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The sneakier side of suffering

God Is There for You When You're Suffering

Many years ago, I returned home from a church event with my brother, both of us in possession of a roll of Starburst. Shortly after returning home, I managed to destroy — not chip or merely damage, mind you — absolutely pulverize an 80-year-old glass bowl I set the Starburst in.

My father, ever the public servant, started cleaning up my mess while I continued bawling off to the side. Eventually, he asked me why I was still crying. Some glass in the hand, perhaps? Guilt about destroying the bowl? Oh heavens no, my logic was far more impeccable than that. Here is what I said: “Jordan’s [my brother] going to get more candy than me now.” Brilliant, just brilliant.

I’d like to think I’ve moved past that point of moral immaturity with the help of the Holy Spirit. Much of wisdom consists of learning to match our actions to the circumstances, a necessity in a world without exact instructions for every situation. My lament over spilled Starburst was not wise. Lament over the broken things of this world is far more appropriate and, frankly, biblical.

Something that has struck me, though, about our world is the degree to which suffering grants moral credibility to the sufferer. The moral high ground very often falls to the most miserable person in the room. Moreover, someone in that position will likely find themselves the sudden beneficiary of all kinds of gifts, services, and well wishes they could not have dreamed of receiving on any other hum-drum day. Suffering lends itself to receiving certain accommodations.

Sadly, that is where many problems start. I see no harm in making accommodations for those who suffer. I do, however, see a danger in using personal suffering to demand accommodations every time.

You can imagine the shock you might feel if a suffering friend or family member came to you one day and said, “You know, I’ve been sitting around, thinking about how crummy life is for me right now … and I’ve come to the conclusion that you owe me $5,000 for the trouble of it all.” In general, most people would never be this blunt or absurd. Yet, we do this all the time in subtler ways.

Three things may be noted here.

First, I don’t want to give the impression that we should not care and lament with those who suffer. We should. Rather, this is about you, me, and God. While genuine suffering exists, there is a danger of using it as leverage against our Creator and Redeemer. We may not say it, but I know I’ve certainly thought before, “God, you owe me one for what you’ve put me through.” But He doesn’t. The very thought contains a contention for His throne. Call it whatever you want, but it’s just pride at the end of the day.

Second, we may consider anew the role that gratitude plays in combatting this distortion. Why is it that we can find ourselves so reluctant to be grateful? A piece of that puzzle is the fact that gratitude forms a natural barrier against excess. It shatters any sense of entitlement and is not troubled by comparing itself to others. No wonder our flesh resists it and prefers to wallow in suffering. If gratitude truly enters the house, our claims on God disappear.

My brother is fond of telling of a lady he met in Lithuania who exemplified this immensely well. She had grown up in Eastern Ukraine, listening to government and separatist forces shelling one another up the beach, and yet was one of the most joyful and grateful people one could meet. And, as he puts it, “She was one of the most genuinely joyful people I have ever met … She was undeniably sad, but her joy shone right through it. She had the real thing.”

Finally, Christians should refrain from making suffering a litmus test for truth or genuineness. I think we often take Christ’s words — "in this life, you will have trouble”— and go looking for suffering. Particularly in an affluent society, we are doubly prone to wonder if we’re walking the good Christian walk if we’re not suffering like we think we should. But this is simply a lie; wicked people suffer too, and the righteous are often painted as blessed in Scripture. We ignore this to our detriment.

We are called to pursue good things and, ultimately, to pursue Christ regardless of what trials we do or don’t face along the way. To that end, may we hold our lives in open hands, ready to accept whatever the Father places into them or removes from them.

Matthew Beal is an operations manager in Northern Virginia, where he is blessed to know good friends and a great God. 

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