Let’s face it, we live in a therapeutic culture. Billions of dollars are spent each year on self-help tools, psychologists and other fixes to make hurt go away from our history, mistakes, present realities or future fears.
The church is not exempt, especially where triumphalism reigns supreme. Yes, you can grieve for pre-approved purposes but that has time limits. Whatever, your issue the predominant expectation is to “let it go.” Get over whatever you need to get over so you can be healthy because that would be victorious living.
Now, I get that we don’t want to live in dysfunction. We don’t want the pain of the past controlling us but rather to be controlled by our spiritual identity in Christ. Certainly we want to reconcile whatever brokenness exists in our lives. And seriously, no one wants to hurt emotionally or psychologically. There is nothing pleasurable about pain and our desire is to remove it far from us as possible.But I wonder if that means that we should work to remove all hurt.
I am coming to the increased realization that suffering comes in many forms and is not so easily remedied by our trite prescriptions. Some things in life, people just don’t get over even with the assurance of a new heaven and new earth where all things will be made new. I confess, that I admire those who can just flip the switch and move on unfazed from whatever has pained them. But for many of us, we feel the prickly thorns of loss, discrepancies, failures, histories, etc. It’s so easy to ride on a pollyanna puffy cloud.
It strikes me that Christians can become so intent to remove any traces of hurt in their lives, that the sanctifying process is actually hindered. We can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix ourselves in order to live a life that’s pleasing…to us, so that we feel good about ourselves. Making peace with your past turns into a creation of peace in the present so that we don’t have to experience hurt in our lives and get rid of those pesky little triggers that catch us unaware. By doing so I wonder if its possible that we remove the very thing that God works to grow us deeper in our faith and Christian walk.
Because what if that hurt had a higher purpose? What if those prickly thorns were meant to drive a deeper maturity that would not otherwise exist?
I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Scripture never tells us that our goal should be to remove hurt in our lives. In fact, when Paul waxes reflective in Philippians 3 about the greatness of knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, he also adds “and share in the fellowship of his sufferings.” Surely that suffering will be caused by past actions and present discrepancies. It’s one thing to correct sinful or harmful patterns in our lives but quite another to remove any traces of hurt from the experiences in this life. What if the pain of experiencing this hurt actually produces something far greater, as Paul said to the Corinthians, “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond our comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but the things that are unseen.” (2 Cor. 4:17). What would we see if we work to remove it?
But there’s an even higher purpose: the body of Christ. I came across this old article from Tim Challies named just that; Your Suffering Does Not Just Belong to You. In it, he provides a commentary on Ligon Duncan’s book and I found these paragraphs really compelling;
Have you ever considered this before, that through your suffering God is strengthening the church? He [Duncan] says, “Our suffering aids the maturity of the whole body of believers. It is extraordinary that our suffering is designed not only to work godliness in us as individuals, causing us to prize Christ more, but also to work maturity within the whole church.” And this is exactly what Paul points to in the opening verses of Colossians. “Suffering is God’s instrument to bring about the maturity of the whole church. God ordains for our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ’s body, to bring about in the church the purposes of Christ’s affliction. In other words, sometimes God appoints his children to suffer so that the whole body will become mature.” We all know that as members of the church we are to rejoice together and to mourn together, but do we understand that these occasions of mourning are given for our maturity? If we truly are a body, each part dependent on the other, then it cannot be any other way. One person’s suffering is every person’s suffering; one person’s maturing is every person’s maturing.
I absolutely love how he breaks down Col. 1:24-25;
Duncan says, “These ‘lacking; afflictions of Christ’s do not indicate that his suffering was insufficient for our salvation. They are simply a recognition that when you become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you become a part of his body. Since you are part of his body, your sufferings are his sufferings. What are the sufferings that are lacking in Christ’s affliction? They are the ones that have not been experienced yet by his body, the church. They will continue to be experienced by his body until he comes again and makes an end of all suffering for his people.” Duncan goes on to say, “The apostle Paul is telling us something amazing. The afflictions of the body of Christ are intended to bring it to maturity. That is to say, God ordains, by the Spirit and by faith, for our suffering to bring about in the church the purposes of Christian affliction. These purposes are: Christ in us, the hope of glory, and every one of us being made mature in Jesus Christ.”
So I guess this is something we ought to keep in mind in those times that God calls us to suffer. Our suffering is not pointless; it is not meaningless. At least in part, our suffering is mandated by God so we can strengthen and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they, and we, may strive toward Christian maturity. “Your suffering does not just belong to you. You are members of a body. Your suffering is for the body’s maturity as much as it is for yours. Your suffering is there to build up the church of Christ. It is there for the people of God to be given faith and hope and confidence in the hour of their trials. Your suffering is also the body’s suffering because one of God’s purposes in suffering is the maturity of the whole church.”
Indeed. Next time we are tempted to undermine or dismiss pain and suffering, let’s remember that God uses it for his good, for others and for his greater redemptive purposes.