A few weeks ago I spoke at Brentwood Christian School's chapel on the topic "Transformed by Suffering." Today I thought I'd share with you what I shared with them:
I have two daughters. They’re humans, of course, and as humans they have strengths and weaknesses. Right now I’m going to tell you something that is going to make one daughter look good and one look bad. Know--it’s more complicated than that. Both my kids are great and not great.
My eldest daughter is brave and sturdy. She’s the kind of person who wins Survivor. She eats octopus and sushi. She jumps off cliffs. She holds snakes. She can have a temperature of 102 and never complain.
My youngest daughter is different. She’s more timid, cautious, and recently, alas, whiny. She visits the nurse at school on a weekly basis. She likes band-aids and air conditioning and her iPad. When we make her eat healthy food she wails like we’re bathing her in hot oil.
To explain the contrast, I’ll use the context of a zombie apocalypse. Should there be a zombie apocalypse, London, my eldest, will survive and thrive, dressed in animal furs, face painted with mud, alone in the woods with her merry band of animal friends.
Eve though, Eve is the character who dies in the first episode of the zombie show. Whining about how much she misses chicken nuggets and walking at a snail’s pace, she falls behind and meets her merciful early demise.
Here’s the thing: she’s six. She’s not brave yet. Or sturdy. But she might be one day. There’s still time. And with time will come the one thing most likely to make her brave, tough, and persevering: My husband and I are praying, that in Eve’s life, she encounters a healthy, helpful dose of suffering.
That’s right, I’m praying my daughter would suffer.
Today I’m here to talk about suffering, specifically on the title “Transformed by Suffering.” At first glance it’s a bummer of a topic. Suffering seems sad and hard. It seems like something you avoid or fix. But, as a person who’s suffered often and as a person who has walked beside many a friend in their seasons of suffering, I can say with confidence, suffering is a gift.
That’s what scripture suggests,
James says in James 1:2-4,
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
According to James, suffering leads to our completion, to our fully becoming the people God intends for us to be.
Paul says in 2 Cor. 12:10,
“For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
suggesting that weakness makes way for the strength of God to work inside us, that suffering actually empowers.
Paul says earlier in 2 Corinthians,
“Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
Here Paul suggests that troubles are like girl scout badges, markers of achievement, bringers of glory.
Of course Paul isn’t talking about the troubles we bring on ourselves, the consequences of our own foolishness. But still, God will even use those in His efforts to transform us into the image of Christ.
Suffering, though often the product of tragedy, is a gift.
Nobody in the world is going to tell you that. They’re going to tell you that suffering should be avoided at all costs. That if you’re sad you should take a pill or watch Netflix or have a beer. That whatever you’re feeling should be stomped out and replaced with shallow peace and temporary happiness achieved in distraction.
But we know better. And we have proof.
Consider our heroes:
For me, they’re people like Harriet Tubman--the Moses of her people, leading slaves out of bondage, emboldened by her years of suffering under an oppressive, life-stealing system.
People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died a Nazi prisoner after years of leading the German church to defy those evil forces.
People like Joseph in the Bible whose entire story is set in the swamps of suffering.
People like my mom, an unwed mother, a teenage bride, who overcame the odds to graduate from college and raise great kids, and stay married to her husband despite the death of her mother when she was 24 and the death her 20 year old son when she was 38.
There is something about suffering that makes heroes. The people we look up to, the people we want to be, are SO often people who have walked the long, dark road of hurt and pain.
We Christians are the people of the cross, following after our suffering savior. Paul says in Philippians, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
Now, you are very young and a lot of people would look at you and say surely this group can’t understand what it means to suffer. I know better. My struggle with depression began in the eighth grade with me begging my mom to let me stay home from school, spending night after night alone in my room, isolating myself from the people I loved. I struggled with it off and on for ten years before receiving any sort of diagnosis. My appetite fluctuated dramatically. I felt removed from what was going on around me--like there was this wall between me and the happy, care-free kids I went to school with. I felt like I was walking around with weights on my ankles and wrists. Like everything was harder than it should be. I couldn’t muster the effort to maintain healthy friendships. I missed too much school and work.
My brother’s death finally prompted me to go to the doctor when I was 21 and incapable of doing anything more than watch Gilmore Girls.
I still struggle with depression. And I know a lot of you in this room do too. Depression affects between 10 and 15 percent of teens. And I suspect that’s a conservative estimate. If you don’t struggle with depression, one of your friends does.
You suffer in other ways to:
you bear the weight of humiliation and shame
You’re bullied, and excluded
You may have oppressive or absent parents
You shoulder the burden of other people’s too-big expectations
You get called out and pushed down for making God-honoring choices--even at Christian school
You don’t have to be a martyr in a third world country to suffer. Your suffering is legitimate. God sees it. And God will redeem it if you’ll let Him.
When you do suffer, you have a choice: Will I kick and scream my way through this? Will I hide in my closet until the coast is clear? Or will I partner with God to make something good out of this evil? When you encounter suffering, the thing to do is to let God in.
In suffering, look for what God’s doing. When you’re suffering, it’s easy to seek distraction, to look everywhere other than directly at your pain. Instead, I’d suggest you look into your suffering, seeking God in it. Pray about your pain. Ask God hard questions. Invite Him to work in you during this season. Ask explicitly, God, use this to transform me. Read your Bible. Talk to His people about what you’re going through. Allow them to speak as His ambassadors into your suffering.
God needs to get close to you to work in you. If you want to experience transformation in suffering, you’re going to have to let Him in.
I made a list yesterday of ways I felt like God had and was shaping me through my battle with depression. Here’s my list:
In depression, God has made me compassionate. I understand and have grace for other people’s weakness.
In depression God has made me long-suffering. I am capable of enduring a lot, knowing that God will use it and that one day it will end.
In depression God has made me humble. I don’t ever get confused about where my strength comes from.
In depression God has made me disciplined, leading me into the habits like Bible study and prayer I depend on for health.
In depression and through all my suffering, God has transformed me into someone sturdy and brave, someone not easily toppled by trouble. Friends tell me I’m fearless and though they probably don’t realize it, what they’re seeing is simply someone who’s spent time in scary places and realized there’s nothing to be afraid of.
In suffering, God has made me “mature.” In all my suffering, I see God making me complete.
Today, that’s my prayer for you, too. That in your suffering, God would transform you into the You He has always intended for you to be.