Sunday, December 02, 2012

I'm Thankful for This Year... of Suffering

I am thankful for being able to know suffering this year on an unprecedented scale from what I had known previously.

I know that sounds bizarre, and I don't want to give the impression that I enjoy suffering in any sense.  I hate death.  I despise everything about it, everything it has done to people I love, and what it will eventually do to me one day. I hate the fact that we live in a fallen world where suffering and death are inevitable.  Whether it comes suddenly (like the loss of my church friends) or slowly (in the case of my Granny), death is a terrible, terrible thing.  It really is "the last enemy" as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:26.

But suffering can also be instructive and purposeful in a Christian's spiritual maturity.

This morning, my pastor Brian Croft commemorated the anniversary of our friends' passing with a sermon from 2 Corinthians 1:1-11, where Paul famously proclaimed that God "comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort that we ourselves are comforted by God" (verse 4).  I seem to remember trying to do a Greek exegetical paper on that text, but most of those projects left me less sure of the text's meaning than I was before I even started the study (that's probably one of the reasons why I decided not to push my luck with biblical language studies in the post-graduate level).

Exegetical nuances aside, I think the meaning of this text is more easily accessible for Christian believers who have endured great suffering and loss but have consequently been strengthened in their faith because of that suffering.  They have been able to recognize Christ as truly sufficient for their weaknesses.  Those who have suffered greatly and lost much should be more willing and able to comfort other brothers and sisters who are going through their own struggles.

Truth be told, I've lived a very comfortable life.  I'm still living a very comfortable life.  Growing up, I didn't experience much loss.  Those losses have certainly started piling up in the last five years, however; such is the nature of life.  When you don't known the pain of loss, it's hard to really understand what most of the Bible is talking about.  So, instead of focusing your exegetical energies on comforting people with the Word of God, you can tend to distract yourself with discussions and debates over subjects that (while important) don't really capture the thrust of what the Biblical authors (and the Holy Spirit) were most interested in communicating to God's people.  I could indulge that point further, but now is not the time.

It's important that so many of Paul's letters begin and end with comforting words to the Christian churches.  These churches, regardless of their relative virtues and vices, were living in tough times.  Paul himself had seen suffering beyond what even most of them had experienced.  But even Paul knew that his own tribulations couldn't compare to the greatest sacrifice which our Lord Jesus Christ made for us in his Passion week.  Now that was the definition of a terrible seven days.  Our Savior suffered and died for us, and by His resurrection He secured our eternal reward.  That reward doesn't mean that we've been given a free pass in this life to avoid pain and live a perfectly comfortable life. Quite the contrary, in fact. Our suffering will come, whether by external forces bearing down upon us in hostility or through the natural course of life in a fallen world.

But we've got a promise that we serve a God who is also our Great High Priest.  He symphathizes with us completely in our infirmities and was tempted in every way, yet He was without sin (Hebrews 4:14).  Because of His suffering, we can approach the throne of God with confidence that He will bestow us grace to endure our own suffering and use our experiences to comfort others in their suffering.

Therefore, I'm thankful for this year in which God has taught me suffering, even if my experience is still meager compared to what most people in life deal with on a daily basis.  And I ought to be about the business of bringing comfort and grace to others, because I'm sure I'll be on the receiving end again in the future.

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