Live Long Enough & You'll Experience Suffering
I personally tend to never stray far from considering the topic of suffering. This may seem morbid, but the truth is that Jesus tells us that there will be suffering in this life for those who follow him (Luke 9:23). The other reality of suffering is that, due to living in a fallen and broken world, suffering is not a matter of "if" but "when". Live long enough and you'll experience suffering, whether it's your own suffering or a loved one’s. So, when it comes to the topic of suffering, my experience has been that it is far better to have a good theological foundation underneath you before you experience it, rather than trying to get a hold of one in the midst of it.
The "Gold" in Hebrews 12:3-17
There are several passages that I go back to when considering the topic of suffering. Hebrews 12:3-17 is one of those passages. There is some real gold to unearth in this passage. The encouragement of this passage can be summarized simply as, “endure suffering.” Now, maybe you are going through some serious suffering right now and that encouragement seems like an impossibility. If that’s you, let me encourage you, there’s truth, love, comfort, and power here, not platitudes and pat on the back. What’s more, we are not going to be called to endure through suffering without God also providing us with His empowering grace to do so. This passage has God’s grace in abundance. Let’s take a brief look at four ways this passage encourages and equips us on how we are to endure suffering:
- Consider Jesus(vv3-4): Suffering is best understood in the shadow of the cross, where Jesus—the Innocent One—endured the worst of sufferings in our place. We should consider Jesus because it reminds us that:
- Our greatest problem is already solved: Before faith in Jesus, we rightly stood condemned to eternal suffering, but Christ took the punishment we deserved for our sin. While we will suffer here on earth, sometimes terribly, we have already been delivered from our biggest problem. Not only that, but even in our darkest moments, we can cling to and rest in the hope of heaven, where God will wipe away every tear from our eye and redeem every painful broken thing that has ever happened to us, and death and pain will be no more. (Rev. 21:4-5)
- We have a sympathetic and powerful Savior: Jesus is no stranger to suffering. Not only in death, but also in life, He endured continual struggles and suffering. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Even as the sinless God-Man, we saw the real-ness of His humanity and the depth of His suffering as He pleaded with God in the Garden of Gethsemane for there to be another way to save His people (but in the end, He said “Not My will, but Your will be done”). And this same God-Man, who endured much worse suffering than we will ever face, lives inside of us, empowering us to endure, just like He did (Galatians 2:20).
- Rest in the Father’s Embrace (v5): We are not mere strangers who God has taken pity on. God addresses us as sons and daughters. With everything that follows in the passage, God reminds us that we hold a special place in His heart. He does not encourage us simply as a teacher or instructor, He tells us these things as our perfect, all-loving Heavenly Father. Once His enemies, God has adopted us into His family and calls us His very own. We are loved and embraced and called His sons and daughters.
- Embrace the Father’s Discipline (v.5-11): And just like we receive His loving Fatherly embrace, we also receive His loving Fatherly discipline. Whether our suffering was a direct result of our own actions or not, the powerful truth here is that our Heavenly Father uses our suffering to discipline us – to refine us and make us more like Christ. The text says that the Father disciplines those whom He loves, and His discipline gives evidence that we are His sons and daughters. And while there has never been a child who enjoyed discipline in the moment, we can also look back at our earthly parents and see how their imperfect, yet loving discipline molded us into better people. Likewise, and in a perfect and loving way, God uses our suffering to mold us into the image of Christ which is the very best thing that could ever happen to us. If we look back at the suffering in our lives, we can often see how this is true – how God used our pain to form us more into the image of His son, Jesus. As we see in verse 11, all discipline (suffering) will seem painful rather than pleasant when we are in the midst of it, butit will eventually result in "the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those that have been trained by it." While we may never fully understand exactly God was doing through the suffering, we can rest in the truth that God wasusing it for our good. There is no such thing as meaningless suffering for a believer.
- Become Active Participants in Endurance (vv.12-17): So far, this passage has emphasized what God has already done for us, and how He continues to empower us, but we also have a responsibility to join in here. While it can be tempting to wallow in our suffering, feeling helpless and powerless, God commands us to do the opposite. “Lift [up] your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet”. This would be cruel encouragement if God was not empowering us to do what He is telling us to do and if He had not put us in a community of believers who are to come alongside of us with encouragement to press on, but He is and He has. You see, this is a gracious call to reform our lives that is a result (“therefore”) of knowing with certainty that God is working all things together for our good. This encouragement applies to our call to endure in general, but then the author of Hebrews provides additional, specific encouragement by commanding us to pursue peace with others and holiness.
Since interpersonal conflict—a common source of suffering—always involves two imperfect people, God is reminding us that we need to understand, accept, and work on how we contribute to the conflict, rather than focusing on how this is, “all their fault”. After all, God uses suffering to discipline us, so the focus of our attention should be on battling our sin in the situation and how God is trying to make us more like Christ through this circumstance. Maybe we are returning evil for evil, instead of following Christ’s example. Maybe we are not willing to wait on God’s justice. Maybe we have forgotten how much we have been forgiven and so withhold forgiveness like the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35). We are also told to guard against the "root of bitterness", sexual immorality, and a godless attitude (taking matters into our own hands because things are not going the way we want them to).
So how about you? Which one of these things can you tend to forget? How do you normally try to cope with and endure suffering? Hebrews 12:3-17 is so helpful, and I praise God for preserving it in our Bibles! I pray that reviewing Scripture like this is an encouragement to ensure surfing. Most of all, I pray that our Heavenly Father will give us more and more grace to endure suffering!