I recently read an article explaining why people are turned off to Christianity. One of the main reasons is that they cannot square the existence of suffering with the existence of a good God. This is understandable; even Christians have a difficult time with the problem of pain. What makes this so hard is that when we encounter suffering of any kind, often (if not always) it feels unfair, undeserved, unjust, and pointless. When we can’t see any possible reason why God would allow us to suffer—and worse, He seems to remain silent to our pleas for healing and relief—it is easy to start believing God isn’t doing His job very well. Or, as is the case for many, God just might not be there at all.
Too many times the Christian has been faced with the suffering he or she did not ask for; the suffering he or she did not deserve, and took it personally. I mean, how can any of us not take it personally when suffering blindsides us and alters our lives? God is a very personal God, with whom we have a personal relationship. This personal God also controls all things. So when suffering enters our world in a personal way and we ask God to personally take care of it—to get rid of it—and He doesn’t, our suffering most definitely feels very personal. It begins to feel as if God is punishing us for something we haven’t a clue about. We start thinking things like: Why would He do this to me? Is God mad at me? I thought God loved me? Why would He be so cruel to me? I go to church, why is this happening to me?
Suffering is Missional
Ever since suffering first entered the world there was a promise given - the promise of a sending. A grand deliverer would be sent who would reverse the curse of death. Ever since sin’s introduction, suffering has been a normal part of our abnormal world. The grand deliverer was sent at just the right time in history (Gal. 4:4). His mission: destroy death and bring life (1 John 3:8). This mission seen in the act of God the Father sending God the Son. We call this the Missio Dei - the sending of God. Crux to that mission was Jesus sent to suffer and die, paying for our sins, and rising three days later. Suffering then was very much a part of the Missio Dei and now, it is essential to advancing His mission in our day through us. Suffering is missional.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote concerning our own crosses we bear as disciples, “When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life.”
Suffering is not just missional it is essential as we share Christ’s objective: destroy death and bring life by making disciples. Disciple making is both evangelism and training. Now, we suffer and we die to our selfish desires, aware only of Christ and our role in advancing His mission.
As disciples, how can we stop taking suffering personal and start making it missional? We have to reframe our perspective. We must reject the paradigm that a good God could not possibly, in His infinite understanding and wisdom, have a good reason to allow our suffering. We have to reject the notion that our happiness is the measure of God’s goodness - even existence. God loves us and has our good in mind. This leaves no other option than God has a plan for us, and our suffering - though not desired - is a part of that good plan.
Suffering is Communal
Another part of this plan is that our suffering not be completely private. Sadly, we’re either embarrassed by it, we don’t want to be a bother to others with it, or we’re scared we may lose a job or a friend. But just as God created us for community, our suffering should be communal as well. I’ve never felt this more than doing funerals during Covid-19 when we must all social distance. By its nature, suffering already leaves us feeling isolated and lonely. Expanding the physical distance between us on top of the loneliness we already feel adds a whole new layer of hurt to the sorrow being suffered. When suffering publicly (or communally) we have the opportunity to picture the gospel to those who are watching. Paul says this of his own suffering,
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying around in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:7-10).
Suffering pictures the message of life to those around us when we suffer well. “So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Cor. 4:12). Destroy death and bring life. When we see that our suffering is missional it brings meaning to our seemingly meaningless and pointless plight.
What are some first steps we can take to bring meaning, not only to our suffering, but to other’s as well?
Like we’ve already said, our suffering isn’t personal - it’s missional. God is calling you to share in His mission - to share in His suffering. Like Paul, our suffering pictures the gospel, the death and resurrection, and it reveals Jesus’ life in us. So, if at all possible, with wisdom let’s make our suffering public and suffer well. The first step is to then realize our suffering is an invitation.
If our suffering is indeed an invitation from God to join Him in His mission then let’s purpose to make, either all or some aspects of our suffering public, so others will see the gospel displayed in how we entrust ourselves to a just God while suffering. Going public with our suffering is a delicate thing, which takes wisdom and advice from others. So as we purpose to share our stories, before we do let’s consider three important aspects:
Is your story ready to go? Or do you need more healing. There may be relationships that need to heal or reconcile first. Do you need to take some time before in order to figure out how you talk about your story? How will you make your story most effective and clear in its mission? Maybe you need to practice or write out key aspects and put it in a way that captures the mission behind your story? We don’t want people missing Jesus in the story so we must be strategic and thoughtful. Perhaps you’re not ready to speak about your suffering you just need to be with people while you’re still processing and figuring things out. Just because you’re not speaking doesn’t mean it’s not communal and people are not watching.
Here is a personal example: Suffering had completely altered my life, ministry, career, marriage, family dynamic, social circles all in one swoop. Suffering, however, did not take my mission away as a believer - to make disciples. So after feeling like God took everything away from me I decided to reframe my circumstances. I spent some time figuring out how my suffering and God’s mission fit together. I spent time figuring out my elevator pitch (which I’ll talk about in the second point).
After some time I married my suffering to His mission for me personally in this:
The suffering that drastically altered my life God has been using to radically alter me into looking more like Jesus.
Only after this was I able to marry my suffering with His mission for others in this:
The suffering that has drastically altered my life I will leverage to use for God to radically alter the lives of other sufferers.
So before we share our stories and bring meaning to our suffering we want to think about the timing.
When sharing personal stuff we always need to ask ourselves what to share and what not to share. We are not being secretive or disingenuous or inauthentic by not sharing every aspect. We are exercising wisdom. Some personal aspects should remain private while others can be shared. When it comes to involving others, such as a spouse or friend, we never should share unless they allow us. Much of what I deal with is tightly entertained with my wife. I don’t share any detail without running it by her first. Once you decided what details of your story are appropriate then you need to think about how to marry those detail with God’s mission. This will be personal to you. One thing you may want to try is making an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is basically 25 words or less to tell the mission of your suffering. It should always leave the listeners wanting to hear more. The idea is you need to communicate your story and mission before the “elevator ride” is over and the person steps out.
Here is my elevator pitch as an example:
The suffering that drastically altered my life, career, and marriage, God has used to radically alter me and He can do the same for you.
You should attempt an elevator pitch of your own because it is a good exercise in communicating clearly and concisely.
3. Context or Environment
We want to think about where we will be sharing our stories. There are a number of different places where we can begin. Any online platform is quite possibly the worst place to start. A small group of some kind is the best place to begin. A small group or Sunday school group at church for example. A close-knit Bible study, a men’s or woman’s group are good examples. It could be a group that gets coffee every week. It can even be a recovery group like Alcoholics Anonymous or Celebrate Recovery. Starting small is best for three reasons:
The first is that it is safe. You are among close friends and have been doing life together already. You will find grace and love as you courageously open up to share your story.
The second reason small is better jumping off point is because of its safe environment it is great place to practice and refine details. No one hits it out of the park on the first swing. This small group, because of the grace and love will be the best environment for you to start working on your stories.
The third reason is feedback. In this small group you will find gracious feedback. You will find the wisdom of others and adjustments to make your story better.
Your suffering isn’t just personal - it’s missional. God is calling you to share in His mission - to share in His suffering. Not His atoning suffering which is finished, but the suffering that is His to share with us for the sake of the advancement of the Church. Like Paul, our suffering pictures the gospel - the death and resurrection - it reveals death in us but also the life of Jesus in us and in those who believe. So, if at all possible, with wisdom let’s take our suffering public and suffer well.
We bring meaning to our suffering and other’s when we demonstrate to them that their suffering is not just personal - it’s missional, full of eternal significance and purpose. What we want to do is reframe our personal suffering into missional suffering. Then, and only then, we can help those suffering see that it isn’t personal for them either. God is not mad at them or forgotten them. We want to help those suffering to see He is personally calling them to join in His mission. We believe that we can help others find meaning in their suffering when we teach them to leverage it for God’s glory.
Eric Austin holds his Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas, USA. After almost seven years as a pastor he stepped out of vocational ministry to support his wife in her recovery of Borderline Disorder (BPD). Eric was born and has lived his life with an extremely rare bone disease, a disease which has profoundly impacted his personal views on suffering. In recent years, as a result of walking alongside his wife’s own suffering, he has learned the emotional and psychological pain that often comes from living with a loved one having a personality disorder. Eric is passionate about teaching the Bible and seeing the grace of God radically alter people into looking more like Jesus through the suffering that has drastically altered their lives. He is the host of The Altered Podcast a podcast in which he attempts to do just this. Eric lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA with his wife Heidi and three children.