Ongoing pain and suffering is hard. My wife and I have wrestled with her chronic pain for five years now. Everyone suffers somehow. It might be chronic pain, cancer, broken relationships, disability, or the struggle against besetting sins. It’s hard to live in a world of futility and brokenness. We groan for the day when it is all made right (Romans 8:18–25).
And yet, suffering seems to be one of the great instruments in God’s hands to continue to reveal to us our ultimate dependence on him and our ultimate hope in him, despite our circumstances. God is good to give us the greatest gift he can give us, which is more of himself. And oftentimes he must take something away to help us trust him alone, even if at times it feels like we’ve received a death sentence (2 Corinthians 1:8–11).
Suffering Highlights Dependence
Suffering does not ultimately create dependence; it highlights dependence. We are always utterly dependent, whether we know it or not. God is good to us to continue to remind us, so that we don’t run after idols that might seem better and more reliable than him in the moment. One way God jogs our memory and preserves our joy in him in the midst of suffering is through one another. It’s important that we walk through suffering in community with other believers who can point us to Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 1:11, Paul says that he wants many to join in praying for him so that, as God sustains him, God will get more glory. Paul knows sharing suffering and bearing each other’s burdens gives God glory. It’s humbling to let people in on our weaknesses, but it serves to highlight God’s powerful sustaining grace.
Strength in Weakness
Ongoing pain and suffering tends to isolate us from one another. We get sick of being “the sick one” and tired of being “the one who is always worn out.” We don’t like revealing our weakness. But God receives glory when we let others in to see his strength in our weakness. God receives glory when we don’t act like we have it all together, but instead admit that God is holding us together through the gospel of his Son, the ministry of his Spirit, and the prayers of his people.
A less remembered part of suffering together as believers is the way those who are suffering can comfort others in deep and unique ways. Ongoing pain and suffering tends to turn our focus inward on ourselves. It’s so constant that it begins to consume and color everything we do — always living in a protective stance.
However, God beautifully comforts the suffering through the means of fellow-sufferers. In fact, Paul says that’s one of God’s plans for our pain:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:3–5)
God’s Purpose in Suffering — and Comfort
We are fellow-heirs with Jesus Christ, sons and daughters of the living God through the gospel (Romans 8:13–17). And because of this relationship, the all-powerful Ruler of the universe is also a Father of mercies and a God of all comfort. Here Paul says that God comforts them in all their afflictions. There’s no affliction that God is unaware of or distant from. God is infinitely interested in the care and comfort of his sons and daughters in all their afflictions. So you are never alone in your suffering, whatever the pain or loss might be.
But notice God’s purpose for his comfort. As we look to God for comfort and hope in suffering, he means to spur us on to comfort others who are being afflicted with the same comfort we’ve received from God.
God comforts us so that we can comfort others.
God grants us mercy so that we can be merciful to others.
God stands whole-heartedly with us in our suffering so that we will stand whole-heartedly with others who are suffering.
God never leaves us alone in our suffering so that we won’t leave others alone in theirs.
It’s beautiful when comfort spreads in this way, and it should happen often in the body of Christ. It is sweet to see people redeem their suffering by taking their eyes off of themselves and turning them toward God to find strength, and then toward others to offer the comfort that God provided them.
Everyone Is Suffering
Not only is it sweet, but it is necessary for the glory of God and for the good of his church. Suffering comes in many and varied forms. As a young pastor, one of the first things I realized is that everyone is suffering. It looks different in many cases, but no one that I know yet has completely escaped the curse and pain of suffering.
I’ve been humbled again and again watching my wife — after years of chronic pain — selflessly serve other sufferers behind the scenes. She has always been compassionate, but through her suffering, she is now always moving towards others’ suffering because she knows the pain and the struggles. She knows when to encourage. She knows when to simply groan with someone. God has comforted her so that she can comfort others. It is all his grace in her pain. It is all his strength in her weakness. He deserves all the glory, and yet he still means to use her to accomplish his purpose of comforting others.
God means for us to not let our suffering become an excuse to keep our weakness hidden or to just focus on ourselves. Rather, we show a beautiful display of the gospel and of the very comfort of Christ as we let others in to see our weakness in order to say Christ’s strength is strong enough for them — their weakness, their pain, their suffering. We beautifully display the goodness of the gospel as we turn our eyes upward to God and then outward to others to be his means of comfort for them. Then, we will redeem our suffering — or better, we will realize one of God’s good purposes for it.
We must be ready to share our comfort in the midst of suffering, because God’s glory is at stake and because the sufferers are many.