The Christian life is meant to be hard. The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross. Joining in “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NASB) means that we will all have to spend some time on Mount Olivet in the Garden of Gethsemane.
We all suffer. And understanding this truth will help us as we inevitably walk through tough times. In times of suffering, our default question is usually some version of “Why? Why is God allowing me to suffer?” That’s a fair question, and as we will see in a moment, it’s okay to ask. I’ve asked that before and no doubt will again. But I have found that a better question to ask is “Could this be a midnight mountaintop moment, a season in which God wants to teach me something about himself, about me?”
A Bad Trade
As a pastor, I’ve walked alongside so many people experiencing the “dark night of the soul.” These dark nights may spring from a divorce or an unwelcome diagnosis from a doctor. I’ve held hands with families who have lost a loved one to suicide and counseled elderly wives as their husbands are declining from Alzheimer’s.
So often in these dark nights, the sufferer wants a word of encouragement or for me to say something that might bring them a little bit of peace. But I have found that it is often best to say nothing at all in these situations. Typically what they need more than anything is the “ministry of presence.” They need someone who will simply be there with them, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. Over time, once the grief has set in and the original shock of what they are experiencing has abated a bit, I share with them a statement of truth that I heard from my pastor years ago:
Don’t trade what you know for what you don’t know
“Don’t trade the fact that God knows and wants what is best for you…”
Isn’t this our tendency? When times of heartache and trouble come our way, don’t we begin to trade certainties that we have never doubted for the uncertainties and unknowns that may or may not even exist?
You lose your job and your mind immediately races to I’ll never get hired again. But that’s an uncertainty. Don’t trade the fact God is your provider for uncertainties that may or may not be the case.
Your relationship fractures and you assume I’ll never meet anyone else who could make me happy again. But again, that’s an uncertainty. Don’t trade the fact that God knows and wants what is best for you for uncertainties that may or may not reflect reality.
Certainties on the Dark Mountain
In times of suffering, I refer to a list that comes directly from the life of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. This helps me climb my own mountain of suffering; it enables me to accept my struggle, to not try to trade it for what I don’t know. This list is a constant reminder of certainties in the midst of suffering, and when I meditate on it in my own dark nights, I so often find the peace and presence of God.
Certainty #1—Suffering is universal and unavoidable.
Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t matter where you are from—Jesus was from eternity, after all—what ethnicity you may be, how much you have or don’t have. We live in a fallen world; we all suffer. No one is immune to it. But like Jesus, we can use it as an opportunity to meet with God on the mountain.
Certainty #2—Suffering is not a judgment for sin.
This is perhaps the biggest lie we believe when we go through times of suffering. When we experience difficulty in life or go through a trial of some kind, it is very easy to think that God is judging us for our sin.
As believers, this could not be further from the truth. We may suffer due to the consequences of sinful decisions we make. If we choose to rebel against God or make a decision that is contrary to his Word and outside his will, we will reap what we sow. And sometimes the consequences of reaping what we sow are severe. God disciplines those he loves and chastises those whom he considers sons and daughters. But God does not send suffering as judgment for our sin. Jesus took our judgment with him to the cross.
Certainty #3—Suffering is temporary.
Though it doesn’t make it easier in the moment, it’s good to remember that all suffering is temporary. Scripture says that we will suffer “a little while” (1 Peter 5:10), that we suffer only “light momentary affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17), and that our sufferings are only for the “present time” (Romans 8:18).
At times we may think we’ll never see light again. While we’re in the middle of the dark night, though we may feel completely lost and utterly hopeless, we trust that Christ can resurrect anything. Just as Jesus was on the cross for six hours and in the grave for three days, there is a set limit to our suffering. It is temporary.
Certainty #4—God loves me and has not forgotten me.
It’s so easy to forget this truth when we are enduring hardship or are confronted with a tragedy of some kind. I offer you this certainty from God’s Word. I used personal pronouns so that you could own its truth. God loves you and he has not forgotten you.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall
tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or
nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things
we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor
rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers,
nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will
be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus
our Lord. (Romans 8:35, 37–39)
Certainty #5—God empathizes with me in my suffering.
Perhaps we don’t often consider that God the Father suffered in the garden as well. This was not a one-sided affair. The Father and the Son shared intimate fellowship from all eternity. God was able to empathize because this suffering was a shared experience. And if God empathized with Christ, if he made a way for Christ, won’t he make a way for us too?
Certainty #6—When we suffer, it’s okay to ask “Why?”
Earlier I said that “Why?” isn’t always the most helpful question. But it is usually the most human. We see the humanity of Jesus on display in the garden as he essentially asks, “If there is another way . . . Why is there not another way?”
It’s also okay to not understand why we are having to endure suffering. God’s ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8–9). And even if God explained what we were going through and gave us his reasoning, it’s likely we wouldn’t understand, let alone agree with it.
“Let’s never trade what we know for what we don’t know.”
Asking “Why?” does not show a lack of faith but reveals faith. It’s acknowledging that God alone has the answers to questions we desperately desire answers to. There may be more from this mountain garden story, but there are at least six certainties that we can hold to and embrace by faith when we walk through dark and lonely times. Let’s never trade what we know for what we don’t know.
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