On Suffering

I wrote this for our church magazine, published this Sunday.

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Flicking back through previous issues of the magazine, I’ve read again the piece I wrote earlier this years about change and moving on. Here we are though, over six months later and we’re still living in Cromwell Road and still working at Christ Church. Quite a few of you have asked me how the job hunt is going and you’ve all had the reply back that we’re still looking and that I can’t share any more than that. If I’m honest, I’d love to tell you the gory details of the positions that we’ve looked at and the experiences we’ve had along the way, but the way the Church of England works is secretive and mysterious – sometimes when you don’t get a job you can’t even be told who the position went to! I don’t know what’s more frustrating, not getting the job (though sometimes once you’ve been to look at a church that’s a relief!) or not knowing who got appointed instead until the official announcement weeks later.

To be honest, it would be nice if when I’d first come here God could have written me a nice plan for my life, telling me exactly where I would be each year and when I would move onto my next position. The reality of life is a little different – the great communicator is sometimes frustratingly quiet and right at the time that I want to know exactly what is going on, there is nothing but silence from above. While sometimes God is magnificently brilliant at letting us know exactly what he wants us to do (and all we have to do is to do it, which is of course always an entirely different matter), at other times he is downright mysterious and we simply have no idea what is going on. As many of us have experienced, this often happens at the times of real crisis, where simply getting through the day is painful, physically or emotionally. Right at the moment when I really, really need God, he is nowhere to be seen.

Some Christians think that life with Jesus should be all roses, one victorious moment after the next. I tend to take the view that life with God is all roses, but have you ever seen the thorns on those rose bush branches? We recently got given a miniature rose bush (which on advice is staying in it’s pot until we move) and as I take a crash course on house plant maintenance I’ve lost count of the number of times my finger has been pricked while dead-heading. Saint Paul writing to the Philippians says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Ouch! Often the Christianity that is preached from pulpits stops with the words “the power of his resurrection” because quite frankly the idea of sharing in Jesus’ sufferings is really not a great sales pitch. I’ve seen “The Passion of the Christ”. I don’t want to do even a fraction of that. Yet here are those challenging words – “becoming like him in his death”. What does that mean for us?

There comes a point in the midst of suffering that we need to make a choice – do we see suffering as a sign that God doesn’t care about us, or do we trust that God is doing something, but that we simply can’t see it yet? That second choice is the Biblical answer, but sometimes it is the much harder choice to make, especially when our suffering is overwhelming, when our grief is immense, when our worry crowds every second of our day. There are moments aren’t there when you know God is good, so good, but by golly if he could just get a move on with showing it!

It’s been my experience that when I have trusted God to show his goodness, he invariably does. Sometimes he does it an hour later, sometimes I didn’t really understand what was going on till a decade later. Looking back, I can see how God taught me first to use baby steps of trust (For example, getting the hunch to ring up Manchester University’s department of Economics after less than impressive A-Level  results, to be put straight through to the admissions tutor and being offered the last place on the course) before I could take more adult steps (taking God’s challenge seriously to stop trying to find a wife until years later he literally dropped the most beautiful woman in the world right in my path). Along the way I’ve definitely made mistakes and sometimes taken the easier route, but at other times I’ve chosen to trust that God has good things for me and that he will be glorified through my life and what he does with it. And to be honest, I’ve grown much more as a person and in my relationship with God when I’ve chosen to trust that God is going to deliver, even when he doesn’t even seem to have turned up for the moment. Or the moment after that moment. Or the moment after the moment after that moment.

What are we like as a church in helping each other through the really dark parts of life, the times when we need God to explain what’s going on but he doesn’t seem to want to answer or make it better? At times I think we’re really good, but there are occasions when its quite hard to put down your life, your family and your concerns and go to the help of someone else. Often we want to fix people’s problems, but actually all that they need is for someone to be there. Sometimes we want to make the pain go away, and when we can’t we back off because we’re afraid of failing, of letting our friends down. At those times though we might all need to realise that some things can’t be wiped away and that some really awful experiences simply have to be lived through, that we just have to accept being shaped by them rather than being able to shape them.

As I write this my son is asleep next door, dosed up to the eyeballs with Calpol and covered in a spectacularly impressive blotchy rash as he gets over a “parvo-virus” (also known as “slapped cheek syndrome” or “fifth disease”). While I’d like to have been able to have just got rid of it a week ago when he started to run a temperature and become the toddler king of grouchiness, I know that actually by fighting this virus now his immune system will grow and he’ll be stronger and better for it. In the same way, God sometimes lets us go through stuff not because he is a heartless tyrant but because he wants to use the bad in the world to help shape us for the good. The more I grow in my experience of God the more I realise that he is more than capable of transforming brokenness into joy, but he does it at his timing and for his purposes. As a Christian (and a pastor to boot) I am not immune to the worst that can happen to us in this broken world, but I believe and trust in a God who can, if we let him, turn evil into good and can make all things proclaim his glory if we but let them. What my son needed this week was not a complete blood transfusion to get rid of the virus (and perhaps the doctors and nurses out there can tell me whether that would have even worked!), but just lots of hugs and cuddles to let him know that we love him and are there for him as he throws off this bug and grows through the experience. As we get older that doesn’t change – sometimes what we need isn’t someone to fix the problem we have but rather just a friend to simply sit with us as we struggle through what life is throwing our way.

My hope and prayer for the church is that as we continue to look at the character of God this autumn, focussing on the three persons of the Trinity, we will grow in our understanding of how amazing our God is and how much we can trust him with our lives. Being a Christian doesn’t make us immune from the effects of living in a broken world, but it does mean that we should have a bigger perspective on suffering and pain. Do we believe that God is doing a good thing, even when he is nowhere to be seen? However painful it might be to get there, I hope that for each of us the answer will increasingly be “yes” and that that “yes” will transform who we are and how we live for God.

in Him, who took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows and by whose wounds we are healed ,

Peter

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  • Sue

    I am sorry that things are difficult at the moment. I think you are right to trust God, he doesn’t promise that things will be easy, just that he will be there for us. Sometimes when we seem to be in a “desert”, we later realise that there was growth or meaning. Sorry if this sounds either trite or terribly pious, I don’t mean it to be because it can be pretty grim. Hang in there!

    Sue

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Thanks Sue. Waiting for God to show us where he wants us next is hard work, but we know that he has his best for us.

    • Jeff

      "he doesn't promise that things will be easy, just that he will be there for us."

      I am really struggling with this. When is He there? After He's destroyed and broken you? Because, just when I thought I'd hit bottom, the hole gets deeper. I quit.

  • http://ugleyvicar.blogspot.com/ John Richardson

    In a word, ‘anfechtung’. Run it through Google.

    • http://www.peter-ould.net Peter Ould

      Genau, Anfechtung. Ich glaube ich bin schon dabei mit Luther.

  • Sibyl

    Heart and prayers are with you.

    Here’s a wonderful blog on suffering that I found this week written by a man who has walked from being a fit athlete through the valley of declining health and a heart transplant and it has been a blessing: http://awellbrewedheart.wordpress.com/
    and another by a dear friend who is walking through breast cancer surgery and chemotherapy: http://margopayne.wordpress.com/

    A wise priest told me once that our suffering and pain has to be discerned with prayer to know how to treat it because some pain must be crucified (repentance, taking responsibility for habits, behaviors that cause us and others to suffer and walking out the discipline of repentance and learning new behaviors), some pain embraced (accepted and grieved…like adverse events, illness, losses) and some pain healed (wounds from the traumas and sins of others upon us)…some pain in my life seems to be a combination and require all of these therapies.

    I have appreciated and been comforted by this counsel many times.

    May the God of all comfort (II Corinthians 1:3-4) Lord of Peace (Ephesians 2:14) be with you always.

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