The Refining Power of Suffering

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. – James 1:2-4

There is a simple lesson that I have had to learn over and over again. The lesson is this: Suffering really hurts. This statement is so obvious that it seems silly to write it, yet it has been a hard truth for me to internalize. In my experience, it is very easy to have romantic ideas about suffering that bear little resemblance to the actual fact.

This is an important thing for me to get straight, since the suffering of Jesus lies at the heart of my faith. Out of love for us, Jesus endured the fullness of suffering and death, revealing a doorway into redemption and unlimited life. His resurrection is so radiant that it can be tempting ignore the reality of the dreadful agony that preceded it.

Yet Jesus’ life was deeply marked by anguish. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus retreated to the desert for 40 days, eating and drinking nothing during that whole time. He experienced the pain of starvation and prolonged solitude during his lengthy sojourn in the wilderness. At the end of that period of self-denial, Jesus had a breakthrough – a triumphant encounter with the dark powers that sought to undermine his mission. The Adversary believed that 40 days of starvation and isolation would make Jesus more vulnerable to attack, but in fact the experience of those days had only deepened his relationship with the Father. Suffering had focused Jesus on that which was truly important.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus endured suffering. Crowds drove Jesus to the brink of exhaustion, pursuing him from town to town, seeking miracles and healing. Ironically, at the same time he faced a real sense of isolation from his closest friends, who rarely seemed to understand who Jesus really was and what he was sent to do. Some of Jesus’ greatest trials came the night of his arrest, when he felt abandoned by his disciples who did not have the stamina to stay awake with him while he prayed for strength and guidance.

It is easy to get so wrapped up in the glory of Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over the powers of darkness and death that we fail to take seriously enough the reality of Jesus’ agony. His hunger was real. His sense of isolation and betrayal¬†was truly disheartening. The whips that scourged him and the nails that pierced his limbs nearly tore him apart. When Jesus hung dying on the cross, there was nothing triumphant about it.

I find it easier to face my own measure of darkness when I remember what Jesus has endured. He reminds me that suffering is not an aberration to be avoided, but rather an essential part of my journey as his disciple. Just as Jesus’ crucifixion served as a doorway to the resurrection, the little trials that I face can provide a path to greater maturity and rootedness in the Rock of Life.¬†Through daily baptisms of adversity, Jesus invites me into the humble joy of his unlimited life.

A great mystery that Jesus reveals to us is that this radiant life emerges not from outward victory, but from patient endurance in suffering. The height of glory is found in our lowest moments. It is only when a seed dies that it can sprout into new life and bear fruit. It is by embracing suffering that we come to know true peace.

How have you experienced the refining power of suffering in your own life? Where have you seen God at work in the difficulties that face your family, community, city or nation? How have you experienced the reality of the cross, and of the resurrection?