I suppose suffering has been a part of my life since my first tooth came in. I have discovered since that there are many different kinds of suffering. I say I have discovered, but everyone has discovered and there are more qualified discoverers than I to explain it. I am undeterred.
What I would like to focus on primarily is the kind suffering which has been entered into knowingly, yet perhaps not quite knowingly. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church in regard to trials, “Not that the troubles should come as any surprise to you. You’ve always known that we’re in for this kind of thing. It’s part of our calling.”
There is the story of a young man who signed up as a deckhand on a crab boat off the coast of Alaska. It was to be his first time out. He is excited and ready for the journey. In fact, he cannot wait to sail the high seas to enjoy the adventure and comradery that hard work brings to the men who share in it. A few days after setting out under clear skies they begin to drop their pots into the cold Pacific, the captain hoping for a big score of king crab to fill the boat. He knows a storm is brewing and is anxious to get finished. Suddenly, the storm arrives and waves begin to swell higher and higher as the winds pick up speed. Over and over, the vessel is carried to the ridge of a crest and then plunges down to the trough below in a heart sickening free-fall. The boy watches in fascinated horror as the next wave completely engulfs the bow, and heavy sheets of cold, Pacific salt water wash over the deck before draining out the scuppers as the boat struggles up the side of the next wave. He is shocked at the scope of ferocity and power on display and how the large craft they are on now seems so insignificant in light of it all. He begins to regret his decision to come along, wishing instead to be with his loved ones, safe on land in a warm house as rain pelts harmlessly off the roof. Sweating with stress, he feels helpless and frightened to the core. Presently, he looks around the cabin and notices that the other men are joking and smiling – one man is even sleeping! The boat once again shudders violently as it reaches the bottom of another trough. They seem relaxed. How is it that they appear so unconcerned in this storm, he wonders? Summoning his courage after some time, he ventures over to ask an older man who is sitting alone smoking and watching the others. “How can they act this way while the storm is so bad, and we are all in danger of dying?”, he asks with shaky voice. The old sailor looked at him a moment with a certain wise understanding. He took another long drag on his cigarette and blew a smoke ring, watching it float away and slowly dissipate. He then spoke almost as if to himself, “The sea has always been this way and we are simply temporary guests upon her waters. Embrace the storm and trust the captain. He knows how to drive in rough weather.”
“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.” -Jesus (Jn 16:33)
Sometimes we experience suffering because of bad decisions made by ourselves or someone close to us. There is also a kind of suffering brought about simply by the course of life, perhaps even leading to the death or injury of ourselves or a loved one. And then there is suffering which comes because we have accepted with our whole heart the disruptive invitation of Jesus to journey with him wherever He leads.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds… James 1:2a
It has taken me many years to understand what is written in every story, flowing in every song, and woven into the very fabric of life. That suffering is unavoidable. It rains on the evil and on the good. As Christ followers, we are presented with the apparent paradox of experiencing joy on the needle’s tip of suffering. How on earth is that possible? Joy is defined officially as the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying; keen pleasure; elation. So even the dictionary definition seems to contradict the possibility of being joyful in the midst of suffering. Suffering and joy seem antithetical to say the least.
“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matt 19:27
When I was in my late teens, God brought a friend into my life unexpectedly. I was a country Minnesota boy living in Chicago, working in a printshop when I met Dan. He worked in the same building and noticed the 1979 Mercury Capri I was driving at the time, which led to a conversation with me about it. It turned out he was also from Minnesota and shared my love of cars, so naturally we hit it off right away. It’s been almost 30 years since the day he stopped to talk to me, and though the paths of our stories have diverged greatly during that time, we have remained more brothers than friends through it all. When we do get together it feels natural to get lost in conversation, laughter, or good-natured ribbing while hanging out or doing projects. And if you listen closely, you will notice something interesting. The reminiscing over fond memories and the focus of ribbing comes out of the stories we share, and those stories are typically of suffering. The suffering which time transforms into a fond memory. One cold Chicago winter night, we backed Dan’s Toyota Supra into the tiny garage under our house to replace the failing clutch. Of course, we started late, and under the influence of pizza and Mountain Dew attempted something neither of us had ever done before. We had no YouTube videos, but we did have manuals to guide us into the unknown. About 4:00 in the morning, a few cold hours after we installed the new clutch, I was in the driver’s seat with the car door only half open because of the narrow confines of the garage, alternately holding the clutch pedal to the floor and then at his shout from beneath the car releasing it as he tried to bleed the system. My leg was tired. I was tired. He was tired. And cold. We were both ill-tempered at the late hour and our inability to bleed air from the hydraulic clutch system. Finally, we gave up and went to bed. Not an inspiring way to end a story. After attempting great feats, they gave up and went to bed. The End. The car sat in the garage that whole next week. Eventually, Dan called a tow truck to pull it out of the garage and take it to a shop. The mechanic there must have been shaking his head at these two teenage boys when after removing the transmission he discovered the clutch plate installed backwards. Put in the right way, the hydraulic clutch worked flawlessly, and the car was fixed. The memory of that night is still a source of joy for us to look back on and laugh. The experience drew us closer as friends and the memory brings depth to the relationship we have. We know each other better through the suffering of that night. We have many such stories. Sometimes he has carried me through personal tough times and sometimes I have carried him. Sometimes we have failed each other. This is the nature of relationships. And life.
There is a suffering that is both exhilarating and terrifying at the moment, but at the completion of which gives great satisfaction. 20 years after the first story Dan and I were in our late 30’s with children and bills and jobs and busy lives that kept us from getting together but once or twice a year. I drove 3 hours with the kids to his place one Easter weekend during a darker period of my life to hang out. Really, I needed time with someone with whom I could shed the walls I had built to protect my heart and just relax as myself – knowing I was fully accepted in all my imperfections. We decided to take the mountain bikes out Sunday morning and ride some single-track dirt trails nearby. It was overcast and cool, the perfect morning, and the trails were empty of other riders. We rode through the quiet woods, crossing dry washes, climbing and descending steep trails, the front suspension on our bikes working hard over tree roots and rocks, the only sounds being the rattle of our bikes and heavy middle-aged breathing. Presently we felt the air around us getting darker and could hear the deep rumble of thunder in the distance. We rode on, unconcerned in our ignorance. Suddenly, a massive crack and boom split the air and giant drops of rain began to fall onto the canopy of trees overhead. We looked at each other and laughed nervously as we held a brief discussion over the wisdom of heading back to the car a couple miles away. The trail was a loop, and we decided completing the loop was probably the shortest way back, so off we went, the patter of rain on leaves beginning to sound more like the roar of several waterfalls. In a moment we were soaked to the skin, riding hard down the narrow and now muddy trail to our vehicle and safety. We were wet, cold, miserable, and exhilarated. Thunder crashed, lightning flashed, wind blew hard, and the dry washes were running high and fast as we slipped and slid over wet rocks and mud and roots, pedaling through water as high as the hub of our wheels. It was glorious, and we were laughing like crazy men as water came out of the sky in sheets, running into our eyes and mouths, the wind ripping through the trees and blowing debris everywhere. This was adventure, and suffering became the supreme pleasure as our lives faced the awesome power of the storm. Coming around a corner in the trail I came on a deep, fast moving creek. As I pedaled through it, my tires sipped on the slick rocks and the current threatened my balance, but shortly I was out the other side and stopped on the opposite bank, looking back to watch Dan cross. Half way into his attempt, the tires lost grip and his bike went down with him underneath. Unbeknownst to me, his shoe was still locked into the pedal and he was trapped unable to get up. The water roared through the wash as he barely kept his chin above the surface, struggling to free himself. I was not helping him because I was doubled over in laughter. The whole event leading to the current situation made everything seem hilarious and I couldn’t stop. Soon I began to understand he was in trouble. He was not laughing. Dropping my bike, I waded into the current and followed his instructions to untangle the mess. Back on the trail we pedaled hard for the car. The rain had slowed and sky lightened by the time we were loading the bikes on the rack. We were completely soaked and absolutely heroes in our own minds. We had suffered and come through. We had overwhelmingly conquered the elements. We were men.
Shared suffering brings about greater intimacy. There is a depth there which cannot be reached any other way. To the degree we share in suffering with someone, we get to truly know them and grow closer in relationship to them. Is that any different in our relationship with Jesus? Is our relationship with Him deepened as we share in his suffering? Will our relationship with Jesus be stronger after trusting him and walking together through difficult times?
“God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9) “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:17)
This leads us again to the kind of suffering entered into knowingly because future glory is promised or because the desire to be with someone or to be a part of something larger than us is stronger than the desire for comfort. A business started. A mountain climbed. A jungle explored. Treasure sought. Battles engaged. Beauty pursued. Each adventure is begun with passion and excitement for the hoped-for result. Even though the road less taken shines with the promise of suffering, that fact is eclipsed by the anticipated hope of glory at the completion of it all. The kind of suffering Jesus invites us into. Come unto me, Jesus says. If you follow Me you will suffer, He promises. He will disrupt our lives with adventures we didn’t ask for. We will have trouble we didn’t want. But all that is overshadowed by the promise of what is to come. He promises to never leave our side. He says we will share in His glory as we have shared in his suffering. When the business of the Kingdom succeeds we share in the honor. When the mountains of grief are climbed we stand on the summit with Him in breathless wonder. When the stifling jungle of life is crossed, our weariness is forgotten in the enchantment at the golden treasure discovered. Our past suffering transforms into a fond memory as we gaze in astonishment at the home prepared for us by the hands of the Carpenter from Nazareth. The scars earned in the struggle become badges of honor as we are held in the arms of our beautiful Lover. The hard won testament of a shared and abiding love. It is in this way that joy becomes an unexpected but welcome guest in the darkest places, and we find ourselves singing hymns while the other prisoners listen in amazement.