Article Sep 6, 2017

How our suffering makes way for new life

Before getting married, I was afraid of adversity, afraid of getting hurt, and I sought to protect my heart from both of these things. But God exposed me to adversity and deep hurt five years into my marriage. I found out things about my husband I didn’t know, numerous struggles came to the forefront at this time, and we were going through counseling.

In response to all this, darkness invaded my heart and my mind. Sleep evaded me at night, I had bouts of depression, and thick anxiety clouded my thoughts. I quickly went from being “not much of a worrier” in general to extreme anxiety that felt completely out of my control. If anyone ever told me to “take my thoughts captive” it felt futile. How can someone take their thoughts captive when they can’t even discern one of them? They came at me like a myriad of daggers at once. At the same time I was in deep mourning for my marriage and the husband I thought I’d married. I suffered a grievous loss. It was like mourning a death.

Suffering as death while alive

Suffering is a form of death in this life; it’s part of the curse from Adam and Eve. We rightly feel that this world is not as it should be, because we lost our paradise. In his Christian Guides to The Classics: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Leland Ryken says that the paradise of the Garden of Eden is “an image of longing—longing for the irretrievably lost,” and, “a universal human longing for a place that no longer exists in our physical world.” Suffering feels wrong, because it is wrong. God originally made us to never die or suffer. But one choice to eat a piece of fruit, one act of rebellion and autonomy, changed the course of the human race.

Though suffering and death are wrong, God now miraculously uses death to bring us back to him. Spiritual death to self is now the only way back to God, and physical death is the only way back to paradise. God is in the business of death and resurrection. It’s the pattern he’s left behind for us in creation, and the pattern he designs for our lives.

It’s even the literal pattern Jesus followed. In the Garden of Gethsemane he was in great distress, the suffering he was about to experience weighed on him, and he cried out to God to take away his cup of death (Luke 22:42). Yet, we know he endured the cross because of the “joy set before him” (Heb. 12:2). The joy was not in the midst of the suffering and death, but found in the resurrection to come. On the road to Calvary, Jesus had not arrived at joy yet, but it was “before him”. He had to take the road of death and suffering to get there.

For Jesus, the joy was in the resurrection to come. And our own coming resurrection can be a source of joy for us amidst the suffering and death of life. In 2 Corinthians 4 Paul says,

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

Suffering in this life and the hope of eternity

This life of suffering will afflict us, but will never eternally crush us, because Christ was crushed for our sins.

In this life, we are guaranteed suffering. But one day we will share in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:5). Suffering and death will be no more. Paul says he’s confident that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:14). Because of this final resurrection we do not lose heart, even though our outer self is wasting away, for it’s our inner self that’s being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). This is the eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17)

This life of death and suffering will afflict us, but will never eternally crush us, because Christ was crushed for our sins. Suffering and death might perplex us, but ultimately we can’t despair, since we have a hope of future glory. We can be persecuted in this life, but ultimately we won’t be forsaken, because Christ was forsaken for us on the cross. We can be struck down in this life of death, but we won’t ultimately be destroyed in an eternal death. And though “we are being killed all the day long” (Rom. 8:36), none of this will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39). This is the power of Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf.

During my marital hardship, I felt like I was being killed mentally and emotionally. But I came to a place where I submitted to the providence of God in my life (even if it meant facing all my fears) in order to rise again. God used death in my life to bring resurrection to my heart. He knew facing my fears was the death I needed to die, so I could blossom more fully.

At one point in the process, God convicted me of anger toward him. I realized that ultimately this was between him and I, more than between me and my husband. When I saw that I was angry at God’s providence in my life, I was able to more effectively wrestle with God’s sovereignty and goodness. Then I confessed my anger to God, and asked for his help. Not long after this confession, I felt a supernatural peace invade my heart and mind. It seemed like I had every natural reason to be anxious and fear the future, but I felt none of that.

It was the work of the Spirit that brought my resurrection moment; but suffering still made me long for the day when this curse would finally be broken forever. I experienced a small scale resurrection in my heart, but it’s nothing compared with the final resurrection to come.

My favorite Christmas hymn, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, totters on this balance of death and resurrection. The song itself carries a mournful tune of deep longing for things to be made right. The lyrics are a cry of deliverance and yearning for the coming Messiah. The people of Israel were waiting in “lonely exile”, but desiring God to be with them forever. Though Jesus (our Emmanuel) has already come, we still wait for the day when we’ll see him face to face and be with him forever. We wait for “death’s dark shadow to be put to flight” completely and finally. Then we’ll experience the ultimate resurrection still to come.