Suffering is truly universal. Every person is familiar with hardships and trials. “Read Scripture and pray” is typically every Christian’s response to, what I call, drive-by counseling.
When a brother or sister runs to a Christian in a time of brokenness, it is not rare to experience feeling overwhelmed, and not knowing exactly how to alleviate the struggles and pains.
Perhaps the most common on-the-fly counsel is to call the sufferer to read Scripture, and to pray about it. Although this is often used as a last second “Hail Mary,” this is actually wise counsel. These are, in fact, two of the most important things we all must do when we suffer or experience hardships of any kind.
However, my fear is that when Christians counsel other Christians into these wise practices, ships pass in the night in regards to expectations.
When the sufferer is suffering, the most important thing to the sufferer is to be relieved; they want the pain to go away. Thus, when we say “Do X,Y, and Z”, the understanding is that X, Y, and Z are intended to alleviate pain. The sufferer is under the assumption then that our advice is to appease their desire, to quench their thirst for comfort.
The problem is that the Bible never prescribes a means for immediate freedom from discomfort. The Scriptures never even indicate that it is always God’s purpose that we feel better.
The book of Job would not be much of a book if God’s intentions are that Christians be immediately absolved from all heart ache upon the completion of an ecclesiastical check-list.
The purpose of turning to the Scriptures and praying in times of hardships is primarily for spiritual sanctification, not happiness.
This is not to say it cannot heal. Certainly, countless testimonies will confirm that time reading the Word and petitioning the Lord has brought about indescribable joy and comfort.
However, that ought not to be expectation; but rather, a wonderful additional benefit.
One of the primary purposes and goals, however, is to protect us.
During times of struggle we are weakened, and thus more prone to wander. One of the aspects of Jesus’ trials in the wilderness that made His holiness so remarkable was that he was tired and hungry. Jesus was not simply tempted by the devil in the desert. He was tempted after fasting for forty days (Matthew 4: 1-3).
A thirsty, starving man is not in a good place for shining examples of holiness, and neither is a broken one.
When our affections are wrought due suffering, we are in a dangerous place. Turning to the Lord and His Word fixates our affections on Him. This causes us to remember and recognize His goodness, faithfulness, and promises to us.
They remind us of His Law and standards when our minds are not right. Notice how Jesus appealed to Scripture when dealing with Satan’s temptations. There is no indication that the Law made Jesus’ time in the wilderness feel better, but He had God’s Laws on His heart, and was so familiar with them that they provided a clear and shining lighthouse of holiness during the raging storms of His temptations and trials.
The Word of God, and communication with God place Him at the center of our minds and hearts during a time when we are prone to obsess over other circumstances. We turn to the Word and to prayer to keep us holy, to protect us from wandering.
To feel pain is not sinful. To cry is not sinful. To be upset is not sinful. Not only is mourning not sinful, it is in fact commanded from time to time (Romans 12:15).
Thus, as we seek to put our suffering into perspective, that does not mean perspective will wipe away every tear. Jesus only promises that will happen at the consummation of all things (Revelation 21:4).
Perspective should help though. We are often tempted to fall into a plethora of despair, and tend to make our sufferings and problems more weighty than they actually are. And the Scriptures help us put our suffering into perspective.
In times of persecution, we are called to remember “[T]hat the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” We remember that we have a glory so great, even the most horrible earthly experiences will not be concerning. We will never question, regret, or be concerned about our earthly callings.
In times of suffering, the Scriptures tell us of the good the Lord is working it out for. We read that “[T]his light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison…” (2 Corinthians 4:17). We read that God decrees “all things [to] work together for good, for those who are called according to [God’s] purpose” (Romans 8:28).
It also helps put our hardships into perspective to remember we do not suffer alone. To read about the heroes of the faith who have suffered greatly on earth, yet loved the Lord and followed Him patiently, assists us in our earthly trials and temptations.
It helps to read about the horrors Job went through for his and our benefit. We can cry with Hannah as she begs God for a child. We remember we are not alone in despair when we read about Joseph’s being sold into slavery by his brothers. We recall that John the Baptist was beheaded, that Stephen was stoned to death. The apostles were all persecuted greatly, and all of them martyred in horrible ways. We see the elders of the Ephesian church weep when Paul says his final goodbye (Acts 20:37). We see Paul heartbroken over the sickness of his brother (Philippians 2: 25-30). We find Mary, devastated by the murder and torture of her beloved Son (John 19: 20-25).
The Bible is filled with heroes who have gone through the fires too. You are not alone in your suffering. And for one reason or another, that comforts us.
Gain some perspective from the Scriptures. I do not mean to downplay your current trials. They are awful, I am sure of it. But some brothers and sisters “…were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” (Hebrews 11: 35-38). Your sufferings are likely not that bad, and if they are, you are not alone. Other Christians have made it through those valleys. Let that encourage you; you can make it too.
Prayer especially is important as it reminds us of our dependency upon God. Check lists and other practical steps, while important, can often replace the need for true reliance and dependency on God. Ultimately, without His blessing, our pain cannot be alleviated through any other means or wise counsel.
Prayer focuses our attention to His soveriegn plan. It is the means by which we fall into the arms of the Lord helplessly, and beg for His aid. That is the time when we are in complete dependence, when we are on our knees, asking for the Lord’s favor and help.
Like Jesus spending multiple, hours-long sessions in prayer the night before He was betrayed, prayer also tunes our hearts to God’s will for our lives. As God both answers and denies our requests, we learn to put God’s will above our own, and conform our desires and thoughts to Him.
4) Spiritual Joy
When we turn to the Scriptures, we are reminded that our union with Christ produces within us a paradoxical joy. The Bible tells us we can have joy in the midst of suffering. Like the apostles, who shortly after a brutal beating for their Gospel witness, “…left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41), we too can rejoice in suffering. In fact, we are commanded to: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
The Scriptures remind us of our call to experience the joy of salvation, even in times where joy cannot be found. And prayer is a primary vehicle to get to that place of joy among sorrow.
5) The Cross
Lastly, the Scriptures remind us of the cross. The cross of Christ is the fixed point of all of history, and the answer to all of our suffering.
In the Cross, we see a God willing to endure pain and misery to a much higher degree than any we can experience. So even though we may not know why God has brought and allowed tragedies to fall upon us, we know He is not watching with a smug disposition upon us as we endure what He does not know. Instead, He bled, and hungered, and thirsted, and died, like us. And He experienced the Father’s wrath unlike us. He knows our pain too. What could possibly be more comforting?
John Stott once articulated the above idea this way,
“I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in my imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside His immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of His. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours…”
On top of that, Acts 2 and Acts 4 describe the cross as being the “predestined” and as being part of God’s “plan.” God planned Jesus’ suffering, and we know why. His suffering brought glory to Himself, and salvation to His people. If God planned His Son’s suffering, He perhaps planned ours too!
And that means, because of the cross, we can believe there is meaning, and purpose, and glory in our sufferings! Perhaps more than we can even imagine.
The suffering of Christ is exactly why Paul could so courageously embrace suffering. Paul considered it an honor to experience it, just as Jesus did. If Jesus decreed suffering was not worthy of being avoided, why should we expect to? Paul considered all Jesus had and has as something we get to partake in as well as His children. That is why Paul writes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8: 16-17).
And elsewhere Paul says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith —that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3: 8-10).
Jesus became our High Priest. In so doing, He became like us. He can now empathize and understand us because He too is well acquainted with suffering.
When you suffer, when you hurt, read about the Cross. Preach the Gospel to yourself. Remember the hope of Scripture. Turn to the Lord in dependent prayer.
Will He relieve all your pain? Maybe, but probably not. Will He, through those means, do something better than that? Absolutely.