I’ve heard people express genuine thanksgiving through tragedy and loss. They say things like, “This is not a path I would have chosen, but I wouldn’t change it now even if I could”. Personally, this type of sentiment has been difficult for me to understand. How can you thank God for something like cancer, or a painful divorce? For an addiction that destroyed your family, an accident that left your body broken, a death that left you a widow? How can the most gut wrenching event in your life be a “gift”?
The short answer is…I don’t know. I personally had no idea. But I do know we cannot physically or emotionally view any form of suffering like this on our own. If left to our own devices, we would never come to this understanding because there is nothing logical, normal, or natural about it. Loss is loss. Tragedy is tragedy. Pain is pain. It is impossible for us to see it any other way apart from God.
This whole idea is a supernatural concept. It is a supernatural happening. Something God does for us and in us through our suffering. It is inexplicable apart from Him, and incomprehensible to others who have not been touched by God in this way. If you have trouble believing this, try it out sometime. Just spend five minutes talking to someone about the “gift” in your pain and see what happens. The wave of fear that washes over their face followed by a suffocating silence is the first indication that your viewpoint is not connecting with their credo. Don’t get me wrong, no one knows what to say to someone who is truly hurting. But if you think that is hard, try getting across this thing that has broken your heart is the very same thing that is somehow healing it. Huh? I know. Now I sound like the crazy person talking about the gift I never asked for that keeps on giving. To say that suffering is ultimately for good just “does not compute” for most. Even the ones who want to believe it. They are just not feeling it, because they can’t. It doesn’t tie into our theology unless we are brought into this understanding by God. It is a gift of His great grace.
Strange as it sounds, this is a place I am inching toward. God is doing something inside all my pain. This bizarre blessedness has crept up on me, and I found myself genuinely praising God for my suffering last Saturday in prayer. Joy swept over my sadness and filled with me with a great sense of thanksgiving and awe. Nuts as that sounds, then it happened again on Sunday during worship. I can’t explain it further, except to say it is God’s doing. Completely.
I’ve been reading a book called, “The Explicit Gospel” by Matt Chandler. Pastor Chandler has helped me process all of this a little more deeply. In the book, he juxtaposes two positions on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He calls these positions, “The Gospel on the Ground” vs. “The Gospel in the Air”. The contrast has been fascinating to read about, but even more mind-blowing to apply personally in my life right now. I wish I could expand on the two perspectives (i.e. ground vs. air) but it is too lengthy for a blog post. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in batting around theology in an articulate and practical way. He talks about the importance of the two perspectives being held together. The two in harmony, in his words, “shape our vision of God’s saving purposes to the epic scope of biblical revelation”. Huh? Translation: God’s plan is BIG. So big, in fact, that one slant (i.e. ground or air) does not give us a well-balanced understanding of the fullness of God, or the Gospel.
This whole thing fit together perfectly with something I have been tossing about in terms of biblical discipleship, which is simply the process of growing in Christ. This newfound sense of blessedness in my suffering combined with this balanced view of the Gospel has brought me to a new understanding.
Suffering is a bridge.
It connects one perspective of the Gospel to the other. When we walk through suffering, we can see how the Gospel on the ground, which is more about my personal relationship to God and my little world, connects to the Gospel in the air, which is more about God’s redemptive purposes in the entire world, of which I am a very small part. Suffering presents the chance to go beyond my immediate needs, concerns, and desires. It is an opportunity to partake of something infinitely greater: God’s redemptive purposes within the context of the particular circumstances He has allowed to touch my life. Seen this way, suffering is a trust. It is the proving ground where the faith I talk about is walked out.
And what we learn on the bridge of suffering, we can learn in no other way. Suffering requires us to wade painfully through anguished waters and the fires of sorrow. We cross into deep darkness where the way is hidden from our eyes, and we walk through the valley of the shadow of death that threatens our ruin. But yet, precisely here, a strange comfort rises. We find we are able to walk through suffering because our feet have been fitted with a readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace; the explicit Gospel we now understand better in its fullness of vision and reach. We need not fear crossing the bridge of suffering because it leads us into greater participation in the Gospel of Christ. We strain toward the One made perfect through suffering, believing He is perfecting us through ours. And we know all of His ways are firm because we stand upon that Old Rugged Cross supporting our load.
To see the blessing in our brokenness is a gift from God. It is to be profoundly changed by His all surpassing power. Our sense of blessedness battles back the darkness, and God shines forth in waves of unexpected joy. Our cup overflows with “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3). This is the beauty found in the strange ashes of suffering. “The riches of God’s grace that He lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And He made known to us the mystery of His will…to be put into effect when the times have reached their fulfillment – to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:9, 10).
In ways I cannot fully know, God is somehow pulling me closer through my pain. He is bringing all my broken pieces together into perfect harmony. He lifts my eyes to see the pain born out of suffering will bear fruit that lasts. Afflictions eclipsed by eternal glory. And so I reach for Him, holding firmly to the hope held out in His Gospel. Surely these things are gifts; treasures in this body of clay. A garland of grace for my head as I go forth along this anointed path. And when I lie down this weary walk, sleep will be sweet.