Suffering is undeniably bitter.
Sometimes God’s people, with good intentions to promote piety, can undersell the heartache of suffering. Instead they look disapprovingly at any believer who would question the necessity of God’s difficult providences. To groan under the pains of life in a fallen world can be seen as the pitiable reflex of the spiritually immature. This view is difficult to square with our Savior’s own passionate, sweat-soaked, sleepless plea on the eve of his crucifixion, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26:39).
And the confounding difficulty of suffering is not an experience reserved solely for the Savior. In Romans 5:3–5, the apostle Paul writes of a sanctifying chain reaction whose catalyst is our suffering:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Endurance. Character. Hope. All through the real heartache of suffering.
Don’t Pretend It Doesn’t Hurt
Notice the word “endure.” It combats our well-meaning Christian impulse to minimize the struggle we (or others) face in the midst of suffering. Endurance assumes difficulty. One does not have to endure that which is not bitter. No one asks others how they are “enduring” their favorite bowl of ice cream. No one asks the radiant, newly engaged couple how they are “enduring” their betrothal. To endure a thing is to live in spite of its difficulty, not to live in denial of it.
Thankfully, Paul writes in such a way as to highlight the fact that the process of suffering which leads to hope is not instantaneous. Endurance denotes time. In order to endure a thing, one must make it through its entire duration. That means there will be seasons, no matter how long or short, where we cannot see or feel the hope which we have been promised.
These are dark and difficult times. We grieve while we grope our way through the valley. It’s in the wrestling with it, while strengthening ourselves with the promises of God, that we build endurance. In those seasons, we not only pray for hope; we pray for endurance.
Living from Tree to Tree
I once watched a documentary about the toughest school in all the military (or so the film claimed). It was the winter session of the Army Mountain Warfare School which contained unbelievable trials — physical and emotional — that seemed to assail the students from the time they arrived. But the event with the highest dropout rate was a multi-day hike up a snow packed mountain. It required traversing the whole mountain, from bottom to top, through over ten feet of snow drifts with a large, heavy ruck sack slung to their back and no special equipment. They had their feet and sheer determination.
On the morning of the infamous march, a drill instructor spoke to the soldiers. I expected it to be something full of bombast and bluster, urging the group to complete the task at hand or face swift retribution! Instead, the wise soldier simply said, “If you want to quit, look at the top of the mountain.” He went on, “But if you want to make it through, then just find the closest tree and tell yourself, ‘I’m going to make it to that next tree and then reevaluate.’ And then when you get to that tree, do the same thing again, finding the next closest tree. If you’ll do that, tree by tree, soon enough you’ll find yourself at the top of the mountain.”
For those in the midst of terrible suffering, looking for hope can be like looking at the top of the mountain, staring at it from the bottom. The thought is nice, but the climb seems impossible. In those moments, the next tree is simply praying for endurance: “Lord, get me through this season, this day, this hour, even this prayer. Do not let me go, that I may not ever let you go.”