What do you expect when you find yourself going through a tough time? I think as Christians many of us have come to realise that we should expect suffering, that it’s not only a part of living in a fallen world but an expected part of the Christian experience on this earth. But I reckon many of us also expect that suffering will come for short periods of time: something difficult will happen to us, God will help us through it, then once God’s taught us something through it, the tough time will pass and things will be ok for a bit until the next difficult time comes along.
But what about when the tough time doesn’t pass? What about when things continue to be hard week after week, month after month, year after year? What do you expect then? Do you expect it’ll just be a bit longer then things will get better?
Some of you know I have a chronic illness. When an illness lasts longer than a few months or even a year, you start to find out where your hope lies. There’s a real temptation to place your hope in the next doctor’s visit: maybe that last test I had will show that there’s a quick fix (or even simply a fix!) and then things will finally be alright again, finally my life won’t be on hold any longer and I’ll be able live life properly again.
I haven’t got it all sorted but here are some things I’ve been thinking through. Part of the often unconscious expectation that suffering should be short-term is that we can think that the purpose of suffering is me learning something through it. And yes, undoubtedly we learn a lot through it, but I think there’s more to it than that. I don’t fully understand why suffering happens but I’m sure it’s more complex than being all about me growing. There are aspects of sin’s general impact on the world, God’s patience before judging our world and bringing the new creation to fulfilment, and there just being a bigger picture than we can have perspective on. Peter talks about trials refining us but also points to it being ultimately about God’s glory, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. ” (1 Peter 1:6,7) My learning is only one aspect, not the full picture.
Longterm illness can also seem contrary to God’s goodness: how can that be part of God’s good plan for me? Yet everything I know about God from my experience, from his track record as recorded in the Bible, from the character of Jesus, is that he is good. An oft-quoted verse is Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Yet I suspect a lot of the time what I reckon is good for me is different from what God knows is good for me. I think about the relationship between a good, loving father and his child: the child will often want things that aren’t good for them (more chocolate, longer playtime rather than sleeping, not eating vegetables etc.) so the father won’t let the child have those things – and it’s not until much later in life that the child has the awareness of the bigger picture to see the father was right. So as I continue to work through these things, I choose to trust my Father who knows me better than I know myself and who understands the big picture better than I can.
This is something I’ve talked about before, but it’s an ongoing temptation for me to think that I can only properly serve God if I’m well, that being ill and having reduced energy means that I can’t currently serve God to my fullest potential. Logically, that’s a bit ridiculous really because my fullest potential is obviously limited by my capacity. But it’s much easier to see how far God’s originally perfect design is from my current situation: I can count the number of extra hours I used to be able to work, how much less sleep I once needed, how much more healthy people can do with their lives. Yet God doesn’t call everyone to meet the same standard of productivity; he calls us instead to be faithful with the gifts, time, and energy he has given us. In the parable of the talents, the master entrusts different amounts of money to each servant and his expectations on his return are in keeping with how much they were each given. The servants who were commended were commended for their faithfulness in using what they had been given. I think one of the things Jesus was teaching through that parable is that although we have different gifts/opportunities/levels of health, God’s expectation is that we will be faithful in making the most of what he has entrusted to us. So my responsibility is to work out how to be faithful with the time and energy I do have rather than wishing I had more.
And finally, I can find myself becoming fixated on this earth rather than having an eternal perspective. Most of us probably find ourselves seeking fulfilment in work or friendships or family or career, but with a longterm illness I find myself feeling unfulfilled because I can’t be a fully contributing member of society (working fulltime etc.) and because I can’t serve in heaps of different ways in my church. Part of that is to do with faithfulness as I’ve just mentioned, but I think a big part of it is about having an eternal perspective. What I do on earth matters, but there is more to life than just this earth. Eternity matters more, so seeking fulfilment in serving God matters, not whether I’m meeting societal expectations around working fulltime. This hard life is but a short time in the face of eternity and will pale in comparison to the glory and perfection of the new creation where there will be no tears or sickness or sin: when I look towards that reality, I can bear with this reality much better. It transforms the way I think about life now, part of which is knowing that the hard work and perseverance in serving God first and foremost are not in vain. My faith has been strongly influenced by Jesus’ teaching in the gospel of Mark about losing our life now to save it later (living a life of sacrifice and putting God first for the sake of what’s to come, rather than selfishly seeking a nice life now and not caring about eternity or God). These words of Jesus are a great encouragement to me, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:35-36)
I haven’t got all this fully worked out. There are gaps in my understanding and I’m sure there are some things I haven’t quite got right. Feel free to chip in with a comment below if you reckon I’ve gone wrong somewhere. But perhaps that’s helped you think through longterm suffering a bit more.
Yes, I will continue to pray for God to heal me. Yes, I will continue to visit the doctor and take the medications they recommend. Yes, it would be nice if I got better, and maybe I will. Yet ultimately my hope doesn’t rest in being healed (whether miraculously or through modern medicine): it rests on God’s sovereignty and love and goodness as my Father, and on knowing that when Jesus returns, everything that is messed up about this world including illness will be set to right.