Strength to Strength in times of Suffering

In his devotional “Mornings and Evenings,” Charles Spurgeon wrote his own commentary on the passing of Christians from security and strength to further stability and power. This progression is contrary to much of our natural experience, and Spurgeon acknowledges the same. A runner, for instance, begins with full energy and ends with none; and the wrestler finishes his long match with much less vigor than he had at the start. But Christians are anchored and empowered by someone who is unnatural, and their advancement from strength to strength is observable as well as biblical.

The Bible speaks of a God who is not merely a passive all-observing eye. No, the biblical God is the creator and sustainer of every aspect of His creation; He is the ever-active, sovereign king of the universe (Acts 17:24-25).

This brings great comfort to the humble Christian. Spurgeon says, “Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace.”[1] This means that there is no amount of suffering, no tumultuous season of life, no seemingly unrewarded effort expended that is completely in vain. The Bible never calls evil by the name of good, but all things are by God’s design and for the ultimate good of His children (Rom. 8:28; Lam. 3:37-38).

Much more could be said on this biblical assertion of God’s sovereign work to bring about the sanctification of His children, but Christians may be observed as having lived out this surprising experience as well. While not all churchgoers exhibit this same development, the mark of mature Christianity is finding secure refuge in Christ.

Consider the believer who receives a terrible diagnosis from the doctor. She may recoil and feel distress just as much as anyone, but her soul is eventually steadied and the Commander of the storm calms the gales of her mind.

Think also of the young Christian couple that rushes their newborn to the emergency room only to learn that their child’s mortal life has ended much too soon. Their pain and anguish is beyond words, but the light of life somehow invades their dark night of the soul.

Christ is their portion, and He is enough.

Once, Christians were commonly noticed as experiencing joy in the face of their own sorrow. In our day of commonplace denial and distraction, it is not so normal to see anyone bear the load of suffering well. Yet, when the Christian does it is a bittersweet site indeed.

What a peculiar beauty it is to see the Christian rejoice in the Lord while they are enduring significant pain. Others may even become irrationally envious of the agony of these exemplary saints when that agony is born steadily by the grace of God.

Spurgeon is also quoted as having said, I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.

The counter-intuitive destination of a Christian’s suffering is safe in the arms of Christ. Isn’t it a wonder that Christians will often find themselves crawling out of Christ’s bosom and onto the floor of life until they encounter some strange pain or confusing fear? Upon such an encounter, they cry out for the embrace of the Father’s care and find Him worthy of their full trust and reliance.

Only in this light may we perceive suffering as a gift.

Oh, that you and I would know the strength of God’s abiding Spirit – with or without the common suffering of life under the curse of sin. May the Lord bless us with His caring allotment of energy and affliction, for His glory and for our greatest joy.

“[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2]

“God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.”[3]

Hope in times of suffering, pain and loss

While a young mother was changing her two-year-old daughter’s clothes, she heard Bella’s tiny voice.  Pointing to herself, Bella asked, “I cansoo?”  Leslie, Bella’s mother, was used to interpreting her daughter’s attempts at communication, but this word was new.  “Say it again,” Leslie said.  She needed to hear it again in order to make a good translation.  “I cansoo?”  Bella tried the question once more, but still the word was not clear.  Then Bella pointed to the scar on her tiny body that was left when her chemotherapy port had been removed, and said “Port.  Out.  I cansoo?”

Leslie was overcome with the stark reality of the whole situation, but she was able to maintain her composure for the moment.  Leslie said to her little girl, “Bella, are you saying cancer?”  Bella’s eyes widened and she responded, “YeahI cansoo?”  With a lump in her throat, Leslie said, “Yes baby, you have cancer.”

Bella is still enduring the effects of this terrible disease, but every human to one degree or another experiences suffering, sickness, emotional distress, and general discomfort.  In fact, the grim reality of mortal life is that it eventually ends in death.  However, people have ways of coping with this reality, and life seems to go on – at least for some.  What are we to do with our sense of helpless weakness?  Should we deny the inevitable by thinking that sickness and death are oddities?  Should we eat, drink and be merryfor tomorrow we die?  Is there any place that we may turn for truth, stability and strength?

Yes, as a matter of fact, there is stability and strength to be found in truth.  Yet, the basis for hope may not be what one might expect.  The reason that humans may have hope, especially in times of great distress, is that there is one who has died before us.  But, how can death provide hope for those plagued by death? It is not only the death of another that provides hope, but it is the subsequent display of divine authority and power.

Jesus Christ, the eternal God, was no ordinary man (John 1:14).  His life was lived in perfect obedience to God’s law (Hebrews 4:15), yet He died as one condemned – cursed by God (Romans 3:25).  While Jesus was perfectly good and righteous, He endured the full wrath of God as a sinner of the worst kind (Isaiah 53:4-6). At His moment of death, Jesus spoke out, “It is finished” (John 19:30).  This was to claim that the punishment for sin was thorough, and God’s wrath against all sinners who trust in Christ was exhausted.

Following this atoning sacrifice, Jesus Christ conquered death – not for just a little while, but never to die again!  This is where hope may be found in times of painful distress.  This mortal life, under the curse of sin and power of death, is not all there is!  Read the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Corinthians 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (v3-4).

Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive (v20-22).

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

Death is swallowed up in victory.

O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (v54-58).

In the life, death and resurrection of Christ we who trust in Him are assured and comforted. In Christ we are able to see our sin for the ugly offense that it is and God’s gracious grace on beautiful display.  In Christ we are able to see death, the final and ultimate foe of all mankind, subdued and overcome by the power of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection.

Therefore, the hope… the stability… the strength… the inclination to endure is not that we will be spared from pain, sickness, disease and death…  No, but even in these things we are victorious because of Christ (Romans 8:37-39)!  Oh, Christian, look not only to your temporal merriment, but fix your eyes upon the hope of glory!  Behold the King of splendor!  Lift up your gaze to the eternal, true and living God, who is the Savior of your soul – the steadfast promise keeper.

This life may be marred by difficulty, pain and sin, but our glorious future is more wonderful, more beautiful, more stimulating than anything we have ever known.