In Sunday school or at our small group Bible studies when it’s time for prayer requests, what do we ask people to pray for? Well, often we ask people to pray that God would cure our sicknesses and diseases—or those of our loved ones; that He would give us a job, or that He would smooth out our relationships; to sum up, that He would make our lives easier—that He would take away our suffering.
Now, don’t get defensive! I’m not here to tell you today that praying for these things is wrong. I’ve certainly done it myself, and I do it myself, and will continue to do so. As Jesus said while facing the suffering of the cross, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”
Yet that’s not all He prayed, is it? Jesus added, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”
During the night He was betrayed, God the Son knew that suffering can bring good to us and the world when it is God the Father’s will. This Holy Week is a great time to remind ourselves that suffering cannot only do things to you, but it can do things for you. And it’s not just me saying this.
New York Times columnist David Brooks, who was one of Chuck Colson’s favorite writers, has written a piece that highlights some of the benefits of suffering, and we’ll link to it when you visit our website, BreakPoint.org. Brooks has noticed that Americans take their “pursuit of happiness” very seriously indeed. “We live in a culture awash in talk about happiness.”
But happiness isn’t all we crack it up to be, Brooks says. While eschewing glib answers and clichés, Brooks nevertheless asserts that suffering sometimes ennobles us, makes us more empathetic to others, and provides a revealing measure of self-knowledge.
Brooks writes, “The agony involved in, say, composing a great piece of music or the grief of having lost a loved one smashes through what [people] thought was the bottom floor of their personality, revealing an area below, and then it smashes through that floor revealing another area.”
Another benefit of suffering, he writes, is that it forces us to face the fact that we cannot control every aspect of life; that we are limited and must depend on something else to get through it. “People in this circumstance,” Brooks notes, “often have the sense that they are swept up in some larger providence. Abraham Lincoln suffered through the pain of conducting a civil war, and he … emerged with the sense that there were deep currents of agony and redemption sweeping not just through him but through the nation as a whole, and that he was just an instrument for transcendent tasks.”
It gets better. Brooks continues: “The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.”
David Brooks, who is Jewish, has touched on something here that we Christians would do well to contemplate on: how God the Father turned the ultimate bad circumstance, the death of His only Son on the cross, into the most sacred act imaginable, the restoration and redemption of sinners like you, and like me.
Yes, happiness is a good thing. But let’s not forget the holiness that God only offers us through suffering.
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