There is, in fact, no redemptive work done anywhere without suffering. ~Elisabeth Elliot
Late one summer night, many years ago, I was sixteen, and driving home from youth group. It was a warm, moonless evening, still and dark, with scattered, twinkly stars to guide my path. I flicked on the high beams, accelerating slowly as I maneuvered snaking back roads.
Quite suddenly, a kangaroo hopped right through the headlights and into a thicket. I braked, coming to a sudden stop, glancing to my left, straining to see this animal again. It was too dark.
Returning home, I told my parents what I had seen. They stared at me, full of disbelief.
That’s impossible, Kristin! We live in New England, not The Outback.
I nodded, a touch embarrassed, realizing how absurd my claim sounded.
But it bothered me.
I knew exactly what I had seen.
I told some friends the story before homeroom the next morning, and the response was similar. One felt my forehead, grinning in mock concern.
Feverish? she joked.
I rolled my eyes. I’m telling you guys, it was a kangaroo.
Why don’t you join me in first period? teased another. Geography 101. We can learn how to find Australia on the map.
Funny, I said and we laughed.
I might have piped down, but what I had witnessed was real.
A week or so after my kangaroo sighting, our small-town newspaper headlines read:
Local Nature Preserve Recovers Missing Kangaroo.
Hot fires and deep waters, also known as suffering, are headed your way, sooner or later. Such things are inescapable as we dwell in a sin-soaked world.
Elisabeth Elliot defined suffering as Having what you don’t want and wanting what you don’t have. That sums it up perfectly, doesn’t it?
To embrace suffering as something authored by God will always seem foolish in the eyes of the world. Every bit as nonsensical as my kangaroo sighting seemed to others. Ignore public opinion, and hold fast to Scripture, trusting God with this truth: Your pain holds stunning purpose. (James 1:2-4) God is about the business of chiseling you into the likeness of Christ, teaching patience and endurance and hope. (Romans 5:3-5)
There is a prominent difference between a white-knuckling-pull-myself-up-by-my-own-bootstraps response to suffering, and a clinging to Christ in faith, soft-heartedly embracing what God has chosen.
One is to suffer poorly; the other is to suffer well.
The flesh will tug: Sail away on this magic carpet ride, and to oblige is to embrace cheap diversions that allow you to soar for a time, before crashing. There are so many ways to dabble, aren’t there? The world will continually champion substitutes for godly faith in the midst of suffering. Pathetic, clunky alternatives, floppy cardboard boxes filled with empty trophies heaved in human strength as we lug them, tip-toed and breathless, upon the throne of our heart.
To the soul wandering far from God and Scripture, suffering remains random, unfair, and meaningless. Yet we know that God’s greater purposes always come to pass. (Romans 8:28) In fact, absolutely nothing happens without his permission, and our sufferings are part of his good and holy design. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
To believe this, trusting God implicitly, (without clutching any flimsy escape clauses), will change our trajectory. Pain and suffering are flush with high and holy purpose, and I know of nothing more comforting than grasping the certainty that there is no random event, no haphazard oversight causing me to suffer. I can hold my suffering, tiny or gigantic, up to the light of God’s Word and say, This is so painful, but I trust you, God.
Consider the Old Testament’s Joseph. He was hated by his jealous brothers, who tossed him headlong into a deep pit, lied to their father, pronounced Joseph dead, covered up their despicable falsehoods by dipping his robe with animal blood as proof of his death, and then further abandoned their younger brother by selling him into slavery.
I would argue that Joseph had ample opportunity to grow bitter and hard-hearted.
He did no such thing. In fact, quite the opposite.
When a sinful yet enticing distraction presented itself, following his season of suffering and terror, Joseph fled. (Genesis 39)
How can I do this great wickedness to my God? was the cry of his heart as he stiff-armed sin, embracing the promises of God rather than the seductive wife of his boss.
Joseph’s earthly reward for such allegiance to his Maker? A stint in prison, where he landed with a hard thump.
How is that for gratitude the world hisses? Joseph languishes in prison for years, suffering for such immediate obedience?
While it might be said that Joseph suffered mercilessly at the hands of others, isn’t it truer still to say that God chose Joseph to suffer horrible things, unimaginable atrocities which ultimately led to his family’s restoration and the rescue of an entire nation? (Genesis 50:20)
We each stand before our front windows, studying the landscape. When Christ rules our hearts, the view is stunningly clear: bright, clean, and rightly ordered for eternity. If Christ does not rule supreme, our windowpanes remain tainted, foggy, and smudged. This is why feasting on the totality of Scripture is vital to our spiritual health. It paints a clear picture of who God is, and how we are to rightly live out our lives, our hardships.
To grasp the power and wonder of God is to accept his good purpose in every speck of suffering. The pain will still throb, pulsing and hot, but you will now be able to trust him in the midst of it, recognizing that his gifts of hardship yield beauty, making us more like his Son. Christians who have placed their faith in Christ but have not fully embraced God’s rulership in every facet of life, are yet peering through a smudged window.
Our heart’s true belief of God (not simply who we say he is) will be spotlighted during our sufferings. Complaining, sulking, withdrawing, pouting, and blaming others, reveal the true state of matters, called suffering poorly. It is impossible to continue in such behaviors while simultaneously bowing low in humility before God.
Think of Christ himself, who suffered most, hanging limp and bloody at Golgotha, horrifically tortured, yet graciously pleading: Father, Forgive them, for they know not what they do. His heart’s cry was full of mercy and kindness. He suffered well.
Brilliant diamonds are forged in the hottest of flames, and lustrous pearls are created through sandy, abrasive discomfort by unwelcomed irritants to the oyster. We, too, are shaped, crushed, and even beautified through unbidden hot fires and deep, bone-chilling waters, as we press into Christ with Yes and Amen. Only then may we sing through our hardships, as God’s children, knowing that our sufferings are gifts specifically chosen for our good.
God is with us in our trials, and what comfort that provides! (Isaiah 43:2) Suffering awakens our need for a Savior, our need for mercy, our helpless state apart from God.
Your life as a Christian, with all of its wounds and scars, is hidden with Christ on high, a treasure growing and sparkling and preparing you for death into new life. An eternal crown, dotted with brilliant sufferings of diamonds and pearls, indestructible, forged through hot fires and deep waters.