When it comes your way, and if you can’t avoid it, you may as well use it. I did a recent talk and found one strategy for suffering and six uses.
The strategy is simple, even cliched: use your suffering to get face to face with God. ‘In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God will guard your hearts.’1
As you keep doing that — same field, same labour — fruit follows:
Joy and peace. Inexplicable, but a fruit of coming to God with thankfulness. Not that you are thankful for the suffering; you are thankful for the goodness of God in the midst of it.
Character. So: suffering + taking it God = peace. Repeat this many times and individual experiences of grace and peace accumulate into lines and traits in our soul. Character is shaped. Suffering doesn’t rock you like it did. Think seasoned timber — many storms and seasons have gone into it.
A clean out. Urgency to deal with the pain can cause us to act. How much of this pain is my fault? What parts can I put right? ‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?’2
Know that your comforts will comfort others. As Paul wrote: ‘[God] comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in trouble.’3 People who’ve been through stuff can speak the same language as those who are going through stuff; no-one else can speak that language natively.
Discover the secret of power in Christian service: weakness. Paul again: ‘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 hardships … for when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 4 Popeye opens a can of spinach; we lay our pain before God with thanksgiving to him for his goodness. Same effect.
Exercise your hope muscles. There is honestly nothing like despair, nothing like the deepest night, for making you remember that day will come. ‘Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning … I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”‘5
Researchers at Oxford University did an experiment with communal dancing.
They gathered a group of strangers and taught them different dance moves. Then they put four of these strangers together and gave each person headphones. So any given foursome could have:
Same dance moves, different music
Same music, different dance moves
Same music, same dance moves.
After the dance floor experience, they tested their pain threshold by tightening a blood-pressure cuff on each of them.
It turned out that the synchronized dancers (hearing the same music and doing the same moves), had a much higher pain threshold than the others. 1
Why is this? Perhaps we have become wired to be rewarded when we work alongside other people toward a greater end. There’s a health-giving benefit to being a harmonious part of a team effort. Most of us have felt this at one time or another, the sense of wellness from a team of people achieving something together by each doing our bit.
In Tozer’s book ‘Paths to Power’ there is a chapter entitled ‘Miracles follow the Plough’. He contrasts two types of ground: fallow ground (fallow meaning ground which has been left for a period of time without being sown), and ground which has been broken up by the plough. The fallow field has chosen safety, security and contentment. But, says Tozer, at a terrible price. ‘Never does it see the miracle of growth; never does it feel the motions of mounting life nor see the wonders of bursting seed nor the beauty of ripening grain.’
In contrast the cultivated field has yielded itself to the ‘adventure of living’. ‘Peace has been shattered by the shouting farmer and the rattle of machinery: it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but the rewards come hard upon its labours.’
I’m sure you can see the parallels which Tozer then goes on to draw with our lives: the fallow life that doesn’t want to be disturbed, that has stopped taking risks for the sake of fruitfulness, contrasted with the life that is marked by discontent (at fruitlessness), yearning for the work of God, willing to be bruised and broken so that seed can be planted.
Which kind of field am I? What kind of field are you?
Breaking up the fallow ground begins with seeking God. Prayer, deep longing crying out to the Lord for Him to work in us, in our teams, in our places of ministry – this is where it begins. Are we doing that?
Counting sheep to get to sleep is one of those memes that should have been deleted from our collective consciousness years ago – along with other mother’s-knee nonsense like ‘a watched kettle never boils.’ (Have mothers’ knees not heard of the laws of thermodynamics?)
For those of us who spend many hours in bed but not asleep, there are many better things to do.
First, recognize insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave. It is perhaps an unwanted gift, like singleness, but it is nevertheless a gift.
Insomnia is a gift, a free pass to get some extra mental stuff done while the rest of the world snores and snuffles to the grave.
Two, try to connect to God. I have found this such a help. It doesn’t matter if it’s a spotty connection, or if your mind wanders, or if you fall asleep in the attempt. God has seen us at our worst and it’s still OK.
I heard once of a very old lady who climbed into bed each night and started bringing up memories of all the people she’d loved or former friends who had already died. She remembered them with thanks to God, dozens or perhaps hundreds of them. Instead of feeling lonely I imagine she felt herself surrounded by a cloud of supporters who had loved her and gone ahead to eternity.
Or you can pray through the alphabet. Pray for something beginning with A. It doesn’t matter what – something. There’s only you and God there: you have fun together. Pray for artichoke farmers. Or Australians. Or people who remind you of apes. Then move onto B. Or for an extra challenge, start with Z and work backwards.
This is a short extract from a longer article that got the original author into hot water.
I recommend it as a long read.
Like hot water, it stings a bit but it’s really good once you’ve climbed in. Super article that (arguably) upsets all the right people.
The gospel that infuses the body of Christ is about the restoration of broken relationships …Poverty is a broken relationship with God, with my neighbor, with the earth, and the broken places inside me.
Our task as the followers of the true healer is to help mend these fissures we find in life. Without this understanding we easily become purveyors of I’m here and you’re over there. The truth is that because I am broken, through my wounds I get to heal somebody else who also, in some strange way, begins to heal me as well. Jesus said that because of the injury and death he experienced, he could heal us. In humility we follow his lead and offer ourselves as his agents in sacrificial love.
While I’m familiar with hope as a quality applied to persons (and myself) the idea of applying it to whole nations is refreshing.
…[Hope] makes an individual or a group, or even a nation, producers in their own drama, and not merely actors repeating the lines set by others or by some mysterious fate.
The Christian undestanding is that hope is an essential … state of mind for all human beings…
..[Hope] makes an individual or a group, or even a nation, producers in their own drama, and not merely actors repeating the lines set by others or by some mysterious fate.
Francois-Xavier, Cardinal Nguyen van Thuan, wrote an account of more than a decade in prison in Vietnam after the Communist takeover of te south in 1974. His is a testimony of hope, despite torture, solitary confinement and a near certainty of death in prison, forgotten by the majority of the world. He was sustained by the presence of Christ, by Mass said each day with a grain of rice and enough rice wine to hold in the palm of his hand . He was sustained by the story, the narrative of hope that centre on the resurrection of Christ and his living presence with us now. He was not destroyed by circumstance, or a sense of fatalism, but neither did he have a false hope of survival, a vain optimism. The story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most powerful narrative shift in world history, enabling a small and scattered group of disciples full of despair to set a pattern and style of life that conquered the Roman Emprie without violvence. (Reimagining Britain, pp 25, 26, 27)
I see a clamour all around me; the need to justify our existence. The writer and playwright Alan Bennett captured it perfectly. He talked of one of his relatives who said this as they drove in the car:
‘Do you see that gasworks over there? That’s the second biggest gasworks in Europe. And I know the manager.’
Or I remember interviewing someone once, a salesperson, I forget about what, but I noticed his office wall covered with meaningless plaques about his achievements. Sad that his company felt the need to trade in these things; sadder that he displayed them.
If you are a normal healthy adult it is of course good and necessary to be productive. One of the reasons people fear retirement is because all that valid affirmation of their identity is taken away, replaced with the three simple letters ‘OAP’. This is perhaps why, for example in places like the BBC, old people hang onto their jobs, long after the spark of talent that got them the job in the first place has turned to smoke.
I think it is an art and a skill to learn how to be content with whatever prestige or affirmation the world has dealt you. In my case, none. So worth learning though. After living through days when I needed a mechanical hoist to drop me onto a toilet, I have to confess to frequent moments of upwelling delight in enjoying the simple things of life like family and friends and food and fellowship and worship; and as for using my own spark of talent, writing (in my own eyes at least) beautifully; and doing all this before and for God.
In my former life, before I was sick, I viewed the simple things merely as a platform to higher and greater achievements. Five years after serious illness, I return to this place and see it for the first time as the true location of happiness and worth.
Congratulations to writer Michele Guinness, whom I have not met or even read very much. Her story Chosen of being a Jewish person and meeting Christians (and eventually becoming one herself) has not been out of print in 35 years and is being re-issued by Lion in a new edition in October.
She still has loads to teach us, not least about eating. This is from an article in Together, magazine for Christian retailers, July/August 2018:
‘My first visit to a church was a shock to the system – so gloomy and dull. The congregation chanted “and make thy chosen people joyful” as if they were at a funeral … A greater understanding of Jesus’ worldview is liberating. It brings colour and richness, significance and celebration, wonder and joy to the Christian faith.
When I first became a Christian it seemed to me that around 50% of the New Testament was lost on Christians … I think it is more relevant than ever to encourage families to invite in the neighbours, single friends and children of all ages to celebrate at home together with story-telling and symbol, food and worship around the table.
Highlighted below is her book about celebrations, The Heavenly Party.