The Transformational Work of Suffering

I have been a Christian for almost four decades and for the last quarter-century, the majority of the time I have been involved in pastoral ministry. I have seen trends come and go. I have seen colleagues come and go but based on what has happened in our world with this pandemic, I can honestly say, “I will not be the same pastor when this is over.”

For most reading this, you might be saying, that is an understatement, and you would be right. Regardless of one’s theological viewpoint regarding God’s sovereignty, we struggle to wrap our minds and hearts around the things we are seeing and experiencing. But deep inside, we struggle with having that reassurance from His Spirit that bolsters our faith. I believe it is in these times we experience God’s work, His divine work of shaping, moulding and transforming us into the vessels He can use.

In these times, you may not have realized it but you have been sharing in the sufferings of Christ. He stood quietly at your side as you sought to trust and obey the Lord despite the darkness and the clamour. This in itself should reason enough for praise. We read in 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.”

Christ has not been impervious to your pain and bruises from the pandemic, the divisiveness of politics, or frustrations of all the guidelines and precautions the government has put into place for our safety. Jesus has shared in our struggle when we lost our jobs or had our hours reduced to where even the smallest bill was seen as an impossibility to pay. Even for the church, He realizes the struggle of not being able to gather to worship and fellowship, to share in the bread and the cup. For the pastors, He understands what it is like to preach alone into a camera Sunday after Sunday and sing songs of praise to an empty room. Christmas Eve might be spent staring at our computer screens or television sets singing carols alone in our homes. He understands our loss when we are unable to greet one another with hugs or share a meal together.

The backdrop to your prayers over these months was like Gethsemane. But with that, we understand and believe that Jesus knelt there with us as we fought the fight and strove to keep our hearts and minds focused on God. Nine times in 2 Corinthians 1 Paul speaks of comfort using the word paraklesis, the Greek word for the Holy Spirit. The God of all comfort does more than telegraph a few verses to us. The Message captures it this way: “He comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, he brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us.”

Did you know the Son of Man himself learned the one thing that the omniscient God could not know? In Hebrews 5:7-8, we read, “ During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered…” Jesus learned what it meant to suffer. Why? So He could identify with us.

Sometimes we ask God, “Why?” when things are difficult. Because we cannot see the purpose of our experiences and pain, we may question God’s goodness and love. But let me encourage you that what you experience, the pain and struggle you go through, is not in vain. What we see is but the foreground. God is at work in the background fulfilling His purposes in us and in the world. In a sense, this is God’s way of sculpting and moulding us to become comforters ourselves.

Many of you know the story of our son, Josiah. He was our first son who was born in 1990. When we went in for the ultrasound, we discovered that he had a birth defect. And this was not just a minor defect, it was and would prove to be lethal. We were devastated. Why was this happening? Did we do something wrong? Josiah lived for 24 hours and we went home from the hospital empty-handed.

Let me be honest here. I struggled. I knew God answered prayer. He answered our prayers for a young man who had broken his neck and healed him, but for some reason, our prayers for our son were not answered. What was the reason? What was the purpose?

Within a year of losing our son, some missionary friends came to us regarding a couple they had met who recently lost a child. They asked us if we could share our story with them to encourage them and give them hope. They asked us to be comforters.

Since then, God has used our experience to help others who have had similar tragedies and it has continued to shape me, helping me to be more compassionate and understanding of those who are grieving.

I know it is hard to see beyond what we are presently experiencing. We crave a sense of normalcy, yet we know deep down that things will never be the same again. I was speaking to a colleague about the church getting back to normal and he said something I found very surprising. He and his church’s approach was not to get back to normal, rather they wanted to get better. Get better?

That was quite a revelation for me. Sometimes we forget that in our suffering, God is at work. He is taking us from where we were to where He wants us to be. In the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 1:6, “being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” The Christian life is a life of transformation and as a sculptor at work on the stone or clay, God is at work in us.

This current pandemic will pass. But as we experience the struggles and frustrations of what is going on around us, let us not be discouraged, rather we should remember that our faith is being refined. At the end of this, our faith will be of a higher carat gold than before and we will be better equipped to bless and support others who are in times of struggle.


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