Written By Karen Kwek, Singapore
A lifelong scribbler, Karen enjoys the company of friends, a great cup of tea and seeing the gospel transform hearts and lives. She worked as a book editor until she and her husband traded peace and quiet for parenthood. It seemed a good idea at the time.
I never expected celebrity chef and writer Anthony Bourdain to take his own life. No one did. Few guessed the internal struggles that sapped his zest for living, even while publicly he personified vitality itself. Sad news comes as a shock, even when there is so much of it.
We will never be immune to the pain that is part of living in this world: war, genocide, terrorism, poverty, natural disasters and other horrible events on a global scale. . . . And then privately, too, innumerable instances of personal pain: broken relationships, physical or mental illness, loved ones lost. For a time—occasionally a very long interval—the shock can be so great, the hurt so debilitating, that the world as we know it comes crashing down around us. Little wonder that in his book The Problem of Pain, the great writer C. S. Lewis called pain God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” “We can ignore even pleasure,” Lewis wrote, “but pain insists upon being attended to.”
Given that our own and the world’s brokenness confront us daily, how should we respond to pain and suffering? What do we do as believers? In the face of terrible struggles, we have no easy answers. Others have written helpfully about the whys of suffering and about individual responses to loss and emotional hurts, so the focus of my thoughts is more on our response as a Christian community. What is it about believers that will stand out to the world, in our approach to pain and suffering?
Pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong with the world and with people. So it is right to grieve alongside one another, to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15).
We also cry to God. If we aren’t honest about admitting our vulnerability and hurt, we risk becoming jaded and cynical, soldiering on in our own strength without experiencing true comfort and safety in God. In his greeting to the Corinthian Christians, the apostle Paul describes God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). In affliction Paul turns to God, the giver of comfort.
This is not to say that there is no place for questioning, even struggling against, what God has done in our lives. In fact, the psalmists poured out their broken hearts and laid their wrecked plans at God’s feet. Their raw emotions ranged from fear to anger, confusion to despair, self-pity to remorse. Like David, who at least on one occasion sought comforters and did not find any (Psalm 69:20), we may not always feel comforted. Nevertheless, just as David still called on a “sure salvation” (Psalm 69:13), we can trust that God is tenderly present, “close to the brokenhearted”, promising salvation for the believer (Psalm 34:18). That is ultimate comfort, even if our present sufferings are hard to bear.
And it doesn’t end there.
2. Share the comfort of God
Crying to God brings His comfort, and Paul says God’s comfort is given us to be shared with others (2 Corinthians 1:4). The reason? Jesus. Following Him brings both suffering and comfort, and unites all believers on a shared journey:
For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. (2 Corinthians 1:5-7)
What an extraordinary picture of unity in Christ, expressed in a Christian community’s togetherness, even camaraderie, in enduring suffering! In fact, community is one of God’s means of sending comfort. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:6-7, for example, that Titus’ visit and the Corinthian Christians’ concern encouraged him. Eugene Peterson paraphrases 2 Corinthians 1:6 like this: “Your hard times are also our hard times.” We are in this together.
Comforting our friends with the comfort we’ve received from God is more than merely relieving discomfort. It suggests that in all our circumstances, whether distress or well-being, we should consider and act for others’ well-being and salvation—so that they might continue trusting Jesus. Our encouragement should help others patiently endure their difficulties and not give up believing in Jesus, because our common goal, the hope Paul mentions in verse 7, is to live forever with God.
With this goal in mind, we can contribute many practical forms of comfort and help, depending on our friends’ specific needs: our presence, cooked meals, financial assistance, occasional childcare, providing transportation, words of encouragement, and so on. These come to my mind because I have, in times of bereavement or illness, received these comforts myself from brothers and sisters in Christ.
What about you? What comfort have you received from God and other Christians? What can you share?
3. Pray for God-honoring endurance
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always prayed to be spared pain in the first place, and prayed for the removal of suffering, and prayed this for my loved ones, too. No-brainer?
But recently an older Christian remarked to me that our times have become very pain-averse. She wasn’t recommending that people masochistically seek out painful experiences. She was merely observing that many new pharmaceutical drugs now provide relief where people of the past would have put up with a great deal more discomfort.
We wondered if choices in medicine and health were also reflected in other areas of life, with people increasingly pursuing the greatest ease over the greatest good (or equating the two). I think our prayer life may reflect this desire to be comfortable, too. And I was stunned to read that Paul and his Corinthian prayer supporters seem to have prayed quite differently!
In Asia, the early Christians faced such intense persecution that they felt they had “received the sentence of death.” Yet, Paul says, God was in control and this suffering “happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:9). God graciously answered the prayers of many Corinthians and delivered Paul and his companions. But look at what Paul means by deliverance—in verse 10 it is clear that he doesn’t mean they didn’t suffer, only that they didn’t die!
In fact, Paul is certain that the Corinthians’ prayers will result—not in the absence of suffering—but in God continuing to preserve his life. This means that Paul fully anticipates getting into more trouble preaching and defending the gospel!
This observation has radically changed my prayer life. Not that I now pray to be experiencing pain per se, but I long to seek in my circumstances—whether painful or not—whatever speaks loudest about my Lord and Savior, Jesus. Do we dare pray this way as a church? It would be such a powerful testimony of our identity in Christ: “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.” (2 Corinthians 1:17)
4. Keep doing good
Even as we endure for Jesus’ sake, the world is watching. Paul urges the Galatian Christians “not to become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). We should extend this generosity in good deeds to fellow Christians as well as unbelievers—in the words of Galatians 6:10, “to all people.”
In fact, the radical stand of Christians in the face of the most horrific kinds of suffering has always been a powerful witness, winning many for Jesus. Think of the Christian martyrs during the persecutions of the Roman Empire, for instance, or Bonhoeffer and other German Christians who defied the Nazis during World War Two, or the Cambodian Christians who eventually forgave their Khmer Rouge torturers.
5. Look heavenward
When we continue repaying evil with good, others begin to recognize that suffering doesn’t dim our hope as Christians. This is because we don’t live for the brokenness of earthly things but for a perfected world to come. At that time, God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4).
In God’s sovereign scheme, pain and suffering are not only powerless to destroy the believer, they can result in a refined, resilient faith that perseveres and spurs others on in the same way, until we see our Lord and Savior face to face. As pastor and author Tim Keller puts it in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, “suffering is at the very heart of the Christian faith. It is not only the way Christ became like and redeemed us, but it is one of the main ways we become like him and experience his redemption. And that means that our suffering, despite its painfulness, is also filled with purpose and usefulness.”
If you, like me, are sometimes baffled, discouraged or paralyzed by the hurt and pain of this world, won’t you take heart? On the cross, Jesus overcame the worst evil of all, for our sake. In all hardships, then, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Of all people, we who trust in Jesus have received the utmost encouragement to face pain and suffering with empathy, courage, practical initiative, and hope.