Further Thoughts on Suffering
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talks about the glories he’s experienced—glory in suffering for Christ and the glory of a celestial vision. He then goes on to say, “in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (v. 7). We don’t know if his “thorn” was a physical issue, a spiritual issue, or a “sin that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1), a habit he couldn’t break. His description of it sounds very Job-like. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (v. 8). (What great patience he had to only ask for its removal three times!) “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” (vs. 9-10). Paul makes it clear that he wants people to understand that the point is not a particular suffering, it’s pretty much everything in life: weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties. That pretty well covers it, doesn’t it? Because of the broad aspect of what Paul is talking about, it doesn’t seem inappropriate to think of some other things that seem to fall under this category:
1) A lack of success despite hard work, whether it is failing to meet my standard or someone else’s. Why is this important for me to experience a lack of success? More success almost always means more “me.” Do you notice this in your life? Regardless of how humble I am in my disposition, it creeps in. One time, I came across the tail end of a program about billionaires. One of the things that was talked about in this program, among others, was that these people are different from us–not simply in their success, but in the way they think. They know they are different from the rest of the world and think no one is like them. Some can have a guilt complex about their success that compels them to give money to charity. Megalomania can set in—the idea that having money or power lets them do or have anything they want, so much so that they elevate themselves above reality; many billionaires have a “Messiah complex.” Lack of success can be a good thing to keep us from going in this direction. It keeps us humble, gracious, thankful, and dependent on God. Success doesn’t necessarily produce things things.
2) Not getting what I want. Routinely when I don’t get what I want, I realize I didn’t know what I needed. It’s only after I don’t know what I want that I realize I didn’t need what I thought was the solution. Furthermore, I probably don’t even know what I really need. When looking in retrospect, there are times when I see that getting what I wanted would only make things worse. Not getting what I want is a difficulty that can be a blessing.
3) Criticism. It’s impossible for us to truly see ourselves, regardless of what you do, how humble you are, or how hard you try. It’s like asking a fish to describe what it’s like to live in water–it can’t. We are self-absorbed creatures, so criticism is absolutely necessary for my growth. If applied properly, criticism just makes us better.
I have more thoughts on this, but having said what I’ve said, all of the above is false if I don’t have the right attitude. This depends on my attitude, on believing in the sovereignty of God, on believing Paul’s words “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Rom. 8:28). Until I embrace that, I can’t understand the aforementioned things.
If I were to say that I have a bag of gifts for you, and that those gifts are patience, humility, trust, and wisdom, you would be delighted until I said that the only way to get these things is through suffering.
Take, for example, a stark contrast in this attitude among a couple Vietnam vets invited to talk to a class. Both had horrific stories, the kind that are talked about. It wasn’t as though their stories were different, it was how they responded to them that was different. One came through the war with no permanent physical injury but was angry, bitter, and consumed by the reality that the war took away his life. The other vet essentially said, “That’s life and I understand that that’s how it is; I’m just not going to let this horrible experience color the rest of my life.” These two walked through the same reality, and their attitude was the difference.
Like suffering, we all walk through the same reality. Keeping Romans 8:28 in mind helps us with our perspective.