Though not all churches focus on it, the theology of suffering is hard to miss throughout scripture. The Old Testament (Job), New Testament (Romans 8: 17), and even the words of Jesus himself (John 16:33) confirm that suffering is to be expected and instrumental in the Christian life.
Certainly, the missionary life includes suffering, sacrifice, and separation. But it can also bring occasions of incredible opportunity. You might even encounter missionaries retreating at some fantastical local smiling guilty, shrugging their shoulders and murmuring over an umbrellaed beverage, “we’re just suffering for Jesus today”.
I’ve suffered. I’ve suffered on and off the mission field. I’ve suffered because of my beliefs and I’ve suffered just from moving through a sinful, corrupt world. I know you have, too.
I’ve also fallen prey to the unhealthy and self-righteous temptation to believe that suffering is it. It’s the thing. It’s the proof of my faith and faithfulness and God’s work in my life. And because of that I’ve often stayed in suffering longer than I need to. Because scripture doesn’t just talk about suffering, it also talks about comfort.
- “I, even I, am he who comforts you. Who are you that you fear mere mortals, human beings who are but grass?” Is. 51:12
- As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Is. 66:12
- “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:18
- Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort. 2 Corinthians 1:4-7
And yes, scripture does speak of those refusing to be comforted in both the Old and New Testament (Lamentations; Matthew 2:18). But you can only refuse something that is there to begin with.
And so, I’ve found myself quite convicted. In what ways am I refusing to be comforted? How do I hold on to my suffering in prideful and shameful ways that rejects the work of the Spirit in my life? I confess: I talk about my suffering more than my comfort. I put energy into prayer and thoughts about my suffering. I question my spiritual growth when I don’t perceive that I’m suffering. I worry that others will find me naïve or immature or even boastful if I don’t obsess over my suffering.
Let me be clear. Comfort is not “faking it till you’re making it”. It’s not a happy face during a crisis. Comfort is much harder. Comfort is vulnerable. Comfort says, “this is hard, much too hard for me. I’m not self-sufficient. I can’t self-soothe. I need time and energy and strength from a source not myself.” Comfort takes place when we let go of our need to suffer and what, beyond the purposes of God, we might be getting from it.
And yet the promises of scripture stand as a higher truth to all those scary vulnerabilities. God’s children are called to suffer but they are also called to accept comfort that is more than enough and independent of our worthiness.
Father, forgive me for wanting to stay in my suffering longer than you intended. Forgive me for refusing to be comforted by your Spirit and the other brothers and sisters you’ve placed in my life. Forgive me for thinking that by obsessing over suffering I can prove my love for you more than when I accept your comfort. Thank you that you don’t leave me stewing in my own unhealthy thoughts, but you call me gently into the awesome truth of the depth of healing and comfort you wish to gift me.