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Surviving suffering: Spiritual attitudes (pt 3)

In two earlier posts (here and here) I spoke about some features of co-suffering with Christ, i.e. our spiritual surroundings in times of trial and uniquely sensitives times in the midst of pain. Now I address some spiritual attitudes that can help us endure as co-sufferers (Phil 3:10-11). To embrace emotional pain in its fullness, yet to not lose ultimatefaith in God or ultimate hope in His plan, is the existential core of the Christian life. It is the life of the Christ follower most profoundly realized. Paul says it this way:

Because of Him I have suffered the loss of all things…My goal is to know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.

Philippians 3:7-10

Suffering in the Christian life is a given, like in any life. However, Paul says explicitly that to suffer in Christ is to come to know God more fully, and this is more than just propositional knowledge, it is relational and ontological. Jesus Himself says that it is through our pain that we will know His ways:

If anyone wants to be My follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me and the gospel will save it.

Mark 8:34

Anthony Costello
Courtesy of Anthony Costello

While these familiar verses may seem tread-worn and trite to those who have heard them too many times, alas, familiarity does not alter veracity or change inspired words. Familiarity does not amend what these passages refer to nor mitigate the phenomena of the experiences they entail. The reality of suffering is coming, if it is not already here- here with me and here with you. So, what should we do about it?

Prayer in Suffering

The sooner we embrace the reality of our suffering, the sooner we can pray rightly about what we are experiencing. By embracing suffering we acknowledge first that it is in accordance with God’s permissive will that this suffering has been allowed. This association entails that the suffering is likewise against God’s perfect will, meaning that it is neither authored by God nor that it is not real suffering. Cancer, divorce, murder, actual racism are all inherently bad things. However, suffering is not random, and while undesired it is yet purposeful. Within the context of God’s ultimate plans, suffering is by design. Tears exist within the broader context of God’s providence, which is the entire redemption of the world. This is our starting place as Jesus people, lest suffering appear pointless and begin to overwhelm our souls.

Second, this saying is trustworthy: “A faith gone untested is a faith not to be trusted.” The true son or daughter of the living God knows that pain, although having no intrinsic value, always provides an opportunity for growth in spiritual strength and spiritual wisdom. Pain, and the endurance of pain, will become that thing which makes you trustworthy in the eyes of others. It is the noble endurance of pain that hallmarks the true Christian saint.

Therefore, the sooner we embrace our pain as part of God’s redemptive plan, the more readily our prayers become effective as they match the reality of suffering and God’s will. Moreover, any infantile notions of God, e.g. the great candy man in the sky or ultimate genie in the bottle, immediately collapse when we realize the depth of the reality of pain and suffering that a sovereign God allows us to endure.

Still, our prayers never become sanitized or sanctimonious. Quite the opposite, they become like the prayers of the Psalmist. Prayers like this:

There is no soundness in my body
because of your indignation;
there is no health in my bones
because of my sin.
For my sins have flooded over my head;
they are a burden too heavy for me to bear.
My wounds are foul and festering
because of my foolishness.
I am bent over and brought low;
all day long I go around in mourning.
For my loins are full of burning pain,
and there is no health in my body.
I am faint and severely crushed;
I groan because of the anguish of my heart.

Psalm 38:3-8

But, on the other hand, also this:

I waited patiently for the Lord,
and he turned to me and heard
my cry for help.
He brought me up from a desolate pit
out of the muddy clay,
and set my feet on a rock,
making my steps secure.

Psalm 40:1-2

Burning loin pain and feeling like one has been rescued from a deep pit are paradoxical experiences of those who follow Christ through suffering. Loss, then gain, lostness, then rescue. The real difficulty comes in between those two states, during the time of “patient waiting.” It is the “how long, oh Lord?” that crushes us.

However, fervent prayer for the Christ follower in the midst of great loss, especially persistent fervent prayer over a long, sustained period of loss, just is the concrete expression of authentic Christian faith. It is where Christ-likeness takes shape. It is where the character of Christ is placed upon the co-sufferer, as we are united in our experience of suffering for the Good, for the True, and for the Beautiful. It is here, in painful and honest prayer that your soul becomes something other than what it once was. Here is the chance at a more authentic sainthood; an opportunity for a holiness not of this world. Here, in agonizing prayer, is the moment of transformation. Suffer in this place, and you will know Him. Run, and you will miss Him.

Charity in Suffering

If prayer is the first act in the life of the co-sufferer with Christ, and the most transformative one, then what is act two? Act two must be the outward expression of that very inward transformation. Thus, the second act of the Christ-sufferer is to exercise, to practice, and to exert all that has been learned through pain, and this by pouring out wisdom and love in the service of others. In other words, the sufferer now becomes the healer to others who are suffering.

This is the redemption of pain. However, pain that is not transformed through the acceptance of God’s will and the co-suffering with Christ is often the cause of more pain into the world. Untransformed pain generates more hurt, it doesn’t mitigate the hurt already there. Untransformed pain is an embittered pain that seeps out in unsavory ways, rather than exploding in acts of charity and joy.

Untransformed pain is ugly; transformed pain, glorious.

For those whose soul is shaped by Christ-shaped suffering, it becomes clear that others, that the world itself, will benefit from their Christ-shaped pain. Pain that has been transformed begins to heal the world around it, and when we see it we rightly know its beauty. Prayer and Charity: these are the spiritual attitudes we must pursue in the times that test our soul.

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.

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