Recently I have been thinking and writing a lot about suffering. In times of COVID against tense political landscapes, how could one not? Maybe you are going through COVID, a divorce, the loss of a loved one in a car accident, or perhaps the loss of a dream you once had.
While there are many things one could focus on when addressing the issue of how Christians suffer, in this first post I want to focus on something else. Here, I want to offer some useful applications for how to survive, and perhaps thrive, when those hard strikes do come. All these challenges can be met, and met courageously, but they cannot be met apart from a sustained engagement with Christ and His people.
On that note, I see three domains of existence in which the Christ-sufferer – the one who suffers “with Christ”– should recognize in order to survive and even thrive within the storm: Spiritual Surroundings, Spiritual Times, and Spiritual Attitudes. In this post we will look at the first of these: Spiritual Surroundings.
In times of pain and suffering, the Christian must surround oneself with the resources God has provided. There are three basic categories of being that comprise our surroundings: people, places, and objects. For the Christ-sufferer, then, our surroundings should be permeated with regular interaction with spiritual people — Christian spiritual people — occurring in spiritual places, and focused on spiritual things or objects (don’t worry, I am not promoting relic worship).
Spiritual Christians are different from others, even others who may go to church or who have been baptized or who even give a lot of money to the church. Spiritual Christians revel in the things of God: they pray fervently, they naturally avoid the mundane, banal, and silly things of the world, they think deeply about God. Spiritual Christians know the Bible well and they love to sing worship songs. Spiritual people speak spiritual truths and they speak them in love. They pray on their knees, they call on God’s help and mercy, and they do so often. They cry in church and then laugh outside afterward. They know how to comfort, even if not perfectly. They want God’s will for you, even in the suffering you experience. Spiritual people are safe people, but without being saccharine.
Spiritual Christians have themselves been spiritually and emotionally broken, and have done their own share of breaking. They know God’s love and forgiveness personally. Their eyes tear up when they think of it. Then they smile warmly. Then they celebrate. We know, in spite of their failures and flaws that these people can rightly called born again. It is to these fellow sojourners we must run, and the more of them we know, the better. They are often older men and women, but not always. They tend to be empathetic to pain, yet forever hopeful. They give off joy and emanate peace.
Step one to thriving in suffering is therefore this: When you are suffering spend time with Spiritual Christians.
However, one has to be theologically careful, when one speaks of things “spiritual.” That term has been used in our contemporary, pluralistic culture to mean anything that is simply other than materialistic atheism. Spirituality applied to people, or here places, can mean anything from gurus to sacred shrines. In this context, however, I am not talking about geographical locations which (allegedly) emanate some special spiritual force or power. After all, all of creation is God’s creation, and God works everywhere, always. His places are all places, from church to concentration camp alike. Still, within this world there are specific places that can help us focus on His presence, and remind us of His power.
Yes, church is one of these places. And here I do mean the actual local church, the very building that houses the Body of Christ every Sunday morning (or Wednesday evening); that physical place where the saints of the invisible Church gather. What kind of local church you have nearby is less important, it could be a pastor’s living room or a megachurch campus. But, all local churches should have as their primary focus Christ crucified and Christ resurrected, and they should be arranged in such a way to present this abiding truth to us. Church chapels and prayer rooms, campuses and cathedrals can be places to help us focus our mind on God’s Word and open our heart to His Spirit. The places where we worship matter to us as embodied creatures, and we should be there in the midst of struggle.
Of course, God’s cathedral, His “footstool,” is creation itself. Thus, nature is also a spiritual place where we can observe the creative power of our God and, in perceiving His glory, come to see our particular pain within the vast complex of His overwhelming plan for creation. It is not that our particular struggles evaporate in the presence of the natural world; El Captain or Mt. Rainer have no such causal powers. Still, the sheer immensity of the Grand Canyon, or majesty of Yellowstone’s Upper and Lower Falls, can act as shadows of the Beauty that awaits us in the new creation. This the the Beauty that C.S. Lewis said we long to inhabit, to be inside of and not just to view from without. To know that even the transcendent experiences of the Matterhorn on a bright Swiss morning, or the Redwood National Forrest at dusk actually pale in comparison to the Beauty that awaits us who love God. It is part of what God showed Job in the middle of his own strife.
Lastly, other spiritual places could be places of human artifact, but again where Beauty is on display. Finely crafted gardens, Gothic cathedrals, awe-inspiring libraries and the world’s best art galleries, could indeed bring some solace to an aching soul. However, careful distinctions need to be made, and spiritual discernment applied, since not all art is reflective of the divine Nature. That which is, however, can draw us back into the grand design of the Great Designer, allowing us to see our own pain not as ultimate, but as contained within a much vaster arena of human experience. Anyone who has experienced Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross or the Isenheim altarpiece in living color will understand what I mean here.
In sum, step two: when in times of great suffering, seek places that either are centered on God’s Word through worship, or that reflect His Beauty in Creation or Art.
Here, let me make a theological qualification, as I am not ascribing intrinsic value to objects. Idolatry is, to be sure, not my aim. However, I think it can be appropriate to feel or grasp something tangible in a manner that can comfort. So, for example, to hold my Bible tightly in my hands as I feel the weight of my pain does not mean I am worshiping my Bible, but the feel of its pages in my hand, the smell of its leather binding, can be a reminder of the One Who authored it, and of the promises He has made to me. An actual Bible, perhaps a favorite copy, can indeed be an object to cling to. Recently, I have been sleeping with my Bible held close to my chest. Nothing about this rings untrue or idolatrous. It reminds me of hope that lies within.
In addition to a Bible, good books can be spiritual things. In times of pain, a book can be a good friend. Philip Yancey has written a classic, Where is God When it Hurts? that neither whitewashes the reality of suffering, nor caves into despair. Reading through the book can bless the reader as he encounters the tragic stories of many, yet sees real cases of redemption that emerge from pain and sorrow. Reading can also be accompanied by writing spiritual thoughts. In times of hurt the Psalmist wrote inspired songs; so too can we write songs, poems, even articles or papers that help us creatively process our pain.
Finally, spiritual things can also be spiritual actions. As Yancey points out in his book, those who allow their pain to motivate them to action, especially to service toward others, realize that their purpose in life is not unraveled by their struggle, rather their struggle becomes an integral part of a far greater purpose. While this purpose is often very hard to discern, and certainly it is not something that is discerned immediately, there is a real hope that every Christ-sufferer will be called to act out of a conviction that he or she would not have had, had they not suffered.
As we see so often in the Bible (Gen. 50:15-21), if our actions mirror God’s will in times of trouble, great exaltation often follows. This is perhaps a truth that soldiers or star athletes (I think especially of boxers) grasp more readily, since the endurance of pain is most often the integral component to future glory. Thus, to serve God and man in the midst of pain is a way of enduring that imitates Christ’s own actions on the cross.
The third step in surviving suffering then is to surround oneself with objects of spiritual comfort, and engage in actions of spiritual reward.
In sum, when we get hit, and get hit hard: cancer, loss of a child, severe disappointment, we need to surround ourselves with spiritual light. We need to be surrounded by spiritual people, find ourselves in spiritual places, and attach our thoughts to spiritual things if we are to survive and even thrive in times of trouble. In the next post, I will look at another domain of spiritual focus, Spiritual Times.
Anthony Costello has a BA from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN and two Masters Degrees from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University in Christian Apologetics and Theology. Anthony's areas of focus are Apologetics and Systematic Theology. He has published in both academic journals and magazines and co-authored two chapters in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell. He is a US Army and Afghanistan Veteran.