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
Here’s a quote about what it means to stick with our friends while we also try to follow Christ.
‘Frustration and pain are essential features of incarnational ministry.’
It goes on:
‘If we are to truly identify with our people, we must expect frustration and pain. If we don’t, we may be taken by surprise when we encounter it and be tempted to leave this work for an easier path or be so disillusioned that we lose the joy of ministry. I think many people are suffering unnecessary pain in ministry today because they did not fully anticipate the suffering that ministry inevitably involves. This pain has caused them to be discontented when actually they should be rejoicing in tribulation.’
‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ (John 20:21)
‘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 12:10)
(Quote from popular Sri Lankan evangelist and teacher Ajith Fernando in his his book Jesus Driven Ministry. I’m grateful to my colleague Miriam Copeland for digging out this quote.)
Ajith Fernando has presumably enlarged on this theme in a more recent title:
It’s a novel first, a science-fiction novel second: in other words, it has rich characters, a compelling plot, and leaves you with much to think about. The SF element is done seamlessly well with good hard science and coherent thinking about another world and how it might work.
The plot is all about a Jesuit mission to another culture, what happened there, and how it affected the hero, a Jesuit priest and translator.
I suspect Mary Doria Russell gave her story an SF context only because on earth, most of the strange tribes have already been encountered, if not by Jesuits then by their Protestant missionary cousins.
Underlying the whole tale all are deep questions about God, about faith, redemption, surrender and devotion.
It really is a wonderful book, and shows perhaps how hollow much of the rest of the SF universe really is. (Not that that stops me enjoying it: it’s just that this book is so much richer.)
It rightly won prizes. This is the only SF book I would recommend my wife should ever read. It’s a wonderful novel, not to be missed.
A friend who is nursing a very sick wife wrote about how much they were enjoying talking and eating and Bible study and TV. That resonated with me.
Conversation, company, meals, devotion and story-telling: you don’t know how valuable they are till you’ve lost a lot of other things.
Illness can make you do that, pan for the gold. When a flow of suffering washes normal life away, you realise that gleaming among the residue was the treasure you’d been wanting all your life.
We often stumble into this gold, and then stumble away from it again.Maybe suffering or illness helps refine our tastes. It’s interesting to compile a list of what does or doesn’t have this life-giving, joy-giving quality. Here’s my attempt — you may disagree:
People creating something together, for example in a sports team or an orchestra or a village fete
Pottering in the garden
Being happily part of a family
People accumulating together but without community: queues, traffic jams, tourism
Eating ‘al desko’
Looking at a screen into the small hours
Death by Powerpoint
‘Slow mission’, I think, is about choosing these things — things that will exist in some form in eternity — over the things that will pass away?