Suffering well

Suffering well

Second Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 3.8-15; Psalm 130; 2 Corinthians 4.13 – 5.1; Mark 3.20-35 (view all)

I’ve always been fiercely independent — my parents tell me that growing up my catchphrase was always ‘I can do it myself!’ In fact, there’s one famous story from when I must have been around five or six years old, and my parents had decided to redecorate my bedroom in our brand new house.

So we went to the shops together and they let me help choose some paint. But of course when we got to the house, I had to carry the paint up the stairs myself. I managed to drag the paint most of the way up, but then dropped the tin and it spilled everywhere — all down the brand new carpet.

Often when we are struggling, whether with difficult circumstances, with illness or with doubt and emotional distress, we can find it difficult to accept God’s help or the help of others. 

How can this morning’s readings, and in particularly our epistle, help us to understand how to cope with our struggles and pain without allowing them to overwhelm us? 

Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a ‘spirit of faith’, so that whatever challenges we face as individuals and as a church, we can trust that God is in control. 

As followers of Jesus, we understand that there’s more to life than just the visible and the physical. So when times are hard, ‘we do not lose heart’, just as Paul writes, ‘Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day’. 

Besides staying as healthy and fit as possible, there is often little we can do about our outer nature. Except for in a few cases of negligence, illness and disease affect people at random, and there is rarely anything we can do in our own case or for our relatives and loved ones, other than offer care and support. But we can take responsibility for our inner nature, inviting God each new day to provide the gift of spiritual renewal and refreshment. 

Why does this matter? Because, as Paul reminds us,

this slight momentary affliction [in our lives today] is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.

All that this world can throw at us, all the physical and emotional suffering we encounter in our lives, is ultimately temporary, and we look with anticipation towards the fulfilment of God’s kingdom were all suffering will inevitably come to an end – the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus’ own suffering for our sake on the cross. 

However, this doesn’t mean ignoring, minimising or denying our own struggles, our own anxiousness, our own pain. 

Like Adam and Eve in our Old Testament reading, our temptation when things go wrong, whether through our own fault or not, can often be to hide it from God and often from those around us as well. Instead we need to have the courage to confront our own struggles, bringing them to God and accepting the support of others, and instead of letting them overcome us, seeing them instead in the perspective of eternity. 

For just as suffering was not the end for Jesus, so it will not be the end for us, and we will be raised with him, to live with him in the heavenly home carefully prepared for us. As Paul concludes:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

I wonder, this morning: Will we have the courage to confront our own struggles, whether in terms of our physical health, emotional wellbeing, or our relationships with others, choosing to bring them to God and reach out to others for support? And in doing so, will we choose to have faith, to not lose heart, and to see our present, temporary suffering in eternal perspective? 

How can we, as God’s people, reach out to others around us in their suffering, and offer comfort, care and relief? 

One of my favourite spiritual writers whom I often quote, Henri Nouwen, wrote this:

We are living in this short time, a time, indeed, full of sadness and sorrow. To live this short time in the spirit of Jesus Christ, means to reach out from the midst of our pains and to let them be turned into joy by the love of him who came within our reach. We do not have to deny or avoid our loneliness, our hostilities and illusions. To the contrary… Once God has touched us in the midst of our struggles and has created in us the burning desire to be forever united with him, we will find the courage and the confidence to prepare his way and to invite all who share our life to wait with us during this short time for the day of complete joy.
Henri Nouwen, Reaching out, pp.149-150.

In the face of present sufferings, Paul encourages us to never lose heart but to see our lives in the light of the eternal joy that awaits us. As we bring our concerns, our struggles, our anxiety to him in prayer and worship this morning, may God by his Spirit comfort us, come alongside us, and prepare us for the eternal glory of heaven.

Lord, you have taught us that all our doings
without love are nothing worth:
send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts
that most excellent gift of love,
the true bond of peace and of all virtues,
without which whoever lives is counted dead before you.
Grant this for your only Son Jesus Christ’s sake,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.