Finding Purpose in Suffering Circumstances
As a 21-year old, I can't claim to have experienced a significant amount of suffering in my life. However, as I am getting older and experiencing more, I am forced to come to terms with the reality of suffering in our fallen world, and to uncover the purpose that God designed for times of suffering.
When I was growing up, I associated suffering with getting the virus or the flu--or with more trivial things like not getting the toy I wanted so badly. However, these times of "suffering" were never permanent--they would easily be solved by getting some rest or by begging repeatedly until my parents gave in. Don't get me wrong--I saw and read plenty of news stories of people in poverty or natural disasters in other parts of the world. However, these stories never struck a personal cord with me so I could only empathize with them from a distance.
Suffering takes many forms--emotional, physical, financial, environmental, and more. Luckily, I haven't experienced all of these forms in my own life, but I can certainly relate to two of them--physical and mental suffering. This past year (in the second semester of my Senior year), I experienced (and continue to experience) a level of physical and mental suffering that I (naively) had never thought I would experience in my life. I spent the beginning of the year pouring all of my energy into studying for the dreaded MCAT (medical school entrance exam) that I was to take in March. This period of studying is a blur to me now, because of how focused I was on the end goal. While I was studying for the MCAT, I was simultaneously juggling my time between a part-time job, an internship, small-group leading, an honors thesis, and my social life. No matter how hard-pressed I felt, I pushed myself to my extremes because the shame of giving up would far outweigh the physical stress I had to endure. Of course, I relied heavily on scripture, quiet time, and my fellow believers during this time to receive peace and comfort from God. I prayed constantly that God would take on my burdens for me and that I would not rely on my own strength.
This period lasted three months, until the day I finally took my MCAT and could breathe a sigh of relief. However, the suffering of studying for the MCAT was only the beginning. Two days after my MCAT, I began to have episodes of being in a state of complete and utter fear accompanied by nausea. These episodes usually lasted around 10-15 minutes and would take place right before I fell asleep. I would suddenly be consumed by an inexplicable fear of death and begin to hyperventilate uncontrollably. I was very, very confused. Never before had I felt this overwhelming fear and I had no inkling of what had triggered these episodes. If anything, I thought, I should be less afraid because I had finished taking the MCAT. In total, I had around three of these episodes the week after my MCAT. It wasn't until after I did a little Google search that I realized I had been having panic attacks.
Panic attack: a sudden strong feeling of fear (WebMD).
When I made that realization, I was both relieved to finally know what was wrong and filled with fear that I had some sort of mental disorder. I remember desperately texting Pastor Bill, my spiritual mentor and the head pastor of my church, that I had been having these panic attacks. Pastor Bill immediately reminded that I should not jump to diagnose myself with a panic disorder and assured me that he would be praying for me to have peace "that surpasses understanding" (Phil 4:7).
What I want to share with you in this post is how the pain and suffering of my panic attacks, anxiety, and often debilitating migraines, have not only strengthened my faith but also brought me closer to God that I could have ever imagined. A few days after making the realization that I had been having panic attacks, I opened by Bible for my daily quiet time and happened to land on 2 Corinthians, Chapter 12, in which the Apostle Paul writes,
"Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited [because of these surpassingly great revelations], I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)
Reading Paul's words, I felt an immediate conviction that my pain--which I had pleaded numerous times with God to remove from me--was an invisible grace and tender mercy given by God to protect me from my own conceit and fleshly nature. Over the next few months, this truth was slowly and quietly been revealed to me through scripture and a series of revelations.
Soon after, I attended the "There is More" Hillsong concert in Boston. There, Pastor Brian Houston preached a message on pain and how God can turn what Satan wants to use against you into blessing and power. I remember hearing him say,
God whispers in your pleasure, speaks in your conscience, and shouts in your pain. Your capacity for pain will determine your potential for growth.
Pastor Brian explained that in times of pain, believers hear God more than in any other time. It is when we are most desperate that the word of God becomes alive to us. In painful seasons, we are more "present to God." However, this is not to say that pain is inherently good. Pain, Pastor Brian said, comes from hell and is meant by Satan to harm us. However, because God is sovereign over Satan, He only allows pain into our lives as a means to prepare us for a greater destiny ahead. Our capacity for pain, therefore, determines our potential for growth.
Another passage in the Bible that has given me hope is the infamous story of Job of the Old Testament. Job, a man of God, at the proposal of Satan, is tested by God through a series of excruciatingly painful trials. Job loses his family, his wealth and livelihood, and ultimately his health. In the midst of all of this pain and suffering, Job cries out,
"Though he slay me, I will hope in him." (Job 13:15)
Job knows that God is sovereign over his pain, yet he still chooses to hope in Him. When I brought up the story of Job to my friend Felicia, she pointed out that Job had not been told (at any point in the book) by God why he was being tested--even after the trials were over and Job regained all he had lost. Job was kept in the dark through it all, and he pleased God with his tenacious faith and hope in Him. After making this realization, it dawned on me that I may never fully know why I experience the suffering that I do--but I can rest assured that God's thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9) and that my suffering is being used by Him for my greatest good (Romans 8:28).
Pastor John Piper explains this perfectly by quoting from scripture in a 2013 sermon:
"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Pastor John uses this passage of scripture to remind us that our affliction, or our suffering is momentary and light compared to our eternal destiny AND that every
"millisecond" of our suffering is "totally meaningful."
All of this said, I am not arguing that as Christians, we should maximize or passively accept pain and suffering in our lives. Without a doubt, pain is bad and not part of God's original design. However, pain is a reality of this world as a result of the entrance of sin into this world and is usually inflicted on us by Satan. To help us cope, God has blessed many of us with the access to advanced medical technology and qualified medical practitioners, giving us the means to alleviate and relieve pain. I myself have sought professional help for my migraines and encourage anyone else who is dealing with chronic pain to also seek medical help. However, as Christians, we can find peace in knowing that our pain and suffering is NOT punishment for our sins and that God is not being any less of a loving father for allowing us to be be in pain. Rather, God is bestowing upon us a mercy beyond our understanding that is meant for our sanctification and preparing us for an eternal life of joy in heaven. God does not belittle our suffering or dismiss our cries for help. He himself took on suffering in the form of a human on the cross in order to save us from an eternal destiny apart from Him. God is a God who suffers WITH us.
To sum up, these are some of the realizations I have made so far in my season of suffering:
As Christians we must let go of our idols of comfort, health, and security. It is written in Acts 14:22, "We must endure many hardships to enter the kingdom of God." As sojourners in this fallen and broken world, we will inevitably face times of immense suffering and pain. That is not to say we cannot seek help from the Father--but we must also get rid of the false "health and wealth" gospel mentality that God does not allow us to be hurt and that we should live our "best life now."
Suffering IS meaningful and meant for our sanctification, but we may never understand the exact meaning behind it. Just as God did not reveal to Job why he went through the trials that he did, He may never reveal to us why we are enduring the suffering that we are. But knowing God's character and that His love is so great for us that He sent his only son to die for us, we can rest assured that He is using our suffering for our good.
Without pain, we will never grow and our faith will never be tested. It is written in 1 Peter 1:7, "These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold--through your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world."
So to my brothers and sisters in Christ who are in the midst of painful seasons: take heart in God's promises and you are not alone! Find comfort in the endless stories in scripture of men and women of God who remained faithful despite horrible suffering. If you are going through a season of suffering, I encourage you to find brothers and sisters in your community to keep you accountable in your faith and to strengthen and uphold you. I myself am enormously blessed by brothers and sisters who are there for me at my weakest. God made us to be in community with one another, and to share each other's burdens. If you are not in a time of suffering, pour into the lives of believers near you who are (and there definitely are). Please also submit a prayer request (can be anonymous) if you would like me to pray for you, or reach out to me privately for anything you need. Thank you for reading and I will continue to post on various topics as they come to me so stay tuned. <3
I'll leave you with this final verse:
"Not only that, but we also rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." (Romans 5:3-4)