by Joanie Butman
While in Milwaukee, I accompanied my sister to the hospital for a number of appointments. The names of the clinics surprised me. There is Faith, Hope, Courage and Grace. I can’t think of anything you need more when battling cancer – or life for that matter. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could infuse those qualities through an IV? So much simpler than developing them the hard way – through suffering. Sadly, like a caterpillar emerging from the cocoon, it’s the struggle itself that produces the fully formed butterfly.
Even so, those experiencing suffering don’t want to hear about butterflies or the perennial favorite many Christians are tempted to use from Romans 5, “…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” That may be true, but I can tell you from experience it offers little comfort when you’re in pain. Rejoicing is the last thing on your mind – unless, of course, it’s rejoicing over the fact that you made it to the ladies’ room before barfing on the carpet!
No one wants to hear that suffering is a necessary part of spiritual growth, and I wouldn’t suggest leading a spiritual discussion with that topic. I remember my first teaching director at Community Bible Study explaining how shepherds train sheep. If one keeps wandering off, he breaks its legs then carries it on his shoulders until it heals. By then the sheep is so attached to the shepherd, it never leaves his side again. As a newbie, I did not find this conversion formula appealing. Now that I’ve been carried for so many years, I can appreciate its wisdom. God usually doesn’t cause our brokenness, but He definitely uses it to draw us into a unique intimacy you can’t achieve any other way.
It also made me think of the dispute over circumcision in the book of Acts. Christianity probably wouldn’t exist today if the founding fathers had insisted that men be circumcised in order to convert. Believe me, there would be few volunteers if conversion required grown men to slice off the tip of their most treasured possession. I could be wrong, but I don’t know any man who wouldn’t think that was too high a price for salvation.
Few people volunteer for pain and suffering. It is thrust upon us – often without warning. It’s especially at those times when we need guideposts like those at the hospital to point us toward the light of faith, hope, courage and grace. As Christians, we are called to be Christ’s guideposts for others when they see nothing but despair and darkness. Fellowship is all about taking turns doing that for each other as we travel through life and suffering. In doing so, we keep the group as a whole facing the right direction. Joni Eareckson Tada (no stranger to suffering) reminds us: “The way you respond to setbacks in your life does matter. It matters to those looking on. When someone demonstrates bravery in the face of suffering or loss, others can’t help but notice. And courage rises in the hearts of all. So hold on to the courage of Christ.”
The season of Lent is meant to emulate Christ’s forty days of fasting in the desert where He endured every temptation by Satan – including despair. He chose to suffer so He could be with us in ours. He never promised relief from our sufferings though there are times He provides it. What He does promise is to be in it with us. If you are in a season of suffering, why not choose to invite Christ into it so He can provide a much-needed spiritual IV, infusing you with a hefty dose of His faith, hope, courage and grace.