It’s not a secret that the past few years have been among the most difficult in our lives. Right now it seems that we’re entering another tough season, facing some health struggles that are very serious. It’s hard when there aren’t any easy answers, and when the suffering seems more than one can handle.
I’ve pastored people through every kind of suffering you can imagine: all kinds of sicknesses, death, marriage breakups, mental illnesses, addictions, anxieties, job losses, immigration issues, and more. There’s a cost to this. In suffering alongside someone, you take on some of that suffering. It’s like taking an audit course: you’re there, and you hear the lesson, but you don’t do much of the homework, even if you want to, even as you watch them carry the full load and try your best to help.
It’s another thing altogether to enroll in the school of affliction. I sat in a room last night with others who are going through what we are, and realized that I am one of them. I’m not ministering to them; I am them. I would never choose this, but here I am, and there’s no turning back.
As I said, I would never choose to enter this period of suffering. It hit me last night: Jesus did. It’s not a new thought, but it hit me with fresh force. Jesus didn’t audit the course of suffering. He didn’t sit at a safe pastoral distance and offer what support he could. He took it full on. He chose to enroll in the school of affliction, the same one in which I find myself a student these days.
That doesn’t take away our suffering, but it means that Jesus, the Son of God, knows exactly what I’m going through, and is praying on my behalf. I would never have chosen to suffer. It amazes me that he did.
He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering. “The cross of Christ … is God’s only self-justification in such a world” as ours….” “The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.” (John Stott)