I recently noticed a Facebook comment that stopped me in my tracks. It talked about how John was exiled, Paul jailed and Jesus executed, and then asked why we seem to assume that following God will result in a great job, a happy life and a healthy bank account?
Jesus was quite clear when he spoke to his disciples: "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)
I am convinced that we need to recognise and learn to talk more about the reality of difficulties in our lives. Western Christianity seems to have an air of entitlement about it, no doubt partly reflecting our culture, and so we can struggle with the inevitability of suffering.
I think there can also be a tendency in churches to speak in a manner that is always victorious and positive. It is true that we serve a God who has ultimately won the victory for us, and we need to remind each other of that, but that doesn't mean we will sail through life without any difficulties. We need to be real about it.
Part of the reason God places us in church communities is so that we can be honest with and support one another. We can "carry each other's burdens" by simply being there in those moments of intense pain (Galatians 6:2). We can also give practical help, and encourage one another to turn our gaze towards Jesus.
When we go through difficulties ourselves, our default can be to cry out to God for deliverance. I don't think there is anything wrong with that – the psalms give us a good blueprint for it. The writers give space to lamenting, which I don't think we do too well as churches, but also remind themselves of God's never-changing goodness.
I just wonder how often, when the difficulties come, we dare to ask God if there is something he wants to teach us through the pain. How often do we ask if there is someone he wants us to reach out to through it? How often do we submit humbly to him and say "not my will Lord but yours be done"?
I know that doing any of the above can be painful, and that sometimes what we face is simply bewildering – I don't want to belittle that in any way. I am just asking whether we can say, with the psalmist:
"I desire you more than anything on earth. My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart; he is mine forever... how good it is to be near God! I have made the Sovereign Lord my shelter." (Psalm 73:25-28 NLT)
I recently had the privilege of hosting a women's day entitled 'praising through the pain'. I was convinced that we needed to give space to acknowlege the difficulties we face in life. I wanted us to hear from some women whom I have walked alongside for many years, and who don't all have miraculous ends to their stories. They have suffered in various ways whether that's through grief, miscarriages, fertility difficulties, or physical pain.
The person who has taught me the most about this subject is my own mother, who was one of the speakers. She had her first operation when I was a baby and I haven't known a time when she hasn't been ill. She has rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, osteoporosis and obliterative bronchiolitis amongst a host of other things. She also has a strong faith – but her husband doesn't. And, as grown-up children, both my sister and I have made some decisions in our lives that have shocked and hurt her.
My mum was disarmingly honest, talking about the days she wished she could just give up, but she and the other speakers all spoke of how they have clung on to God.
Here are some of the reflections that came out of that day:
1. There are some things we will never understand, and God's wisdom in suffering is one of them. So many of those who cope with long-standing illnesses or other difficulties testify that continually asking why is not helpful. Sometimes we have to give up on what we think are our rights to such knowledge.
2. When we learn to support each other – and reach out to others in the midst of our pain – we are able to turn our heads and hearts towards God instead of allowing difficulties to crush us or make us bitter. Our hope lies in heaven, not in a swift end to temporary suffering. As 2 Corinthians 4:7-10, 16-18 says:
"We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body...
"Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
3. Jesus is the source of our salvation – and yet he also suffered. In Matthew 26 in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus cries out to his Father in a way that reveals his humanity. And yet he said "may your will be done". How incredible that we have One we can turn to who understands exactly what we are going through when we suffer:
"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:14-16)
"In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered... Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted." (Hebrews 2:10-11;14-18)
Jesus was also abandoned by His father on the cross – "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46) – so that we never have to be. We have a hope in our God, through Jesus and can be reassured that he is always with us, even in our most painful moments.