Finding God in suffering
Most books and resources for sufferers today no longer talk about enduring affliction but instead use a vocabulary drawn from business and psychology to enable people to manage, reduce and cope with stress, strain or trauma.
Sufferers are counseled to avoid negative thoughts; to buffer themselves with time off, exercise, and supportive relationships; to problem solve; and to “learn to accept things we can’t change.”
But all the focus is on controlling your immediate emotional responses and environment. For centuries, however, Christianity has gone both higher and deeper in order to furnish believers with the resources to face tribulation.
One of the main metaphors the Bible gives us for facing affliction is walking—walking through something difficult, perilous and potentially fatal.
The walking metaphor points to the idea of progress. Many ancients saw adversity as merely something to withstand and endure without flinching, or even feeling, until it goes away. Modern Western people see suffering as something like adverse weather, something you avoid or insulate yourself from until it passes by.
We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness.
The unusual balance of the Christian faith is seen in the metaphor of walking—through darkness, swirling waters or fire. We are not to lose our footing and just let the suffering have its way with us. But we are also not to think we can somehow avoid it or be completely impervious to it either. We are to meet and move through suffering without shock and surprise, without denial of our sorrow and weakness, without resentment or paralyzing fear, yet also without acquiescence or capitulation, without surrender or despair.
In many passages in the Bible, affliction is likened to fire (Psalm 66:10; Proverbs 17:3, 27:21; Zechariah 13:9; Malachi 3:3). It is not surprising, then, that adversity and sorrow in general came to be characterized as being plunged into the fire (Job 18:14–16; Psalm 66:12).
Peter extends the metaphor and depicts suffering not just as fire but as a forge or furnace, which can obliterate or improve, depending on the object thrust into the fire and the manner in which it is treated.
If you believe in Jesus and you rest in Him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold. Do you want to know who you are—your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes?
Those are four crucial things to have—but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.
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Courtesy of Relevant Magazine www.relevantmagazine.com. The opinions in this commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Florida Conference.
Tim Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Va. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. He is the author of the New York Times best-seller The Reason for God, and most recently, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering.