Here’s what happens in times of suffering. When the thing you have been trusting (whether you knew it or not) is laid to waste, you don’t suffer just the loss of that thing; you also suffer the loss of the identity and security that it provided. This may not make sense to you if right now you are going through something that you wouldn’t have planned for yourself, but the weakness that is now a part of my regular life has been a huge instrument of God’s grace (see 2 Cor. 12:9.) It has done two things for me. First, it has exposed an idol of self I did not know was there. Pride in my physical heath and my ability to produce made me take credit for what I couldn’t have produced on my own. God created and controls my physical body, and God has given me the gifts that I employ every day. Physical health and productivity should produce deeper gratitude and worship, not self-reliance and pride in productivity. I am thankful for what my weakness has exposed and for being freed by grace from having to prove any longer that I am what I think I am.
But there’s a second thing that has been wonderful to understand. Perhaps we curse physical weakness because we are uncomfortable with placing our trust in God. Let me explain. Weakness simply demonstrates what has been true all along: we are completely dependent on God for life and breath and everything else. Weakness was not the end for me, but a new beginning, because weakness provides the context in which true strength is found. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that he’ll boast in his weakness. It sounds weird and crazy when you first read it, but it’s not. He has come to know that God’s “power is made perfect” in his weakness. You see, weakness is not what you and I should be afraid of. We should fear our delusion of strength. Strong people tend not to reach out for help, because they think they don’t need it. When you have been proven weak, you tap into the endless resources of divine power that are yours in Christ. In my weakness I have known strength that I never knew before.
When We Feel Entitled
One thing that shaped the way I suffered physically was unrealistic expectations. Suffering shouldn’t surprise us, but it almost always does, and it surely surprised me. I did go into my sickness with my theology in the right place. I did believe that I lived in a groaning world crying out for redemption, but it was battling with something else inside me. There was this expectation that I would always be as I had been, that is, that I would always be strong and healthy. There was little room in my life, family, and ministry plans for weakness within or trouble without. In fact, there was no room for any disruption at all. So much of the way I thought about myself and planned was based on the unrealistic expectation that I would continue to escape the regular disruption of one’s life and plans that happens in a world that doesn’t operate as God designed it to operate.
I wasn’t singled out; God hadn’t forgotten me or turned his back. I wasn’t being punished for my choices, and I wasn’t receiving the expected consequences for poor decisions. My story is about the regular things that happen to us all because we live in a world that has been dramatically damaged by sin. In this world sickness and disease live, and our bodies break down or don’t function properly. In this world pain, sometimes chronic and sometimes acute, assaults us and makes life nearly unlivable. We live in a broken world where people die, food decays, wars rage, governments are corrupt, people take what isn’t theirs and inflict violence on one another, spouses act hatefully toward each another, children are abused instead of protected, people slowly die of starvation or die suddenly from disease, sexual and gender confusion lives, drugs addict and destroy, gossip destroys reputations, lust and greed control hearts, bitterness grows like a cancer, and the list could go on and on.
You Will Have Trouble
The Bible doesn’t pull any punches. At every turn, it informs and warns us about the nature of the world, which is the address where we all live. Whether it’s a dramatic narrative of life, or a doctrine that informs, or a wisdom principle about how to live well, Scripture works to prepare us, not so we would live in fear, but so we will be ready for the things we will all face. God gives us everything we need so that we will live with realistic expectations and so that moments of difficulty will not be full of shock, fear, and panic, but experienced with faith, calm, and confident choices.
Although I had right theology in place, somehow, at street level, my expectations were unrealistic, and unrealistic expectations always make suffering harder. My point is that I am a living example of the truth that you and I never suffer just the thing that we’re suffering, but we also suffer the way that we’re suffering it. Each of us brings to our suffering things that shape the way that we suffer. We all suffer, but we don’t suffer the same way, because our suffering is shaped by what we carry into the difficulties that come our way.
What Will Shape Your Suffering?
Here’s what is so important to understand: your suffering is more powerfully shaped by what’s in your heart than by what’s in your body or in the world around you. Now, don’t misunderstand what I am saying. My suffering was real, the dysfunction in my body was real, the damage to my kidneys is real, the pain I went through was horribly real, and the weakness that is now my normal life is real. But the way that I experienced all those harsh realities was shaped by the thoughts, desires, dreams, expectations, cravings, fears, and assumptions of my heart. The same is true for you. Your responses to the situations in your life, whether physical, relational, or circumstantial, are always more determined by what is inside you (your heart) than by the things you are facing. This is why people have dramatically different responses to the same situations of difficulty. This is why the writer of Proverbs says:
Keep your heart with all vigilance,
for from it flow the springs of life. (Prov. 4:23)
Like a stream, your attitudes, choices, reactions, decisions, and responses to whatever you are facing flow out of your heart. The heart is the center of your personhood. The heart is your causal core, as dry soil soaks in the liquid of a stream. Suffering draws out the true thoughts, attitudes, assumptions, and desires of your heart.
It really is true that we never come empty-handed to any experience. And we surely always drag something into the suffering that enters our door. What about you? What are you carrying around that has the power to cause you to trouble your own trouble? What has the power to allow you to forget that no matter what painful thing you’re enduring, as God’s child it’s impossible for you to endure it all by yourself? The One who created this world and rules it with wisdom, righteousness, and love is in you, with you, and for you, and nothing has the power to separate you from his love.
This article is adapted from Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense by Paul David Tripp.