are not alone.” And if he or she is not alone, then at least the hurt of isolation is alleviated.
When my husband had COVID-19 in early March, no one knew then what it was like to have a spouse leave the house to isolate for two weeks. None of my friends knew what it felt like to be officially quarantined – relegated to the house and yard only — with three boys for two weeks. We were truly physically isolated. None of my friends knew the fear that gripped me as I waited for our tests to come back, the fear that I would be separated from my children, or the fear my husband’s case could become severe.
Yet our friends and family showed up. They gave comfort despite not having experienced a positive COVID test. They brought meals, dropped off cards and games, and sent encouraging texts. They listened to my fears and tears over the phone. They could not fix the circumstance but they shared the burden. They said effectively, “This is hard. I don’t know what this is like. But I am with you in it, even if I can’t be near you in it.”
Comfort, too, can come from shared experiences. As our family came out of quarantine, we were better equipped to be a sounding board for those dealing with testing, the fear of results, and the logistics of quarantine. My husband could share what his experience was with those who later tested positive. We can lament with those now isolated, physically and emotionally, that indeed it is hard and scary.
The Lord was able to take a hard, very 2020 experience, and use it for good as we took what was once painful and used it to minister to others who would come to the same journey later.
The Gospel: Ultimate Comfort
As we face suffering, Christians are unique in our faith because we have a God who suffered for us. He is not immune to loss or hardship. Our God sent His Son to earth, was physically and spiritually separated from Him, and watched His suffering. Jesus Himself witnessed disease, death, and brokenness, never shying away from those who were hurting. He endured a broken world that persecuted and eventually killed Him.
Jesus endured the worst form of suffering – separation from God on the cross – so that we, as believers, would never have to experience separation from God again. Christ’s suffering was not wasted. His suffering continues to bear fruit for the Kingdom.
We often think that comfort should involve a change in circumstance, that the problem should go away or be resolved. Comfort, however, does not require a circumstance to be “fixed” or taken away. When we don’t have to fix the problem for our friend, or for our child, then the pressure is off, and we can freely love and care for the person.
If the cross had been taken away, then God’s purpose of our salvation would not have been fulfilled. Jesus’ pain was not “fixed” by God because God had a larger plan of rescue for our benefit.
Our own afflictions, then, take on a larger purpose. God can use what was hurtful and hard to minister to others who might be faced with similar, or, as Paul reminds us, different circumstances. He takes what was broken and replaces it with compassion, empathy, and a ministry that points the ultimate Comforter.
The etymology of the word “comfort” can be linked to the word “strengthened.” We are strengthened when we know God is with us, through His Word and the Holy Spirit. We are strengthened when a friend brings a meal, writes a note, or listens on a phone call. We can strengthen our children when we listen and don’t try to solve the problem.
The day may not be easier as we, or our loved ones, face whatever hard circumstance the Lord has allowed. But we know the Spirit has not departed; the Christian is never alone. And by the grace of God, He can use our own variety of sufferings to equip us to support, care, and strengthen one another in any affliction so that we might have eyes to see His greater plan and purpose.