For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
— Romans 8:18
I seem to have nothing in common with some people. At some parties I’ve starred in the famous Sesame Street role of “one of these things just doesn’t belong here.” Nonetheless, there are a few things we all have in common, and near the top of that list is suffering. Every one of us has suffered or will suffer in this life. It is inevitable. The only thing more universal than suffering is God’s love for you even in the midst of your suffering.
I warn young people that life is awesome . . . but then it turns ugly. In most but not all cases it then gets awesome again. We cycle through seasons of hardship and seasons of pleasure. Though much of our suffering appears insignificant as little as a month later, some suffering remains dreadfully impactful even after years. The loss of a loved one, the unrecoverable sinking of a career, the onset of an incurable disease, the betrayal of a best friend. But even the seemingly insignificant stuff can be overwhelming in the moment. I read of a college student who committed suicide because she couldn’t imagine ever getting out of her debt, a mere $3,000. Most of us would have told her that such a sum is nowhere near insurmountable, especially for someone so young with so much potential for future earnings. But she was too close to see it with such clarity.
Some people speak as though becoming a Christian is like getting one of those video game bubbles of invincibility. Nothing can hurt you. Life will be nothing but candy, cake and blessings of every stripe. There will be no sickness, there will be no financial hardships, there will be no broken relationships. It’s easy to cultivate that view. Simply limit yourself to reading only select scriptures and listening to messages about how God wants to prosper you. Those scriptures not only exist, but they are true. God does want to bless you and prosper you. But His definition of prosperity and yours may not be identical, and His plan is a little more big picture, which means blessings you may want today might not be in the cards for you for another 10 or 20 years. Or longer.
Everyone loves to quote from Jeremiah’s promise to Israel that God has such great plans for them.
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. I will be found by you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back from your captivity; I will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you to the place from which I cause you to be carried away captive. — Jeremiah 29:11–14
Did the beginning of that sound much more familiar than the end? That’s because we love to quote the part that sounds like it was written to us. The bit about being gathered from the nations and having been carried away captive, that doesn’t sound like something we can relate to. I haven’t known anyone who has been carried away captive since a group of us kidnapped our friend Keith for a surprise bachelor party, and that’s clearly not the kind of captivity Jeremiah was talking about. But if we read the passage in its full context we learn that God was punishing Israel by having them defeated by another nation and forced to leave the Promised Land. God was disciplining them so they would repent and their hearts would return to Him. Then He could return them to the Promised Land. But He told them to get comfortable because it wouldn’t happen for another 70 years! That is definitely not the way we want our blessings. We want them now, and in full measure.
The Bible, however, promises us more than just blessings. It promises us suffering. And it promises that our suffering can actually be a blessing. Romans 8:18 begins to reveal an unwelcome connection between suffering and blessing. Paul says that the suffering is temporary but it leads to an eternal glory that is so much better we may as well not even struggle to find words for it. It is an unwelcome connection because no one enjoys suffering. No one desires it. But James tells us that when it comes we should embrace a most unusual attitude toward it: we should count it as joy. James tells us that it produces the God-like quality of patience. (James 1:2-3) Paul told the Philippians that “…to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me” (Philippians 1:29-30). That’s some crazy thinking there. Paul speaks as though suffering for Christ is actually a gift from God!
Suffering, however, gives us choices. Sometimes we can choose to avoid suffering. We can choose to remain silent about sin rather than suffer the loss of friends. We can choose to do something unethical, perhaps even illegal, rather than suffer the loss of our job. We can choose to let others suffer rather than suffer ourselves the cost it would require to end theirs.
Some suffering, however, is coming our way no matter what we do. Then we can choose to let God use that suffering to bless us or we can suffer with nothing to show for it. Later in the same chapter in which Paul said that our suffering doesn’t compare to our coming glory, he goes on to tell us how God wants to use the circumstances in our lives.
And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30
What good is God wanting to work out for us? He is wanting everything we experience, pleasant and unpleasant, to play a role in conforming us to the image of Jesus. Again Paul speaks of us being glorified, but he makes no attempt to describe the incredible nature of that glory. What we do know is that the glory results from us reflecting the nature of Jesus in us through our suffering and our celebrations, through the good and the bad.
We need to embrace suffering when it comes, knowing that God is sovereign and has a plan for how He will use that suffering for our eternity. We need to recognize that though the pleasure this world offers is nice when it’s free from strings, when it comes with conditions that turn us into puppets, we must cut those strings. Because you are the character that doesn’t belong here. Like Abraham, you are just passing through and this is not your home. Your home has streets paved in gold, not streets lined with grouchy Muppets living in garbage cans.