Lessons from Suffering


I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.

—John 16:33

It’s hard to read the newspaper and think any other thoughts than this: people are suffering. I fear that much more suffering is to come.

Last week, I spent most of Wednesday in agony. And agony is a mild word for what it feels like to have a kidney stone. Worse: when you can’t keep the pain meds down because the waves of nausea are forcing up everything. After a prolonged fight, and a thankful passing of the stone, my day of suffering came to an end.

Just when I needed my parents most, they died. My son will never know my Mom and Dad. That’s a different kind of suffering.

Been through a lot of suffering through a series of career starts and restarts. Can’t really explain why. My wife and I have gone through more than our fair share of downsizings. We’re coming up on 12 years of marriage and in that time have endured seven layoffs between the two of us. We always got stellar performance reviews, too. Suffering hurts even worse when it makes no sense.

Last week, when I was hugging the toilet, my side felt ready to explode, I had a good chance to meditate on suffering. Here’s what I learned:

Suffering stinks.

I find it odd that some sectors of Christianity seem to have a love affair with suffering, as if suffering exemplifies the highest form of spiritual bliss. The photographer later killed himselfSome of those folks even go out of their way to suffer. I think that’s nuts.

This is not to say that one can’t learn from suffering. If you’re severely injured in an accident or happen to struggle with a painful, chronic disease, you understand the torment of the cross. How can any of us hurting that profoundly not think of what Jesus endured for us? People in pain can identify with the Savior and experience the fellowship of His sufferings.

In earthly suffering, each of us gets a taste of hell, even if that taste is a small one. Magnify it a millions times. Now who wants to go to that awful place? The Savior comes to save us from that suffering.

Thoughts of heaven permeate the lives of those trapped in earthly suffering. At least they should. People used to content themselves with heaven—note the past tense. Heaven seems remote to people today, even Christians.

Still, the thing about suffering is that its lessons are learned quickly. It’s like the little kid who sticks his hand in the fire. That lesson is well learned once. The point of experiencing sufferings repeatedly or for years and decades gets lost in the end. We know the lesson. Can we please do without more suffering?

I know that when I was twisting in agony, all the spiritualizing about suffering went out the window. I knew the lessons already. More suffering didn’t help me know them better. It didn’t make me any more holy or more Christ-like. Suffering stinks.

What makes the obsession some Christians have with suffering even more odd to me is that suffering is an aberrant condition. God didn’t build suffering into Creation. There’s no suffering in heaven, either. Suffering is the result of sin. Christ became incarnate in part to end suffering. He came into a suffering world and alleviated suffering. Seems to me He’s no fan of suffering.

J. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to Asia, went to the Far East to bring the Gospel to the lost people there. Today’s blazing Chinese Church, white-hot with revival as it is, owes much of its origin to Hudson Taylor.

But Hudson Taylor buried his family in China and came back to England a different man. Friends who knew him saw the change. A sadness permeated his life afterward.

In some ways, few of us Americans really know anything about suffering, at least suffering for the sake of the Gospel. To me, suffering for the Gospel is the only suffering that makes sense.

However, some better Christians than yours truly don’t see a distinction between suffering from a kidney stone and suffering for the Gospel. I wonder sometimes if they’re overspiritualizing things. If we’re being beaten with a tire iron, it seems to me a great difference if the person initiating the beating is doing so because we’re trying to share the Gospel with him as opposed to his reacting negatively to our complaint about the lousy job he did balancing our tires. A big difference exists between having our heart stop beating because some jungle native drove a spear through it because he didn’t like this Jesus we were talking about and us going into cardiac arrest due to a lifetime of scarfing down buckets of fried chicken.

But that’s just me. Perhaps I’m just not deep enough.

14 thoughts on “Lessons from Suffering

  1. Dan,
    Sorry to hear of your kidney stone. Thankfully, never had one myself, and having seen some who have, I hope I never do! I trust your well now?

    Regardless of whatever lessons can be learned through suffering, I always pray that God will find a way to teach me by some other means. You are right, it just doesn’t seem congruent with redemption– hellish rather than heavenly. This life where suffering is present is a weird nexus where folk traveling opposite directions meet and comingle. For those heading toward hell, this is the only taste of heaven they’ll ever see; for those heading toward heaven, this is the only taste of hell they’ll ever experience. I wonder sometimes if either party catches the wondrous truth of it.

    God bless and be well.

    • SLW,

      The other part of that suffering with kidney stones is that I’ll have to cut out three of my favorite things to drink and eat: red wine, tea, and chocolate. I seem to get the stones based on foods and drinks with tannic acid in them, plus the main chemical in chocolate. Since I’d had the stones twice before, I’d already cut my tea drinking down to nothing. Still, the red wine and chocolate are going to have to go, too. And for a cocoa-lover like me, that really hurts.

      Heck, I have almost no vices left!

  2. Normandie

    I just came off a week-plus of the worst/longest-lasting back pain I’ve yet experienced–you know, the kind where you wait for the day to end and then for the night to end, and they seem endless, and the only way to get up from the bed is to do it during a spasm when the pain is at its worst but unstoppable–because if you don’t, the fear of all that pain will keep you from ever moving again.

    Now, the back pain this time was probably my fault. I know the Lord touched my back last fall, but I’ve been negligent in following through with my exercises. So I lay there in agony and tried to focus on the Lord, hating the suffering but knowing that it too would pass. And knowing that for some people, that level of suffering isn’t acute; it’s chronic. All I could do was try to keep Jesus before me and offer up prayers of intercession for those who have to face excruciating pain on a daily basis.

    And to pray that the level of my faith will rise so that someday I’ll be able to speak to hurting folk as Peter did, offering not silver and gold, but the healing touch of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    • Normandie,

      My father endured a half dozen or so back operations to fix his spinal problems (after he fell down a flight of stairs), so I know the agony of lower back problems, especially those that are skeletal.

  3. I thought that watching my first wife suffer for four years then die was as bad as suffering got.

    I thought that dealing with teenagers mourning the loss of the mother would rip out my soul.

    Now watching my wife suffer with MS these past 6 years has really brought the message of suffering to me again. Watching my wife struggle in a wheelchair.. struggle recently to formulate words.. has moved and changed me deeply.

    One of the things that I have learned is that pain/suffering cannot be dealt with using our brain. I can only process these things with my heart. Suffering indeed stinks – it reeks and I often cannot stand it.

    Pain can only be processed vertically.. only our loving Father is able to comfort us and heal our wounded and broken souls.. only He can help us to find meaning in it.. not that I have any deep revelation about it.

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent Dan. I am writing from my wife’s hospital room (yeah they have wifi) and your post resonated with me.

    Blessings, Bob

  4. Cheryl

    I think I agree Bob about pain not being dealt with using our brain. I know when I am sick and wretching or my back herniation acts up I barely can pray let alone think about what God is doing or trying to do.I also cannot think of anything or anyone else.

    All I can get out is “Jesus…….” It’s at times like this I trust he knows me very intimately and knowing HE is there is enough.

  5. Suzanne

    One of the most meaningful essays on suffering that I have ever read is by Thomas Merton, entitled “To Know the Cross”. I found it in a book called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (Plough Publishing 2003) but I’m sure it can be found elsewhere.

      • Suzanne

        One quote from it: “It is of the very essence of Christianity to face suffering and death not because they are good, not because they have meaning, but because the resurrection of Jesus has robbed them of their meaning.”

  6. Normandie

    I wonder what people who don’t know the Lord do with their suffering. People like my atheist brother, whose cancer has recurred and who finds himself angry at people, and probably at God, but who won’t look up where his redemption beckons.

    O, Lord, have mercy on us all. Show us Your face, the beauty of Your holiness. And help us find a way to enter into the suffering of others to show them the path to Your grace.

  7. Brian


    My father used to suffer from Kidney stones until he started drinking one glass of water with two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and two tablespoons of honey in it. It prevents kidney stones. When he decides to forget the prevention and starts feeling the pain of a kidney stone coming on, he takes the same “medicine” every two hours until the stone is disolved. It may sound silly to some but it has worked for my father for over 25 years now. A month ago my mother in law had several kidney stones, took the vinegar as I instructed and is now a picture of perfect health. The best thing is, it doesn´t cost a lot to try it.

    Brian from Peru

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