Recently, I learnt from a cell group member that someone in our young adults ministry requires a serious operation due to the presence of a benign tumour. She’d sent a message to several chat groups, telling us to “remember our friend in prayer, and drop her a prayer and note of encouragement” if we could.
I found myself perplexed – what could anyone say to someone in this situation? It didn’t help that the doctor said that there was a possible chance of future recurrence.
Faced with such a situation, was there anything to be said that would make things better? Words seemed like mere platitudes, even hypocritical.
It is difficult to grapple with the notion that Christians may be “perplexed, but not driven to despair” (2 Corinthians 4:8) – pain is real and difficult to bear, hence despair seems to be the natural reaction, not its opposite, hope.
SUFFERING IS REAL
Physical death came into the world as Adam’s punishment for disobeying God’s command (Gen 3:19), and has also been passed down to Adam’s descendants (Romans 5:12) – all of us.
Likewise, sickness occurs as part and parcel of a fallen world – a consequence of Man’s collective rebellion against God. It does not discriminate among individuals (John 9:1-3); no one in this world has a get-out-of-suffering card.
Hence, it is important to note that suffering is valid and we should never downplay the tragedy of it.
As believers in the Greatest Hope, we may not feel permitted to be sad in the midst of trials and suffering; to not see them as such. On the contrary, the Bible tells us God’s people – Joseph in the book of Genesis, Naomi in the book of Ruth, King David, Job, the apostle Paul, among others – faced many trials!
Prophets wept. People of God cried out. Throughout the ages, good people have faced the scourge of suffering. We need to acknowledge that some parts of life truly hurt – and that’s okay because we’re not alone (1 Peter 5:9).
IS THERE PURPOSE IN SUFFERING?
Romans 8:28 tells us that “for those who love God all things work together for good” – the all-inclusive nature of this statement means God is working to use our circumstances to conform us into Christlikeness, even in suffering (Romans 8:29).
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul exhorts the Corinthian church to trust in God’s strength in the midst of their weaknesses – God used his suffering to strengthen the faith of other believers (2 Corinthians 1:6, 7). Paul concedes to be so utterly burdened beyond his strength that he “despaired of life itself”.
Yet, he also acknowledges the purpose in his suffering – to rely not on himself but on God (2 Corinthians 1:8, 9).
We can rejoice because God can, and will, conform us into Christlikeness in all circumstances, including tough times.
In the midst of suffering, we remember that God sent his Son into the world to suffer more than any man ever will. We cry out for help and comfort to a God who fully understands the pain of suffering and never forsakes us even in the fallenness of life.
It is because of this that Paul is able to rejoice even in prison because he knows that when God comes through for him, he will get to experience the same resurrection, saving power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead (Philippians 3:11).
REJOICE IN SUFFERING?
In Romans 5:3, we are told to rejoice in suffering. This sounds both counterintuitive and cruel at first glance. Yet, reading in context, we see why this is worth it – not that we remain happy in difficult circumstances themselves, but to rejoice in the fruit of suffering.
It bears explaining that “rejoicing” is more than being “happy” – even as Paul issues the command to rejoice, it is important to note the object of our rejoicing. On closer reading of Philippians, we realise the object of our rejoicing remains constant and doesn’t change with circumstances – we are able to rejoice in the Lord (Philippians 3:1, 4:4).
This contrasts with being happy – an emotional state which fluctuates with life’s circumstances.
We can rejoice because God can, and will, conform us into Christlikeness in all circumstances, including tough times. By looking to Christ’s sufficiency and power when faced with a difficult situation, we avoid giving in to resentment, bitterness and complaining. In this, our faith perseveres and is made stronger.
Furthermore, despite present suffering, we know we can rejoice in suffering because we have hope – we find hope in the person and saving work of Christ (Hebrews 6:19), which provides security and stability for our souls.
In light of this knowledge, this is how I will now respond to my friend’s predicament:
I’m not sure what I can say – I know my words can’t change your situation. Both you and your family may be feeling scared, possibly also in anticipation of hospital charges and medical bills – which might be hefty. It’s a horrible situation to be in – and it’s not your first time undergoing this operation.
But this is what I hope you’ll remember – God’s love for you doesn’t fluctuate, even though your health does. God is using this for His glory, to grow you in Christlikeness. While that looks different for each person, your friends are encouraged that despite tough circumstances, your faith in God is never lost. I’m sure that pleases God!
We’ll be praying for God’s peace on you and your family.
Love and blessings,