The Unwelcome Gift of Suffering
In a season that focuses on gifts, I often overlook one of the most priceless ones. It’s a gift I’ve dreaded, refused, and longed to give back, but it has been invaluable in shaping me and drawing me to Jesus. It’s the unwelcome gift of suffering.
Suffering does not seem like a good gift. Job’s friends saw it as punishment for an unrighteous life. Most people, including me, avoid it whenever possible. Even thinking about it can fill me with a sense of fear.
Yet the Bible shows us that suffering is an intentional gift. Though we are never told to seek it out, we can know, if we are in Christ, that God gives us suffering for our good.
Comfort Can Make Us Forget
God used the wilderness to shape the wandering children of Israel, so they would learn to trust him for all their needs and live by his word (Deuteronomy 8:3). In the wilderness, God’s presence was unmistakable; his direction, clear. He provided for the Israelites what they could not provide for themselves and fulfilled all his promises to them (Joshua 23:14).
God wanted his people to remember how he delivered them in those difficult days — he knew how important the wilderness was to their faith. He wanted them to remember his tender care, and he knew that when they were prosperous, they would be tempted to forget him. They would assume they could provide for themselves and would turn away. So he says through Moses,
Take care lest you forget the Lord your God . . . lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God . . . who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:11–17)
In essence, God told them that in times of plenty and abundance, they needed to reflect on past times of struggle and remember how he met them in it. The great and terrifying wilderness with its fiery serpents and thirsty ground was the place they learned of his faithfulness and provision.
This is the opposite perspective of the world, which urges us to look back and focus on the good times and to work for future success and comfort. But God knows the gifts of success and comfort are temporal, only to be enjoyed while we have them. Apart from God, they don’t foster lasting joy and often lead to bitterness when they are taken away.
Where Great Prayers Were Prayed
God never promised to give us thriving ministries, perfect marriages, obedient children, healthy bodies, comfortable bank accounts, or protection from painful trials. But he has promised to be with us in trouble, which can be a greater blessing than the absence of trouble.
His presence feels nearer. His embrace tighter. And when the trial is removed, we have a deeper faith, rooted in God’s character and love. Just looking back at God’s faithfulness in trials anchors us. The memory of the presence of God in our pain is enough to make us love Jesus more, long for heaven, and fall to our knees in gratitude.
Joseph Parker, a British pastor in the mid-1800s, speaks of the value of the great and terrible wilderness. He says, “The ‘great and terrible wilderness’ was the place where our great prayers were prayed. . . . You do not know what you said in that long night of wilderness and solitude; the words were taken down; if you could read them now, you would be surprised at their depth, richness, and unction. You owe your very life to the wilderness which made you afraid” (The People’s Bible, 80).
Suffering Deepened My Faith
I owe the depth of my faith and my love for Christ to the wilderness that made me afraid. I learned to lament, to press into God, to depend on him completely in the wilderness. I don’t remember what I cried out to God in the dark, but I do remember that God answered with himself.
Friends were around me, but no one could touch the deepest parts of my pain. I couldn’t even articulate how I felt. The emotions often seemed bigger than I was. It was in crying out, in throwing myself on his mercy, and in praying desperate prayers, that I met God most intimately. He knows that our experience of him and his unmistakable provision in suffering can mark and ground our faith. If we truly are comforted by God in our pain, we likely will never forget it.
That is why suffering is a gift. Not the suffering itself, but the turning to God in suffering, because that is where we encounter him. The greater the pain, the closer God comes. And the closer he comes, the more joy he offers. In his presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11), and he offers joy for those he chooses to bring near (Psalm 65:4). This otherworldly, counterintuitive, overflowing joy assures us that heaven is real, God is good, and glory awaits.
Tearing Wrapping Paper
I have come to see that this life is like wrapping paper and ribbons. We want our lives to look beautiful, and we spend most of our energy making sure they are. This wrapping is what we can see and touch and experience, both the tangible and the intangible. It includes our families, our friends, our homes, our accomplishments, our physical appearance, our money, our gifts — all the pursuits we spend time on, appreciate, and invest in. God wants us to enjoy these gifts which are from him, though none is permanent or indestructible.
Suffering tears that wrapping paper, and the process permanently changes us. Life as we knew it may never be restored, and we appropriately mourn what we’ve lost. We look at the torn paper longingly, wishing that we could at least tape it back together. We look at other people’s intact paper and shiny ribbons and wonder why only ours have been damaged, sometimes almost shredded. It doesn’t seem fair. We’re tempted to wonder what we’ve done wrong.
But as we sit with our torn paper, we begin to realize that the paper wasn’t an end in itself. It was only temporary, never meant to last forever, like our earthly tents, which are not our permanent dwellings. We know we will deal with pain and loss until our true home in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:1–4).
While the paper was once our focus, when it rips, we notice that there is something more. We see that the paper, whether beautiful or plain, was just there to enfold a gift. The gift is the item of supreme value, and the torn paper enables us, perhaps for the first time, to notice it. Even a glimpse of the gift is breathtaking. While the wrapping paper had an important purpose, it fades when we see the unparalleled beauty of the gift. The gift is God himself — the only treasure that will last.
Gift of Suffering
We’ll delight in Christ endlessly in heaven, and encountering his beauty and comfort on earth gives us a small foretaste of that eternal happiness. For me, experiencing God in my suffering is the closest I’ve come to pure joy.
Suffering has taken my eyes off the temporary and fixed them on the eternal. My faith is not theoretical, not a set of doctrines and principles that others have adopted; it is personal and real. As my outer nature is wasting away and my paper has ripped, I have glimpsed a weight of glory beyond all comparison.
So this Christmas, if your paper is ragged and torn, don’t despair. Look carefully to find the gift of supreme value, that can never be taken away and will last throughout eternity. It is the matchless gift of our Savior, who is Christ the Lord.