Waybread is food designed to strengthen travelers on a long journey. It's found in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and is usually referred to in the book as lembas. Many people, and Tolkien himself, also see a connection between waybread and Communion. This little weekly column is intended to offer reflections from God's Word to provide a mid-week source of strength and encouragement for your own long journey in following Christ.
hope in the midst of suffering
It's been weighing on me for a few weeks now that many among us are making our way through life these days bearing heavy, heavy burdens, maybe for weeks, months, or even years. Hundreds of books have been written about pain and suffering, and I don't have all the answers by any stretch of the imagination (and I certainly don't have Five Secrets to a Pain-Free Life–but don't you wish I did?). Over the years, though, I have learned a few things from my own suffering that I want to encourage you with and that I hope will point you toward Hope Himself–Jesus the Son of God.
Prayer is, of course, central to the Christian life, and very few of us feel we have a very solid grasp of it even in our best moments. In times of deep pain, though, prayer sometimes feels hollow and futile. God seems silent, or worse, absent, doesn't He? The silence itself seems to weigh as much as the pain. How do we make sense of this apparently deaf God when the Bible itself tells us–again and again it tells us–that God is good, faithful, loving, and true? We think that somehow we're just not "doing it right" (prayer) or that God doesn't know or care enough to answer. Here are a few lessons I've learned through my own troubles over the years.
First, suffering isn't the worst thing that can happen to a person; suffering that has no meaning is. If it makes us deeper, more authentic people, or if we know that somehow it helps us or others, it's easier to bear. But random, apparently meaningless suffering drives us to the edge of despair.
Suffering isn't the worst thing that can happen to a person; suffering that has no meaning is.
Most often, we're just looking to escape our suffering, but in the big scheme of things, we don't want to just escape it (well, okay, when we're right in the thick of it, we sure do!), we want it to matter. Jesus lends our suffering purpose because He is in the redeeming business–He takes what is of little or no value and turns it into something of immeasurable value. Until we offer our pain to Jesus, our suffering means nothing. He only takes from us what we surrender to Him. When we came to faith in Christ, for example, He didn't force Himself upon us, He gave us the grace to surrender our hearts to Him, and in exchange, He not only changed, healed, and restored us, He made us an entirely new creation! In the very same way, He will not tear our pain and suffering from us–He will not violate our will or our dignity as image-bearers. Instead, when we offer ourselves and all our burdens to Him, He redeems them and turns them into something entirely different–dare I even say He turns them into treasure? (As Clay McLean sings, "All my wounds cry Alleluia!") Our suffering becomes precious both to us and to Him because anywhere we meet Jesus becomes a holy place; our suffering becomes a link of intimacy with Him who suffered for us, accomplishing for us what we could never have accomplished for ourselves. In the same way, when we offer Him our pain, He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We go to tremendous lengths exhausting every effort and resource to eliminate our pain, but just as we were powerless to conquer our sin, so we find ourselves, ultimately, powerless to conquer our suffering–it must be redeemed.
Second, remember that there's nothing at all wrong with asking God to take away your suffering! Even Jesus in the Garden asked the Father to take away His suffering–yet He was left to endure it. He hadn’t even been nailed to the cross yet! The mere thought of what He was about to go through led him to sweat great drops of blood. Perhaps your suffering will be removed, perhaps not. But the love and faithfulness of God isn't proved by whether we get up from prayer still suffering or not, still bearing our burden or not–at least that's what Jesus' experience teaches us.
So what, then, does prove His love and faithfulness? One, that He never leaves us, even in the very midst of our deepest pain and our darkest fear. Two, that He uses it for our good (which means He also uses it for others' good, sometimes when we come out on the other side, sometimes even while we're in the midst of it).
Okay, so I said earlier that I don't have Five Secrets to a Pain-Free Life, but I do have one important secret to share: Your suffering is not a barrier separating you from Jesus; your suffering is your most intimate point of connection to Him! Instead, try making suffering your gift to Jesus. Our view should be the same as the apostle Paul's when he writes, "I gave up [everything] so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it" (Phil. 3:10-11, The Message).
Third, though you do want you to find relief from your suffering, of course, you won't find that relief by escaping from it as you would a prison cell, or running from it as you would a ravenous lion, or ignoring it as you would a mysterious sound in your car engine, or turning to superstitious habits as you would a rabbit's foot. You will only find the relief you seek by making your suffering your sacrifice to God. Don't resent it and grieve it and bemoan it (don't even cherish it–yes, some do, as a sort of badge of honor!). Fall to your knees and offer it up, release it, invite the Holy Spirit to come and lift it from you and transform it from a chain binding you to this fallen world into a winged dove soaring to the very throne room of God.
Your suffering is not a barrier separating you from Jesus; your suffering is your most intimate point of connection to Him!
As I close, please know that this offering, this surrender, is something you have to do. It will not be done for you or taken from you. But take heart, friend, Another has shown the way. Another has gone before you. Another carries your grief and pain.
So in the end, I have no clean and simple answers for you, just Good News and a word of encouragement. Jesus didn't press through His own dark night so you wouldn't have to, He did so to show you how, to say it can be done–you can press on , you can trust in Him, you can persevere, you can offer it up, for the Jesus who endured His own suffering also lives in you by grace through faith!
Be encouraged, friend, for God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, who spoke all worlds into being, is both with you and for you.
*To dig a little deeper, prayerfully consider the following passages:
"Jesus told them a story showing that it was necessary for them to pray consistently and never quit. He said, “There was once a judge in some city who never gave God a thought and cared nothing for people. A widow in that city kept after him: ‘My rights are being violated. Protect me!’
"He never gave her the time of day. But after this went on and on he said to himself, ‘I care nothing what God thinks, even less what people think. But because this widow won’t quit badgering me, I’d better do something and see that she gets justice—otherwise I’m going to end up beaten black-and-blue by her pounding.’”
Then the Master said, “Do you hear what that judge, corrupt as he is, is saying? So what makes you think God won’t step in and work justice for his chosen people, who continue to cry out for help? Won’t he stick up for them? I assure you, he will. He will not drag his feet. But how much of that kind of persistent faith will the Son of Man find on the earth when he returns?” Luke 18:1-8 (The Message)
"At an acceptable time, O God, in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me." Psalm 69:13 (NRSV)
"...casting all your cares [all your anxieties, all your worries, and all your concerns, once and for all] on Him, for He cares about you [with deepest affection, and watches over you very carefully]. 1 Peter 5:7 (Amplified)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28 (NRSV)