Thanking God for Merciful Suffering

Previously, I thought that I’d probably write about my experiences in Jamaica today. Since my girls and I returned to Missouri after a week in Harmons, I’ve thought every day about the people I met, the impact they had on me, and the way in which God showed me His heart for His people.

But there’s something else on my mind tonight. I’ve been thinking a lot about suffering, and trial, and how all of us who are called to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) seem to go through suffering at one point or another.

Far from what some of the prosperity gospel preachers might tell you, God’s Word promises that if we belong to Christ, we will be hated by the world (John 15:18-19). It seems pretty clear to me that challenges will come because of that hatred; Jesus’ “challenges” ultimately included a painful, humiliating death. Likewise, we’re called to take up our cross and follow Christ (Luke 9:23), the insinuation being that following Christ is going to be potentially painful, that it will most certainly cost us something.

And yet I think most of us tend to respond to hardship’s arrival on our doorstep with surprise, as if it were something unexpected. We respond badly when life gets hard – even we Christians, who have it in writing from the God of the Universe that in this life, things are not going to go well for us all the time! Again, the apostle Peter very frankly tells us not to be surprised when fiery trials come upon us (1 Peter 4:12). Fiery? Yikes!

And yet we do respond badly. I know I do. I kick at the goads, as my husband likes to say. I have been slow to appreciate that the advance of suffering in my life is quite possibly the fulfillment of God’s promise to sanctify me, to conform me to the image of His Son.

God’s favorite tool in my life is actually a person with whom I have a challenging relationship (no, it’s not my husband, though you can easily be forgiven for thinking so). With this challenging relationship, He has slowly worked on what I believe is one of the most deeply-rooted, ever-present and insidious of my sins…pride.

Ironically, the very response I had to God’s getting out the chisel and hacking at my pride was the prideful response, “Hey, wait a minute! I don’t deserve this!” He slowly, lovingly kept at it, using a myriad of slights, moments of feeling unappreciated and seasons of being marginalized to force me to see that I really thought I deserved better – to be treated better, with more respect, and ultimately to be…liked. For Pete’s sake, at least I deserved to be thought well of. Right?

Obviously, the various forms of suffering we experience don’t all come through relationships. There are any number of situations God can use to conform us to Christ, using a difficult season in our lives to reveal our deep need of Him. A health crisis, job loss, financial strain or even ruin, the death of someone close to us.

But it seems to me that whenever we’re dealing with people, we’re slower to see that God is in that equation, just as much as He is in the diagnosis of cancer. At least for myself, I seem to think that if I were suddenly told by my doctor I had a malignant growth, I’d know that God is mysteriously working through this illness toward some end. It might be my death, it might be a real time of spiritual renewal. Whatever the outcome, I would know that God is in the details because even the number of my days are in His hands (Psalm 139:16).

But it gets more cloudy, doesn’t it, when it comes to relationships. As humans, we’re always trying to fix one another, manipulate one another, or ditch one another. When a relationship is difficult, it’s easiest to just end it if we can. And if we can’t, we feel trapped. Frustrated. Bitter. We kick against the goads, instead of seeing God in those details too.

Do you have someone in your life who isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and yet whose continual presence creates a hardship for you in some way? A challenging boss? A rebellious teenager? An ex-spouse? A current spouse? Is there a relationship right now that’s causing you pain, frustration, bitterness or despair?

You could rail against God and ask Him why on earth you are being forced to stay in this relationship…like me. Or you could ask God what He sees in you that He wants to rid you of, to conform you more to your Savior, Who died for you and is now asking you to join Him by taking up your own cross and dying to self.

Trial and suffering in our lives, rightly seen, is an act of love on God’s part. He has called you, He has justified you. Now begins the (often painful) work of sanctifying you.

I don’t think anyone expects our gut reaction to suffering to be gratitude. But shouldn’t the goal at least be, as quickly as possible, to seek what God has for us within it, and then to express gratitude that He loves us too much to leave us the way we are, when His plan for us is so much more?

Romans 8:29-39 (NIV)
For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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