In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we deal with suffering as Christians. Those reflections are especially appropriate on Good Friday.
We know that suffering is a part of life in a fallen world. The impact of Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden is still being felt today. This world is broken. Things are not as they should be. We await a Savior who will make all things new. But until then, we must learn to deal with suffering in a way that pleases our Lord.
As a pastor, I have the great privilege of walking with people in their suffering. I’ve often seen God’s people suffer well. I am always amazed that God seems to grant His people an extra measure of grace just when they need it to endure the pain and difficulty that is set before them. I’ve seen Christians that I considered ill-prepared to face the suffering that was before them respond with amazing faith in the Lord and strength from Him.
There is no doubt that our world is facing a time of suffering with the Coronavirus. Many are suffering due to sickness from the virus itself. Some have lost loved ones due to this virus. Others have lost their job or at least a portion of their income. Many are lonely due to isolation.
As we think about the suffering going on in our world, I am reminded that we serve a Savior who suffered for us. He was mocked, beaten, and crucified for us. As a result, there is much that Jesus can teach us both through His suffering and by the way He responded to it.
First, Jesus teaches us that the prosperity preacher approach to suffering is empty. Prosperity preachers proclaim a false message. They believe and teach that God’s highest aim for us is that we be happy. For the prosperity preacher, happiness is attained through health, wealth, and prosperity. So, when suffering comes, you just need to have more faith. You can even speak to the object of your suffering and command it to leave you alone. If you have enough faith, it will listen and obey. I recently watched prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland attempt this with the Coronavirus.
Unlike prosperity teaching, however, the Bible teaches us that God’s highest aim for us is not our happiness but our holiness. The Bible teaches us that God often uses pain and suffering to conform us more and more to the image of His Son. Jesus’ suffering on the cross reminds us that God is at work in the midst of suffering to accomplish His good purposes. Those who passed by as Jesus was crucified said, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” They didn’t understand that Jesus could have put an end to His suffering at any moment. He could have come down from the cross. Yet He willingly endured the suffering that was set before Him.
In His suffering, Jesus also teaches us that we need not despair when we suffer. Sometimes I see Christians who are facing suffering begin to despair. It’s easy to do if we’re not careful. We look around and see all that is going wrong in the world, and we despair. We forget about the goodness of God. We forget about His power. It’s not that we don’t know of the goodness and power of God with our minds, but we become so consumed with our circumstances and the suffering we are experiencing that it feels like the whole world is caving in around us. As followers of Jesus, we must learn that our hope is not in our circumstances. Only then can we avoid despair in the midst of suffering. Jesus experienced the full range of human emotions on the cross, but He did not despair. In fact, He knew that soon He would be in paradise. Jesus promised the thief who was crucified beside Him that he would be with Him.
We also see that Jesus did not ignore reality as He hung there on the cross. The suffering was real. He really was about to die. Some will have you think that in the midst of suffering you just need to be more positive. They think that positive thinking is the way to deal with suffering. This is especially deceptive because it seems good and right at first. The problem with positive thinking in the midst of suffering is that it is not rooted in reality. Crucifixion is excruciatingly painful. Death is bad. Pandemics are not good. Deadly viruses are a result of the fall. The negative effects of this Coronavirus are far-reaching. Our faith in Jesus doesn’t require us to deny reality. Instead, we should face it head on. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He didn’t try to make Himself believe that things really weren’t so bad after all. That would have been a fools errand.
Instead, what we see from Jesus is that He approached His suffering with lament, trust, and hope. He lamented when He cried out, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” He trusted the Father in the Garden of Gethsemane when He said, “Not as I will, but as you will.” His hope was firmly rooted in the reality that in just a few days He would rise victorious from the grave.
It’s okay for us to lament our suffering. We should lament our suffering. When we suffer, we follow the example of Jesus and bring it to the Lord. We also must do as Jesus did and maintain our trust in God. God is sovereign over everything. Nothing ever takes Him by surprise. He is all powerful, and He is good. We can trust Him. And finally, we place our hope in the same place Jesus placed His hope. Our hope is in future resurrection. The worst that can come of our suffering is death. And we know that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We know that one day the dead in Christ will be raised to live with God forever in a new heaven and new earth. To live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Oh, how much we can learn from the sufferings of our Savior. But it would be a mistake for me to conclude these reflections having reminded you of the example of Jesus in His suffering without also reminding you that Jesus died to pay for your sin. When Jesus died, He did not die primarily as an example. He died as a substitute. He died in your place. He gave His life for you. He experienced the penalty for your sin as He hung there and died on Calvary’s cross. I hope you’ll take some time this Good Friday to reflect on what Jesus accomplished for you by giving His life in your place.