Suffering for Jesus

“Blessed are those who mourn.”

Jesus said that in the preface to his Sermon on the Mount.

What in the world did he mean?  How could mourning be a blessing?

My brother-in-law’s neighbor has a beautiful home, a one acre horse property with a front lawn that looks like a country club.  Above the front door is a conspicuous sign:  BLESSED.

Are they?  Certainly they are prosperous, and yes, in some places in the Bible God promises material increase.  There’s a huge difference, though, between prosperity and being blessed.  It’s great to have stuff, and the apostle Paul tells Timothy to command the rich not to put their trust in uncertain wealth, but in God “who gives us all good things richly to enjoy.”

Marilyn and I have prospered, something that makes me feel a tad guilty at times, especially when I visit remote villages that have no running water.  I did that just last week in an extraordinary visit to World Vision community centers in the Dominican Republic.

But no matter how much I have, I’m not sure I feel comfortable with describing myself as “blessed.”  Blessing isn’t about an abundance of things.  It’s about God’s favor.  The face of God turned toward me.  And smiling.

So does God smile when I’m mourning?  Suffering?  Well, he may not have a grin on his face, but when I turn to him for light in my darkness and comfort in my pain, he turns his face toward me and gives me grace to live through whatever comes my way.

This is the heart of the ancient blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.  May the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  May the Lord put his presence upon you, and give you peace.”

Those who mourn are blessed for two simple reasons.  The first is this:

if we allow suffering it to turn our hearts toward heaven

it deepens our relationship with God.

Not everyone who suffers greatly finds God deeply, but only those who have suffered greatly have the chance to know God deeply.

Ironically, often the deeper the pain, the more deeply we have an opportunity to know God.  When everything is stripped away, only God remains.  Or maybe nothing, if we think that life is random and suffering has no purpose.

I once heard despair defined this way:  It’s always darkest just before it goes pitch black.  Or you can look at life this way:  When you reach the end of your rope–and let go, you’ll find God right there to catch you.

In a weird sort of way, the more we lose, the more we gain.  Paul wrote this in Philippians 3,

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Suffering  can deepen our relationship with God, but suffering isn’t just about you.  Or God disciplining you for disobedience.  Or God working on your character.  Or God getting you to go deeper into him.  All that is secondary.

What?!  Secondary?!!

Everybody seems to know the unofficial title of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life:  IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU.  Which leads me to the second reason why those who mourn are blessed:

Our suffering is primarily for others.

Just ask Jesus.  Yes, the Bible tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through the things he suffered” (Hebrews 5:7-9), and every painful moment took him deeper into his relationship with the Father. But ultimately, why did Jesus suffer?  For you and me.

Every Christian knows that God loved the world so much that he sent his only son to die for us.  Jesus suffered and died not because of something he did, but because of things we did.  And keep doing.  Jesus’ suffering was redemptive.

When a mother suffers the pain of childbirth, it’s redemptive.  Her pain is not about her.  It’s for the new life she’s bringing into the world. It’s for her child.

And her suffering doesn’t end when her baby gulps the first lungful of air.  Like my dear, saintly wife, her body is marked for life by the trauma of giving her child life, not to mention the years and tears of sacrifice for a daughter who doesn’t value her mother’s love until she has a child of her own!

In Philippians 2:14 Paul tells us to do something that few of us Christians ever consider:  “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.”  When I read this a couple weeks ago, I thought to myself:  The only way to live this way is to die to myself.  To suffer loss.  Why?  Not just because of what it does for me, but what a gentle and contented life does for all the people in my life.  My suffering is for others.  Doing everything without grumbling or complaining is for others.

Paul adds to our understanding of this in 2 Corinthians 4:

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Simply stated, my pain is your gain.  I lose, you win.  I die, you live.  A mother giving birth screams as she nearly passes out from the pain.  A child is born.  A new life begins.

Paul set the stage for these insights in the opening verses of the same letter:

3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. 6 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. (2 Corinthians 1:3-6).

Esther’s Story

I don’t have a better illustration of suffering for others than my own mother Esther’s very personal pain, so personal that she never told her three sons ever the whole story.

My mom, you see, was engaged to be married to someone other than my father.  A brother’s friend and a seminary student, her lover asked for her to return the engagement ring and ended the relationship.

Utterly heartbroken, she transferred from Kent State in Ohio to Bowling Green University, where she met my father.  He loved her, and they married.  My brothers think that maybe she rebounded into her relationship with our dad.

Whatever exactly happened, none of us will ever know, but I’ve thought of this often:  As a failed relationship traumatized a young woman in Ohio, do you think she was thinking about you reading this article?

Or that her firstborn (me) would be called by God to share the Word with literally thousands of people?  Or that her three sons would have nine children, two saved from the squalor of a Russian orphanage?  Or that her three sons would have ten grandchildren (her great grandchildren) who would know God and live their lives for others?

At the time her suffering seemed so personal, but it was redemptive.  Ultimately it wasn’t’ about her failure in some facet of her life.  It wasn’t even primarily about her personal journey.  It was about God and his far greater and unimaginable purposes for her children, her grandchildren, her great grandchildren–and all the lives of future generations who will bring life and hope to others.

My mom is with Jesus now.  We don’t know how much we will know in good heaven about what’s going on down here on bad earth, but I’d like to think that we will get to see the amazing outcome maybe generations later of the not-so-amazing and sometimes terrible things that happen to us.

Martin Luther King said famously, “I have a dream.”  Just a few years later he fell dead on the balcony of a plain motel in Memphis, Tennessee.  A bullet in his brain.  It probably wasn’t the dream he had in mind.  Yet his suffering has been extraordinarily redemptive.  His loss has been gain for millions of people.

Maybe what you are going through isn’t just about you.  Maybe God has some incredible purpose that you won’t know about until you’ve been in heaven for a hundred or more years!

This entry was posted in Spiritual Life. Bookmark the permalink.