Getting through times of suffering
(A reflection on John 17:1-11, Acts 1: 6-14, and 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11)
I met with some other people from churches who do hospital visiting. People were talking about what they do, what they’ve learned. I suggested that we learn to say, “I don’t know.”
“Why is this happening to me? What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know.”
Because often, we jump to conclusions. We say, “Oh, it’s happening because God wants another angel in heaven. It’s happening because you need to learn patience. It’s happening because you can handle it.”
In the moment of pain and grief, those aren’t helpful answers. In those moments, “I don’t know all of why, but I know that it hurts” may be the most helpful thing to say.
But the truth is, although I don’t know what’s happening in your specific situation, I do know what happens in situations like the ones we face. In John 17, Acts 1, and 1 Peter 4-5, we can find some clarity and hope.Before we move to those texts, I want to offer something to think about some events in our lives.
Many years ago, I walked out of our house and kicked a concrete slab in our backyard.
Fortunately, I hit it with the ball of my foot rather than with my toe. I say fortunately, because if I had used my toe, I would have broken it. As it was, I had a large lump on the bottom of my foot for several days. A reminder of my anger.
I sort of remember why I was angry, more at a situation than any one person. But I think I can still feel the pain sometimes when I walk.
Sometimes when we are in the middle of a painful situation, if we’re honest, we have to acknowledge that our foot hurts because we kicked the concrete slab. We made the dozen wrong choices that got us here. We are exhausted because we don’t go to bed. We are broke because we spend all our money on what doesn’t satisfy. We are distracted because we keep looking at our phones.
So sometimes when someone says, “Why did this happen to me?” I want to say, “Because you kicked the slab.” I usually don’t, but I want to.
Most other times, the answer is more complicated.
The night before Jesus was executed, he prayed for his disciples. He talked to his father about finishing his assignment. He talked about doing a good job with his followers, passing on to them everything he was tasked to pass on. He talked about their belief.
Then Jesus prayed for the disciples. For Peter and James and John. And for us. He wanted them to be protected so that they will have unity. The same kind of unity that the father and son have.
Notice that he doesn’t pray that they won’t have pain or suffering. That will happen. In fact, it’s about to happen to Jesus. He’s 3 hours away from being beaten. He’s 12 hours away from being nailed to a cross.
But his prayer is that in the middle of whatever happens, they will have the same unity that the members of the Trinity have.
(It’s what we see, by the way, when people keep showing up for each other no matter what. In marriage. In friendship. In parenting.)
Forty days after that prayer, after dying and rising and teaching, Jesus disappears from the view of the disciples. He goes to heaven, yes, but he disappears. Before he goes, he tells his disciples that they will get power from the Holy Spirit and that there their job is to talk about what they know about Jesus. They are to bear witness.
It’s not what they were hoping to hear.
What they were hoping to hear is that Jesus was to kick Rome out of Israel and restore the kingdom of David. “Now that you are risen and can walk through walls, isn’t it time to make life perfect?” That’s what they were saying.
And Jesus says, “No.”
“I’m sending you the Spirit. You’ll have more power than you ever imagined, but you will still get sick. You will still get beat up. You will still die. You will still have people arguing with you. You will still argue with people.”
It’s not what we want to hear, is it? We want to know that because Jesus is Jesus, everything will be perfect. Because Jesus is Jesus, if I ask to get well, I’ll get well. Because Jesus is Jesus, if I ask for the relationship to be fixed now it will be fixed now.
What Jesus says here is that things don’t always go the way we want them even when we are following God. In fact, especially if we are following God.
Peter echoes the words of Jesus. Like Jesus suffered for doing the right thing, we will suffer as we do the right thing. So don’t be surprised.
But he also says, be prepared.
- Humble yourself before God. Not humiliate, not demean. But humble. Recognize that just because we can’t explain what God might be thinking, doesn’t mean that God isn’t God. Be willing to say, “I don’t know what’s happening.” I don’t think that this means always scapegoating God for our situations by saying, “God has me in this situation for a reason.”As I said earlier, sometimes the reason that I’m in this situation is that maybe, through consequence pain, I will to learn to stop kicking the slab.
- Cast your anxiety on God. Like a heavy backpack tossed on a wagon that will give us a ride.
- Be alert and thoughtful. As best as you can, don’t keep numbing your thinking with distractions of any variety.
- Know that there’s an enemy. Sometimes our frustration and fear come because someone knows our weakness and exploits it. Like a cat is distracted with a laser pointer, like a mouse is seduced into the trap with cheese, the enemy of our souls distracts us.And sometimes, that distraction means raising questions about God in our suffering. “A good God wouldn’t treat you this way, would he?” “You’ve worked so hard to be good, and now this. God must not like you.” Those are lies. But they work. Unless we are alert and thoughtful.
- Know you are part of a community. Everyone everywhere who follows God faces suffering. For now. And once we begin to understand that it’s not just me, the lies about how bad we must be become clearly lies.
- God will make you strong. Peter knew this personally. Because he’s the one who denied Jesus three times and was still loved and still brought into community.
And so we close with Peter’s words:
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.