In the previous three columns, we’ve considered the challenge of living according to the Scriptural Story of our world when lesser stories so easily occupy our time and attention: career advancement, political involvement, or entertainment. The primary story for the Christian should be the public truth of the gospel and what it means for each of us personally: we display increasing Christlikeness in our character through passion for God, love for neighbor, and works that spread goodness in the world.
But as we’ve seen, too often other stories crowd our hearts and clutter our lives until the Scriptural Story of the world and its significance for us gets pushed aside. We direct our hearts toward the latest news coming out of D.C., or the next thrill on offer from Hollywood, or the next rung in climbing the career ladder. We confess the truth of the Scriptural Story, while our attitudes and actions show we are driven by the narrative drama of a different story.
What can counter this spiritual complacency? What can break us free from the chains that keep us focused on earthly things instead of things above?
Surprise of Suffering
One answer is suffering. Pain crashes into our lives like an asteroid, leaving wreckage in its wake. If there’s anything that should not surprise us in life, it’s suffering. And yet for all our knowledge of its inevitability, when it comes upon us we are knocked off kilter. We rub our eyes. We stumble forward in dizzy disorientation.
Nothing upends our lives like suffering—the storm, the fire, the injury, the car accident, the deadly diagnosis, or the death of a loved one. When it happens, everything is reconfigured. When you talk with people who have just weathered the first battering from suffering’s waves, you’ll hear them remark on how the priorities that once demanded so much time and attention have now been exposed as “lesser.”
As you survey the rubble of your house after a tornado, or sit silent and stunned by what the doctor has just said, or walk through the fog of navigating funeral arrangements, or start down the road of terminal illness, or try to figure out what “normal” is after suffering has left you a shell of who you were before, everything looks different. The inanities of the latest entertainment, the latest “breaking news” every hour on TV, the accolades received in one’s career—these stories that have consumed your time and energy look too small to handle the weight of suffering.
Side Effect of Suffering
We should take care not to speak rashly about the “good” side of suffering, or the “benefits” of experiencing trauma and loss. Such talk minimizes pain by offering stock answers to difficult questions about how suffering may be turned to good. I’ve found that people who have yet to experience serious suffering are the quickest to speak of explanations and “bright sides,” while people who have been through hell and back offer fewer words and more of their presence. That said, there is a side effect to suffering that God makes use of: suffering unmasks the illusions we create day after day.
All the lesser stories depend on illusion. We believe we are self-sufficient, in control, and independent. We see ourselves as the center of the universe—the captains of our fate. We live within narratives that we write for ourselves; we devote time and attention to whatever stirs up the most passion.
The effect of suffering is to blow up these lesser stories. Suffering brings us face to face with our finitude. Suffering exposes trivialities. During a season of suffering, we are more likely to see past the lesser stories that have demanded so much attention, to look again to the Scriptural Story of the world, and then reconfigure and reimagine our lives accordingly. This is why Christians emerging from a season of suffering seem different. We’re never quite the same.
Significance of Suffering
Suffering is the great leveler, the bomb that blows up the shoddy foundations and brings down the cracked walls of the house we’ve built for ourselves. Its darkness serves as a piercing light to expose the dimness of the lesser lights we live by.
As Christians, we can find significance in our suffering because we know the story of the world climaxes with the suffering of the Son of God, because we have hope in the future restoration that has been promised upon his return, and because we know that suffering provides an opportunity to grow in Christlikeness. Suffering can lead us to see “setbacks” and “steps forward” in our personal story differently—not in terms of our career, or politics, or entertainment, but in reflecting the glory and goodness of Christ when darkness has fallen.
But suffering is not the experience of everyone at all times, and this brings us back to the problem I mentioned in the previous column. How do we—in the normal rhythms of life—break free of these illusions? We mustn’t wait passively for suffering to do its work of stripping away our idols. What can we do to ensure that the Scriptural Story is primary? More on that in the next column.