When suffering leads to hope
By Graham Standish
To truly be grounded in God, we often have to be ground down. It’s not that God wants to humiliate us. It’s that to truly be available to God we have to have humility, and the grinding down of life can cultivate us to become good soil—good humus—for the seeds of God’s grace to blossom into great fruit.
One of the most remarkable stories of the Bible takes place immediately after Jesus is baptized. He suddenly experiences the Holy Spirit descending upon him. We don’t get much detail about his experience, but we can imagine. What would it be like to have a spiritual baptism like his? How would we have reacted? What would we be ready to do as a result?
Most of us would have been itching to get started—to serve God and do great things. We’d want to go out and preach, start a new church, write a book, give a TED talk,… change the world! Yet Jesus didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he followed the Spirit into the desert for forty days and nights of fasting, deprivation, temptation, and suffering.
Jesus was carrying out an ancient Jewish tradition that appears over and over and over again in the Bible. Abraham followed God’s call to go out into the desert wilderness. Moses found God in the burning bush after forty years in the desert. The Israelites followed God through forty years of desert wandering. David spent twelve years as a desert fugitive. The prophet Elijah spent forty days in a desert cave. The prophets went out into the desert wilderness to listen for God’s voice, returning afterwards to share what they heard. Paul, according to Galatians 1:17 spent time in the Arabian desert after his conversion before returning to Damascus to face Peter. The desert was a place of humbling transformation.
Many people attack Christianity, religion, and faith by asking, “If God is such a good God, why would God let bad things happen?” A deeper question might be, “If Jesus was the incarnation of God on earth, why would God go out into the desert to suffer? Why send most of the main characters of the Bible into the desert to suffer? What was God trying to do? Is there something that can happen when we struggle and suffer?”
The answer may emerge through the experiences of the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. These were monks (and later nuns) who purposely spent days, weeks, months, and even years in the desert of Egypt. They purposely sought the experiences of being ground down so that they could become deeply humble, compassionate, faithful, and enlightened.
They showed that struggling in life often provides the conditions for us to become good soil for God’s seed. This is not the same as saying that we should seek suffering (although apparently Jesus did), nor is it to say that we should be indifferent to suffering. It is to say that Christianity provides a paradox regarding suffering: we are called to reduce people’s suffering, while we are called to enhance our lives through our suffering.
The Christian experience is filled with stories of people who suffered and ended up better because of it. It’s Millard Fuller, the 28-year-old millionaire almost losing his family because of his enslavement to money, who ends up selling it all to eventually start Habitat for Humanity. It’s neuroanatomist Jill Bolte-Taylor suffering a debilitating stroke, who becomes deeply empathetic to patients afterwards. It’s the child of the devastating Iraq-Iran War, Zainab Salbi, who grows up to help victims of violence find peace and hope.
Salbi, an Iraqi-American woman who works on women’s issues, was asked in a TED Radio Hour podcast interview if overcoming the violence she experienced as a child during the Iraq-Iran War by seeking peace arose merely out of her survival instinct.
“I mean, my experience of people—it’s honestly a belief—I don’t know how to explain it other than you believe in God,” Slabi says. “You believe in miracles. You believe in something that is impossible to make it possible—in an intangible thing that is so strong in human spirit. But we don’t know how to account for it? We don’t know how to measure it, but it is hope—it’s hope. That hope, that belief in something that is something possible. Something good can happen. That’s sort of the thread that pulls us out of our darkness, be it a person who is depressed or be it a person in a war. It doesn’t matter. There is a possibility. Love can be there. Things can be better. That belief is always there in human beings.”
Her suffering helped her find greater hope, and provide hope for others.
Our struggles grind us down. The world’s turmoil grinds us down. The vacillations of our fortunes grind us down. Age grinds us down. But these grinding experiences can also transform us into a wonderfully rich soil that become deep humus in which love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control can blossom (Galatians 5:23). But only if we allow it to do so.
The Rev. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W. (www.ngrahamstandish.org) is senior pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania (www.calvinchurchzelie.org). He is the author of seven books on spirituality and church transformation, and is an adjunct faculty member of Pittsburgh Theological and Tyndale Seminaries. He also has a background as a spiritual director, and as an individual and family therapist.