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Suffering in the Lives of the Saints

April 02, 2014Filed under theology#devotionsMarkdown source

I have made it my goal to write short posts reflecting on my devotional reading every day. These posts are composed off the cuff, in 30 minutes or less. The following is one such post. Before writing this post, I read: Psalm 69, Proverbs 2, and 2 Corinthians 4–6.

The confluence of Psalm 69 and 2 Corinthians 4–6 in my reading this morning highlighted quite profoundly the reality of struggle and pain in the lives of those who follow Yahweh.1 In both cases, the authors deal plainly with the reality of suffering in their lives, and in both cases, they ultimately turn the audience’s eye away from that suffering to God—not diminishing the suffering, but putting a terminus on it and giving it clarity.

In the Psalm, we see David (quite rightly) walking the line we all so often walk between complaint and praise. He calls out to God for help and deliverance and points out the unjust nature of their attack on him. He repeatedly points to God’s character and pleads for justice. He calls on God to act in line with his steadfast love and his mercy (Ps. 69:16), because it was for God that David suffered. And he praises God for his goodness, even though the structure of the poem seems to leave David still in his suffering. The conclusion of the psalm is the turn from “But I am afflicted and in pain; / let your salvation, O God, set me on high!” (Ps. 69:29) to “I will praise the name of God with a song…” (Ps. 69:30)—not, it seems, because God had delivered but because David trusted that he would.

Likewise, in 2 Corinthians Paul repeatedly emphasizes the extent to which suffering characterized his ministry and indeed dominated his life. These passages are some of the dearest in the New Testament to believers suffering for the sake of Christ, because they deal truly and honestly with the pain, but also deal in hope. God shone light in our hearts, Paul rejoices, but we have his treasure in earthen vessels that are “afflicted in every way” and which are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:6,7–12). Paul can see the purpose of this suffering clearly—it is that the Corinthians and all the other believers will have the life of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:11)—but this does not for a moment diminish the reality of the suffering he and his companions endured. Nor does Paul feel the need to diminish his sufferings in order to point to God’s goodness; quite the contrary, in fact! In chapter 6, he goes on to describe at length all the kinds of suffering he had endured for the sake of the gospel.

For those who, like David and Paul, hope in Yahweh and seek to do his will, there will be suffering. Those who preach the gospel will find rejection, pain, and toil everywhere. Even ordinary believers—those of us less outsized in our endeavors than the Davids and Pauls of the story—will find in our lives suffering that pushes us to decide how we will answer. Will we follow David’s example and conclude our lament and our pleading with praise (Ps. 69:30–36)? Will we follow Paul’s example and hold fast to the hope of an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17–18) being prepared for us? Will we refuse to diminish the extent of our suffering but also refuse to let our suffering diminish God? Or will we take the easy paths out: to make little of the pains of the age on the one hand (quite dishonestly) or to refuse to praise God because we experience suffering (blasphemously)?

The call, for all of us, is to look the sufferings of the present age head on, to recognize them in all their horror, and to call God greater still. Not to pretend the sufferings are small things, but to see that they are “light and momentary” (2 Cor. 4:17) by comparison with what God is doing eternally. Not to act as those the situations in our lives do not pain us our trouble us, but to call God good and to lead others to worship him anyway.

  1. Much of my thinking here is shaped quite actively by Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, especially the chapter on Lamentations. The volume is well worth your time.