What to Expect When We’re Suffering

I sat in church this past Sunday morning, reveling in the beauty and joy of our communal celebration of Christ’s resurrection. Soft organ music filled the empty space with life. A crown of flowers bloomed from the thorns on the cross. The procession began down the aisle, with a shining cross held triumphantly high. My heart soared with hope. Death swallowed up in victory!

But as the back of the procession came into sight, my heart caught in my throat. The man carrying the second cross was still in his wheelchair, still suffering under the effects of the curse. Ordinarily I find great beauty and significance in seeing the juxtaposition of his suffering with the symbol of Christ’s suffering. But on a morning like this, it jolted my spirit with a harsh reality slap. Where is the victory for him?

What is the hope for my mother facing cancer, my brother- and sister-in-law awaiting the birth of a baby with significant internal deformities, or my friend whose mother is fading away in hospital? What does living on this side of Christ’s resurrection mean for them?

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22

Christ’s resurrection marks the turning point for all of history, the hinge pin between the reign of the curse and the kingdom of God. In rising from the grave, Jesus defeated death, He broke the curse, and He inaugurated a new creation.

So what are we to expect now?

The disciples had struggled to know what to expect of Him. But as their faith in His resurrection power grew, so did their confidence in applying it to those still suffering under the curse. A crippled beggar made whole. The sick and suffering healed. Prison doors shaken open. A dead boy raised to life.

…there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
2 Corinthians 12:7-8

But that wasn’t always the way it worked out. Sometimes the thorn was not removed from the flesh, the prisoner was not freed from his chains, the victim was not spared from death. How did they reconcile the victorious reign of Christ with the pulverized body of Stephen or the agonized prayers of Paul?

Somehow Paul’s expectations didn’t seem at all disappointed. He had experienced the healing power of God in his own life, and had conveyed that power to countless others. And yet his faith wasn’t rattled by the constant barrage of suffering from which God did not deliver him. If anything, he took it as par for the course.

But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
1 Corinthians 15:20-23

Paul understood the story. Death has been swallowed up in victory—for Jesus. But we are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory. Yes, He has opened the gates of glory for us, but the path from here to there still involves hardship and pain.

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, … so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
2 Corinthians 5:2-5

Jesus walked this path ahead of us, and He has given us His Spirit to help us as we now struggle down it ourselves. At times He intervenes, breaking through our present suffering with a dose of future glory. But those healing fixes are only temporary. The pain we are spared in one situation we will face again in another. The body that is miraculously healed from deformity or cancer will eventually succumb to death.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” …
But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Corinthians 15:35, 54-57

As painful and gruesome as it is, death is the final door we pass through to glory. As much as it stings on this side, it will lose its venom on the other. And in the end, death will be swallowed up in victory for us, too.

He is risen. Our turn is coming!

11 thoughts on “What to Expect When We’re Suffering”

  1. I’ve long found 1 Cor 11:27-32 fascinating, because it seems to indicate that at least some weakness, illness, and death is due to a failure of the body of Christ. But what does this mean? Is there charismatic healing power which is not being made available? I read Bill Johnson’s The Essential Guide to Healing, which claims that healing power is more available than we think. Why isn’t it used more often? One reason I heard preached recently was that perhaps the activity in 1 Cor 11:17-22 thwarts the realizing of the charismatic gift of healing. While I don’t fully understand this claim, it is intuitively appealing. Perhaps we aren’t seeing as much of the charismatic gifts because they are not actually being used in a 1 Cor 13 fashion? Perhaps we need to seriously examine passages like Mt 20:20-28 and Jn 13:1-20 and 1 Cor 12? I asked the Hermeneutics.SE question, 1 Cor 12:22-25 — ‘weaker’? ‘less honorable’? ‘unpresentable’?. I was not satisfied with any of the responses.

    Anyhow, consider the above mostly speculation. I believe the Bible means something profound in the above passages, but I don’t think I’ve come close to grasping the profundity. One thing I do believe: Christians in the West these days have set their expectations very low. Earth is basically batting practice for heaven, except it’s even less than that. Something is wrong, here. Perhaps Jon Mark Ruthven’s What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis has some insights. Diglotting’s Book Review: The Subversion of Christianity (Jacques Ellul) might also. I was spurred onto this line of thinking by an old pastor’s (and still good friend) Master’s thesis, in which he quoted Berkouwer:

    Now we are able to appreciate why the New Testament so persistently refers to sin as that which is “strange.” It is especially strange when committed by a man who is redeemed from sin and who also knows and experiences, in thanksgiving, that Christ has made atonement for him. Certainly this word strange does not imply that sin is a vestige of the Christian’s former self; for nowhere in the apostolic preaching do we read that sin is explainable in terms of our “old life.” Instead, we are met by the apostles’ remonstrance and genuine surprise. The apostles were full of amazement and awe because of this fact of sin within the Church.

    G.C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Sin, trans. Philip C. Holtrop (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eedermans Publishing Company, 1971), 141.

    This opened up my expectations to untold levels of possible excellence to which we could aspire in this life. 2 Cor 3:17-18 certainly indicates a lot of transformation happening this side of heaven. What if Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said, “You therefore msut be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”? The possibilities fascinate me. Maybe, as CS Lewis said, we’ve been playing in the mud when there’s a wonderful trip to the beach to be had.

  2. Dear Labrueur, it looks like you are on a spiritual journey of deep seeking. I think the first step is the desire to know – to search out – to find the meaning of the words. I think there are so many layers for us to discover…..keep going.

    1. 🙂 I strongly believe God has infinite possibilities for truth, beauty, and excellence—if only we will desire them and run hard after them. “With God all things are possible.”—do we have any idea what that means, these days? In general, we seem to have neutered it, by placing it strictly in the afterlife. 😦

      1. Luke, I couldn’t agree with you more. I struggle with this question about what to expect in our lives here one earth in light of Jesus’ resurrection because I, too, believe that there is more to it than just “batting practice” for heaven. I suspect that much of the problem is that we have bought in to the enlightenment idea that God operates in the heavenly realm and laws of nature govern the earthly one, leading us as Christians to live schizophrenic lives. I also think that the fragmentation of modernism has undercut our understanding of theology, leaving us with a million tiny shards of truth which lack a meta-narrative to hold them together. But all that aside, I think it takes a much greater level of faith in God’s ability to run the universe for us to embrace both the intense suffering that He ordains for us and the miraculous levels of holiness and healing that He can accomplish through us.

        I couldn’t begin to address this whole question in this one post, but I do hope to go back and emphasize the other side of the coin, namely that He does heal and do the miraculous through us here and now, precisely because we live on this side of Jesus’ resurrection.

        You raise questions that challenge me and push me to deeper thought. I’m glad you aren’t settling for less that the “impossible.”

  3. I agree that God still does the “impossible” here on earth. Healing has nothing to do with sin or weakness, what we do or don’t do. It is always God’s choice, God’s free figrace, and to think we understand the “why” of God is to place Him inside the box of our human logic. We can only continue to have faith that He keeps His promises, that in order to follow Jesus, we must take up our crosses, and that we were never promised our lives before his return would be easy – only that His burden would be light.

    Our circumstances are nothing compared to His. In the Western world, our circumstances are abundant, even though we face ill health, hard times or death. We must put our suffering into perspective and remember what James said: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness, and let steadfastness have its full effect that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

    This completeness will not occur until our journey in this life is over and Jesus has returned. I think it is more about having faith that He walks with us when we are not healed than trying to figure out why He has not.

    1. I think it is more about having faith that He walks with us when we are not healed than trying to figure out why He has not.

      Excellent insight, Susan.

      What’s more, I have a growing conviction that the suffering that you speak of is the perfecting process that leads to our completion. Even Jesus, with all His power to heal and deliver, submitted Himself to this painful process, and through it was “made perfect” (which I still struggle to understand). Heb. 2:10

      What I am still grappling with is how to hold together a theology of suffering and a theology of glory, in other words living in the shadow of the cross but also in the power of the resurrection. I know both are true and relevant to us here and now, but they often seem at odds with each other. When do I submit to suffering and when do I resist it? I see both in the lives of the apostles, but it’s hard to detect a pattern. (Other than, as you point out, that the Spirit leads us through both and empowers us to deal with both.)

      I guess this means that there will be more reflection and posts on this to follow!

      1. If I may butt in. 😐

        What’s more, I have a growing conviction that the suffering that you speak of is the perfecting process that leads to our completion. Even Jesus, with all His power to heal and deliver, submitted Himself to this painful process, and through it was “made perfect” (which I still struggle to understand). Heb. 2:10

        You could also look into Rom 8:16-17, Col 1:24, and 1 Pe 3:13-17. Or the 7+1 instances of “one who conquers” in Revelation. Or the enigmatic but awesome Eccl 7:15-18, which argues for temperance in righteousness (“disadvantaging self for others”). Then again, Stephen went out in a blaze of glory, so maybe that ‘temperance’ is different from individual to individual. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

        Now, I wish to temper your claim here, from “suffering… is the perfecting process” → “suffering… is a perfecting process”. One doesn’t always have to learn the hard way! Now, sometimes the harm wasn’t your fault and yet you can suffer in the effort to heal the harm. I think Jesus’ death had a lot of that in it. But sometimes we’re just learning new things—see Psalm 119, and especially v32. Drawing close to God doesn’t always have to hurt!

        What I am still grappling with is how to hold together a theology of suffering and a theology of glory, in other words living in the shadow of the cross but also in the power of the resurrection.

        How about this?: One way to truly identify with Jesus is to suffer as he suffered. 2 Cor 4 is definitely a go-to passage: “So death is at work in us, but life in you.” I’d also suggest mystic Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace. If you really want to get intense, see Positive Disintegration.

      2. Lots to ponder, Luke. I appreciate your helpful distinction between suffering being a way rather than the way that we grow closer to God. Certainly He also draws us close through miraculous deliverance (Red Sea), through abundant blessing (promised land), and even through tender whispers (Elijah emerging from the cave).

        However, I still contend that suffering is the process through which all must pass in order to reach glory. This is the basic narrative that I see cycling through all of Scripture, consistent with human experience in history, and fulfilled in Christ. (Heb. 2:9-10) As such, I think it is inescapable and appropriate to say that suffering is a necessary component of our lives, one that is a critical step in the process of our being elevated to the status of sons of God.

      3. However, I still contend that suffering is the process through which all must pass in order to reach glory.

        Ahhh, but is this not because the world is broken and we are to care for it? I’m reminded of the following:

        Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his waist. And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. (Ezek 9:3-6)

        This is almost saying: destroy all non-sentient beings. Whoever has a hard heart can no longer feel sorry, can no longer empathize. A nation of psychopaths—except for the oppressed, of course. My family line vs. all other family lines. Suffering doesn’t have to be physical; it can easily be mental, emotional. If we refuse to suffer, we refuse to be part of the healing process, the redemptive process.

  4. “We are still in the earlier part of the story, the part where suffering precedes glory.” This brought to my mind C.S. Lewis’ quote: “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.” There is distinct hope in looking ahead to our own “rest of the story,” and it’s mind-boggling to consider how fleeting this life is in comparison with the eternity of glory we’ll share. A distinct taste of that glory we can experience in the midst of suffering here is the particular nearness of God. Another is the enough-ness of His grace — the harder the trial, the more grace He gives.

    1. Yes, Jennifer, I agree that the best foretaste of glory is the incredible nearness of God that we experience in the midst of severe trial. There have been times when I have found myself saying to Him, “If this is what gets me more of You, then bring it on!”

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