By Curtis K. Shelburne
Suffering. It’s the solvent that strips away easy answers.
At every time of suffering, some well-meaning somebody is around to toss out poorly thought-out, nonsensical, and unwittingly cruel “pious” platitudes: “God won’t put more on you than you can stand.” That kind of drivel.
Well, God probably did not put this suffering on you at all; you got it by living in a fallen world.
“Life” doesn’t—life can’t—care what it does to you any more than the iceberg that sank the Titanic did so out of maliciously icy motives. Ship hits hard ice. Ice puts hole in ship. Ship sinks. People die. Life doesn’t care. Not because it’s mean or evil. Because it can’t. It’s an it.
Here’s the paradox. Life is not alive, if by “alive” you mean personal. The Author of Life cares deeply about what happens to you and how you feel about it, deal with it, bear up under it. He sees when even a sparrow falls. But life does not. It can’t.
Life is a great gift from God, but living in a fallen world is not easy. We will all go through times when life is agonizing.
Let’s try to be honest for a change—in times of great pain, the only thing worse than being alive would be NOT being alive. One important way God helps us through the agony is by reminding us of the real times of joy we’ve had, and will have, that make life precious.
But that does not mean that the present “agony” is anything less than agonizing. We don’t help ourselves—and I know we don’t help other sufferers—by lies: “Oh, it’s not so bad” when, yes, it is.
“God will use this to make you stronger.” Probably. I know he wants to because he loves the sufferer. I know he can, if we let him. But folks who lightly toss out that line richly deserve the opportunity themselves to be made stronger. Then we’ll see if they prattle on about it.
Yes, our redemptive God can use suffering to strengthen us as fire tempers steel. If we survive suffering, we’ll come through stronger. Not everyone does. And no one in their right mind enjoys it. I’ve never met a soldier who saw thick combat who liked talking about it. Never.
It’s hard for me to imagine anyone who has ever experienced the real thing saying to a sufferer in the midst of the fire: “God will use this to make you stronger.” The right to say those words is hard-earned, and those who have earned the right have also earned the wisdom to almost never say them.
Through his own suffering, Dr. Paul Tournier, a man of deep faith, dared to write a book entitled Creative Suffering. I remember it because he threw down no platitudes. He faced suffering’s dark night without lying to himself or others about it’s “not being so black.” Through his own tears, he found that God helped him endure it, even when he felt like he could not, would not, and when just remembering to breathe on some days seemed like incredible success.
That’s real and honest. Those whose faith and presence are most helpful when we suffer are not those who say, “It’s not so bad”; they are those who know that it is bad, very bad. But they’ve endured horribly black times, weren’t sure they could, but are still breathing, living, and managing to find hope—sometimes just one moment at a time—in Him.
Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org