A couple of months ago, I was having some abdominal pain. It was not enough to go to the hospital, but it was enough to scare me. Already trying to adjust to my family and I moving to a new town and a new church, having physical pain in the midst of the emotional and spiritual battle I was already facing was the icing on top of my cake. With these digestive issues that often left me with debilitating symptoms such as nausea and abdominal pain, it was hard to believe that my illness was helping me grow closer to God. Reading in my bible, I came across James’ words:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
An author on the site desiringgod.com wrote, “Even in the depths of suffering, Christ does not explain, but he calls the person to follow him on the way to the cross and to final glory. Suffering is not glorified for its own sake, but as a force for transformation and conversion. It can bring the person who suffers to maturity and personal growth. When those who suffer are open to this grace through the inward power of the Holy Spirit, suffering will bring them to the kingdom of God.” This cut me to the heart as an email with these words dropped onto my computer screen.
Suffering brings me closer to God? Really?
Everybody Suffers at One Time or Another
All of the true followers of God suffered in some way—eleven of the disciples were martyred, and the Apostle John spent his last days exiled on an island. The Apostle Paul had an unnamed thorn in the flesh. Suffering is one of the benchmarks in the life of a disciple.
If you think you haven’t experienced spiritual warfare, perhaps you mistook that as having a bad day, or a string of coincidences. Yet, in the life of a believer who is actively pursuing God, you will experience the weight spiritual warfare can cause.
I must admit I’m not very good at considering my suffering joy at all. My first reaction is to get angry, turn inward and recall all the times I felt God robbed me of the happy life I am owed. I mean, isn’t that what I deserve after all I’ve done to serve the Lord and accomplish His work?
This attitude is more dangerous than I can express.
When I think like this, not only am I not considering my situation as joy, but also distort my relationship with God, minimizing him as a genie in a bottle that, when prompted, should only give me good things and nothing that will causes me to be sad or uncomfortable.
We all will suffer at some time or another. Things like job loss, illness, or the death of a loved one will all subject us to suffering. But it’s not the fact that we suffer; it is our reaction to our suffering.
James says we should consider our suffering joy. Why? Because suffering forces us to lean completely on Christ, abiding in the Vine that gives our branches living water. When we surrender our control to Jesus, He provides and protects us in a way that is beyond our wildest imaginations. Surrendering allows us to yield our desires to make way for Jesus’ desires. Surrendering allows us to experience the inner freedom afforded to us through Jesus’ death on the cross.
When we consider that our suffering is producing perseverance in our lives, we understand that perseverance helps increase our faith. God does not waste pain. The difficulties we endure can seem unbearable at times, but the good God that allows it is using it for our transformation. Perseverance helps us to endure the next trial for longer, and longer, until we emulate the fruits of the Spirit that God desires for us in our lives.
We all suffer. But surrender is the key to turn our suffering into joy.
So, how do you do that, even when the suffering seems too hard to bear?
1. Count my blessings
Nothing helps me more when I am feeling hopeless about my situation than when I intentionally reflect on all God has (and will) do for me. I have a journal in which I write down each blessing. Those blessings range from the simple, “I have running water,” to the more specific, “I enjoy what I do for a living.”
It take a bit of time to shift my perspective from a negative to a positive one, but once I do, I see the world differently. It also changes my relationship with God for the better. I see Him as a loving Father, and my problems were not heaped upon me but rather ways for me to cling to God in the midst of that suffering.
2. Find people to hold your hands up
Exodus 17:11-12 says, “As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset.” Suffering is a battle.
It’s a battle for the mind and the soul in that when we suffer, we are focusing on ourselves and our situation, rather than God and what He is trying to teach us. We were never meant to fight battles alone. Being alone is one of Satan’s tools to keep us down and away from God’s purpose for us. Find people who will encourage you and “hold up your hands” during battle so you don’t get weary and lose hope. The more people on your side, the easier it is to fight from the pit of your suffering.
Perhaps the best way to keep your focus on God while you are suffering is to take the focus off your situations and serve others who are in a worse situation than you. It is easy to think you are the one going through a tough time. But seeing what other people go through can be eye-opening and change your view on what you are going through as well. Volunteer at a soup kitchen, homeless shelter or a store that donates profits to a particular cause or charity.
Engage with those who don’t have the simple life necessities you take for granted. One great charity is one that deals with helping women out of domestic abuse situations. Women that don’t feel safe on a regular basis are in desperate need of people who will love them and accept them. Be the hands and feet of Jesus, and it will change how you see your own life quickly.
I know that seems obvious, but coming before the Lord and asking him to see your situation in a new way can help you consider your suffering as joy. If God doesn’t answer during that prayer time, use that time to cry out to Him. God chooses to have fellowship with us. He can handle what you are feeling, but He wants us to come to Him as our Father. It may not give you the answers you are looking for, but it will help you grow closer to God, which always turns our suffering into joy.
I tend to want to compartmentalize my life in a way that gives it control and order. When something fits outside of that box I feel out of control and I turn inward to thoughts of anger or fear that life will not turn out the way I want it to. The way to combat that control is to surrender. Life is going to be what God wants, not always what I want. When I can trust that God is working out things in my best interest, the quicker I can experience that contentment that paves the way for the spiritual fruit of joy.
It is impossible to avoid having trials in this life. But when I choose not to look at them with dread, fear or anger, the quicker I will be able to shift my perspective on it. The more I can analyze the situation and ask myself, “What is God trying to teach me through this difficult situation?” the more I can trust that He is working it out for my good. Then I can finally achieve the joy God desires for my life.
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