Seeing Suffering Differently: A Personal & Biblical Reflection
1. Suffering: A setback to serving Christ?
“I don’t understand. You serve God so fervently, why does God treat you this way?”
I was asked this question some time back by a man who had recently become a Christian. His question was prompted by the suffering I was experiencing with my health.1 As a full-time ministry worker living with an ongoing illness that has resulted in complications such as chronic pain and visual impairment, I often encounter questions such as this one. The question assumes that godly Christians won’t suffer in this life, but that they’ll be especially “blessed” by God. In response, I gently explained to him that as believers, our hope is not in the health, wealth, and prosperity of the here and now. Rather, our eyes are set on the eternal reward, which God has kept for those who trust in him. Christians do not serve God in order to be blessed with health and wealth in return. The Christian serves God in response to the grace he has received with a heart filled with gratitude and thanks because we have received something far greater than anything this world can offer.
The Scriptures tell us that God has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:3). He has chosen us to be his own, adopted us to be his sons, by redeeming us through the blood of his Son (Ephesians 1:4-10). When a follower of Jesus lifts his eyes to behold the immensity of what awaits us in eternity, the sufferings and the afflictions of this world become small in comparison (Romans 8:18). Earthly blessings seem insignificant in the light of the glory which is to come. Yes indeed, “this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).
I recall visiting a church some time ago and attending the Sunday service. During the sermon, the preacher told the congregation that “you cannot serve God if you are not healthy”. These very words were repeated to me after the service had ended by a group of loving and well-meaning Christians who were members of that church. I felt deeply saddened in my heart by what had been said. This statement couldn’t have been further from the truth. Why couldn’t an omnipotent God choose to use a person who is frail and sickly in body and mind for his glory?
2. God’s Grace is Sufficient
I often tell those around me that if my health were to fail to the extent that all I could do was to lift one little finger, God could still use me for his glory. The fallacy expressed during that church service and sadly, in many Christian circles today, is that God primarily works through our strengths and successes. We have been fed the terrible lie that it is only when we are being “blessed” in ways such as progressing in our careers, increasing in earthly riches and possessions, enjoying great health, and succeeding in every aspect of life, that our witness to Christ is the strongest.
On the contrary, we are reminded throughout the Scriptures that God chooses to work powerfully through weakness, so that his power may be seen, and his name alone glorified. The apostle Paul himself experienced an unknown affliction, a “thorn in his flesh” which he pleaded with God three times to remove from him (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). But rather than removing it, God’s answer to him was this:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”~ 2 Corinthians 12:9a
Paul was reminded that God’s power would be most clearly revealed, not in his success, but in his suffering, as God daily sustained him with his all-sufficient grace. I suspect Paul’s response would be deemed “radical” among many Christians today:
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”~ 2 Corinthians 12:9b-10
Rather than viewing his sufferings as an obstacle to gospel work, Paul learnt to see his sufferings as opportunities for God to be powerfully at work. Paul’s response is one I seek to make my own as well. I have witnessed God’s sufficient grace in enabling me to continue to serve him, even in the face of sickness and physical disability. Whatever suffering you are going through, I am convinced that God can work through you, too.
3. The Word of the Cross
When writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul spoke of the word of the cross, the gospel which appeared foolish to those who were perishing (1 Corinthians 1:18a). This view of the cross as weak and foolish persists today among those who have turned their back on God in sinful rebellion. On the surface, it may seem unthinkable, even absurd, that salvation would come through the death of God’s only Son. But for those changed by God’s Spirit, we recognize that the message of Christ crucified is indeed the power of God for salvation to all who believe.
Paul reminded the Corinthian church that not many among them were wise, powerful, or influential by worldly standards (1 Corinthians 1:26). He wanted them to understand that this was no accident, but the intentional and purposeful plan of God.
27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.~ 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
Just as God chose the “foolish” means of the cross to save sinners, so God chose weak, sinful people to believe that message. This was God’s deliberate plan so that the proud would be humbled, and God alone would get the glory (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). We should not be surprised then, that Christians are often weak and suffering, but rather expect it. We must all learn to see life through the lens of the cross.
Looking back over the years, I am thankful to God for using my suffering to open many doors to speak about Christ. For example, as I’ve moved around for ministry, there have been many opportunities to witness Christ to drivers of e-hailing services. Many of them are drawn to into conversation, curious as to how someone with a disability and sickness can find hope and purpose in life. During many of these conversations, I have had the opportunity to share the gospel with them. Rather than being a hindrance to ministry, my physical weakness has led to opportunities for ministry.
4. Comforting the Afflicted
In many ways, it is these afflictions which have enabled both my husband, Daniel and I to serve better, particularly in our ability to minister to and comfort others who are suffering. As husband and wife, the trials and difficulties we have faced and continue to face together where my health is concerned have not only grown in us empathy for the grief, pain, illness, and abandonment of others, but the ability to speak into their lives with authenticity. I am reminded of Paul’s assurance that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:4). Our personal experience of God’s comfort through the gospel, in turn results in the blessing of comforting others with that very same gospel.
The Christian life is not an easy one, but we can be certain that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). Our suffering may bring pain, but it is never meaningless. No matter what suffering we must endure, the good God works for us, is to conform us into the likeness of his Son, preparing us for an eternity in glory with him (Romans 8:28-30).
5. Living for Christ in all Circumstances
People often ask me if I do pray for healing and restoration of my physical sight. In response, I tell them that I do pray for healing, but that it is not my priority in life. My priority in life is to live for Jesus, and to serve him in all situations and conditions. In all this, Philippians 1:20-21 has become a motto I have sought to live by:
it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.~ Philippians 1:20-21
Paul wrote these words while imprisoned, unsure of whether he would be released or executed. What mattered to Paul was not his personal well-being, but the advancement of the gospel and the glory of Christ. This gave him unshakeable joy, godly contentment, and a steadfast purpose no matter what he faced. Christ is worth living for and dying for. May Christ be honoured in my body whether by life or by death. And may the gospel motivate you to do the same.
1 The writer suffers from a rare disease which affects her autonomic nervous system. This has resulted in various health complications, including visual disability.
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Marianne Liaw is a youth ministry worker with Scripture Union Peninsular Malaysia, whose passion is sharing the gospel and teaching God’s word to youths in schools and churches. Both she and her husband, Daniel serve in various ministries in their home church, St Mary’s Cathedral. They are also actively involved in service with the refugee community in the Klang Valley.
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