How to find meaning in any suffering

I bike the Greenway in the early morning light. I don’t even mind the spots of rain landing on my glasses; I’m so grateful that I’m able to bike my whole route again, and that it feels good again. 

The freedom feels like my first days home from the dust of Afghanistan, when every new morning I delighted in the emerald grass, the new flowers that had opened during the night, and the feel of the breeze in my (uncovered!) hair. Even still when I get into the shower, I often give thanks for hot, running water.

Sometimes one only recognizes the value of a gift when it’s taken away.

And sometimes one only realizes how much a certain freedom has been missed when it’s given back and the joy overflows into thanksgiving. 

And yet, while I give thanks for energy on the days I have more of it, I also give thanks for these past five difficult weeks, and continue to ponder the gifts in them. There are gifts we can only receive in the hard times, and when life spreads a rocky stretch of path before me, I want to bend and pick up every gem hiding among the rocks.

So, the gifts: I’ve already shared a prayer slipped through my mail slot and how, as I prayed it, God has been reorienting my love back towards him, loosening my grip on comfort and control and security. That alone was worth this challenging time. There’s something about suffering that drives our roots deeper into God, if we let it.

But there’s another gift that has been fluttering around the edges of my thoughts recently in the form of a question: What does it mean to share in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church? 

Paul’s words in Galatians and Colossians have long been familiar to me:

“. . .I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).

“Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24).

Who gets to live those verses? Every life has its suffering, but who can say that their suffering is part of Christ’s affliction, useful for the church? Until last week, I assumed that the cause of the suffering was key, that only those undergoing explicit persecution for Christ’s sake, people like Paul who are stoned and beaten and imprisoned because they speak of Christ, are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Now I wonder if it’s not just the cause of the suffering, but their response that joins their suffering to Christ’s. And, as a result, whether suffering of any cause, or at least a much wider range of causes, can be part of sharing in Christ’s afflictions, depending on how we bear it.

Jesus took into his own body not only our sin, but also our sickness and suffering and pain (Isaiah 53:4). When we, now as part of Christ’s own body in the world, carry in our bodies sickness and grief and the other systemic effects of brokenness that entered the world with the first sin, and when we let Christ in whom we live turn those deaths into life for us and for others, are we not also sharing in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of the church and the world? 

“Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies” (2 Corinthians 4:10, NLT).

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NIV)

Paul himself sometimes lumps his personal, likely physical, sufferings, in with insults and persecutions, seeing them all as places to experience God’s life-giving strength being made perfect in his weakness.

“He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Everything we suffer was carried by Jesus on the cross, and since it is all part of his sufferings, we can share in his sufferings if we live our sufferings with him, letting them press us close to Christ and become part of the way he both transforms us (James 1:2-4) and uses us to encourage others as they see God’s sustaining presence and comfort in our lives (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).

As I bike the return route, the rain has stopped and the sun is peeking through the leaves that are at their most glorious in their dying, all shades of ripe tomato and sun-tinted goldenrod and the orange of a Thanksgiving pumpkin.

The God of surprises

Since mid-November when my landlady told me she’d sold the condo in which I was living, I’ve been looking without success for a new place to live. A week ago I saw an apartment that seemed perfect. It was big enough but not too big. The old, tiny kitchen didn’t bother me, and I loved the living space that was separate from the bedroom. The suite was bright, the building was secure and the manager who showed me around treated me like a human being instead of the next head of cattle being herded through and inspected. And, best of all, if you drew a circle between the homes of four of my good friends, it put me right in the middle of the circle, only a few blocks away from each.
I submitted my application. None of my references was called. A follow-up email led eventually to a response that my application has been rejected. The listing remains posted. It has been hard not to feel like I was automatically rejected because my primary source of income is disability insurance. And hard not to think that if I’d still been practicing medicine, I’d likely have been a shoe-in. Except that I probably wouldn’t have been applying at all because I’d own a home rather than needing to rent one. I don’t blame the owners. I recognize in their desire for the most secure option the similar desire that lives in me.
So when I received the email, I cried out (again) to the God who defends those in need and provides for his people. I’m in that graced place where it’s easier than usual to stake all my hope on God because there’s nothing else for me to cling to. I appear to be at the mercy of others, which really means that I’m at the mercy of my kind and gracious God who holds in his hand the hearts of kings and apartment owners and building managers.
I grieved the disappointment. I lamented. And then I turned again to the truth of this fifty-day-long season of Easter in which we’re living. I need every one of these days to remember the reality of resurrection and to practice living in the hope that George Herbert and Malcolm Guite describe in my new favorite Lent devotional, saying: “From now on there is just the single, eternal day of resurrection” (p.174). Jesus has been raised, death has been conquered, and there’s no turning back. The new reality is the unshakeable, forever reality. Here in this season I practice remembering: There is always hope. God is the God of wild and crazy, ridiculous, impossible surprises. The God whose ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts.
I’ll continue the alternating pattern of crying out and returning to hope; of lamenting loss and puzzling over confusion and choosing to trust the God of resurrection. Because as certainly as there is now “just the single, eternal day of resurrection,” in this world we do not yet live the full freedom of that new life. Here and now, resurrection is a taste and a certainty and a hope that holds us through the pain of all our little and big deaths. Resurrection follows each big and little death; it doesn’t prevent them. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus says. “But take heart. I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). And Paul explains, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (2 Cor 4:10). We who are joined to Christ in his death experience the pain of our own big and little deaths on our way to living fully and forever united to him in his resurrection.  We groan and cry and lament. And then we turn and see Jesus appear to two confused and grieving disciples on the road to Emmaus, call Mary by name in the garden, and cook breakfast on the beach for his closest friends. None of them knew him at first. That didn’t keep him away. And so we can rest again in the certainty that even in the moments when we are blinded by our grief, the smallness of our faith, or the simple fact of our humanity, the risen Jesus still walks among us, quietly working resurrection surprises within us and around us and even through us.
 

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Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash