The Fire of Suffering

“I wish it wasn’t so hard,” she said sitting across the office from me. As was our custom, I sat on the couch and she sat in my desk chair as we talked. I with my cup of coffee, and she opening and closing the laptop in front of her nervously. We met every week since the big secret became public. Like most groups, gossip travels fast and this secret was out the day it was confessed behind closed doors. This darling girl had not lived long but she had lived long enough now to acknowledge that the hard stuff of life becomes the soil out of which we grow. I smiled tenderly at her as I fought back tears and said, “I know. Me too.” [1]

And I really meant it. I really do wish that the work of spiritual formation wasn’t so hard. I really do wish that I could take all the years ahead of her and wave a magic wand of joy and peace and innocence over them. I really do wish that I could save her from the tear-soaked rugs and puffy cheeks and dark cold nights that I myself have been through on a journey toward healing and wholeness. I wish I could make it easy for her. I wish I could tell her that it will get better, to just hang on and “this too shall pass.”

I do think that things can get better and that seasons do come and go, but the truth is, pain and suffering are markers of the spiritual formation journey and, as much as I love her, I cannot save her from that. Pain and suffering are inescapable for the person who longs to be formed to the image of Christ.

Jeanne Guyon puts it this way:

It is the fire of suffering which will bring forth the gold of godliness … there is a hungering for suffering. Such Christians burn with love for the Lord. In fact, if they were permitted to follow their own desires, they would put themselves under a great deal of discipline, even excessive self-denial. [2] 

These are obtrusive and offensive words for the culture of pain avoidance in which we find ourselves today. A hunger for suffering? She obviously needs to be medicated. Guyon acknowledges that the Christian life will involve suffering. But she goes further to say that the Christian (who lives abandoned to God) will long for suffering because of their love for God. She links suffering and love in a way that, at first, doesn’t seem to fit. At first glance, it’s kind of like seeing that couple who just do not seem to go together. One is way out of the other’s league. But then, as you get to know the two, you notice something deeper may be present. Can they really complement each other even though they are so different? Can there be love without suffering? Doesn’t love inevitably and always lead us to suffering?

  • Consider the risk we take in loving a partner.
  • Consider the love of a mother who labors in pain for hours, writhing to bring her child into the world.
  • Consider the love of a pastor for a wayward congregant.

There is no love absent of suffering. In this, the two are linked.

Wasn’t it the burning love of Jesus for his Father and for humanity that led him to the pain and agony of the cross?

The cross connects us to a God who does not stand far off from pain but meets us in pain. Consider what G.R. Beasley-Murray points out: “Every strand of messianic teaching in the Old Testament depicts the Messiah as inseparable from his people.” From his birth, to his baptism, to the cross, Jesus takes his place alongside the sinner. [3]

In this pain, Jesus takes his place alongside us. And from this vantage point we can find solidarity and peace with God in the midst of it.

So, I want to invite you to do two things as you experience pain and suffering.

  1. Ask, “Where is God in this?” And then “wait, watch, and notice” God’s presence and movement. [4]
  2. Find a friend and tell them about your pain.

These two steps are important as we go through the hard things in life. As my young friend and I left our conversation we had a greater realization of God in the midst of our pain. We also had a greater understanding of what it means to be formed into the image of Jesus. I offered for her to meet me next week so we could talk some more. Because it hurts to love. Because suffering is a part of the journey. Because the journey is only possible when we go together.

[1] This was a conversation that occurred many years ago and not in the context where I am serving now.
[2] Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon, Library of Spiritual Classics, vol. 2, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ (Auburn, Me.: Christian Books, 1975), 46.
[3] George Raymond Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, american pbk. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1973, 1962), 57.
[4] Spiritual director Rhesa Higgins has led me in this practice of noticing God’s presence. These are her exact words and it has been a transformative practice for me. For more information about spiritual direction go to http://eleven28ministries.org/.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the First Colony Church of Christ.

 

After more than a decade spent ministering to students and families in domestic and international contexts, Kelly Edmiston has developed a passion to equip the church for works of ministry. Kelly, originally from Abilene, Texas, is currently the student and family minister at the First Colony Church of Christ in Sugar Land, Texas. Kelly is a frequent retreat speaker, Bible teacher, and writer. Her writing has been featured on Scot McKnight’s “Jesus Creed” and Sean Palmer’s “The Palmer Perspective.” She will soon complete a Master of Divinity from Abilene Christian University. Her areas of interest are liberation theology, practical theology, and spiritual formation. Kelly and her husband Ben enjoy “suburban life” with their three children.

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About CHARIS

The CHARIS website hosts conversations of and about Churches of Christ. In partnership with the ACU Library and the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry at Abilene Christian University (Abilene, TX), the website is supported and led by the Center for Heritage and Renewal in Spirituality (CHARIS) at ACU. The Center’s mission is to renew Christian spirituality through engagement of Christian heritage, at Abilene Christian University and beyond. The views expressed on the CHARIS website are those of the various authors, and do not necessarily represent the views of Abilene Christian University or CHARIS at ACU. Questions or comments about the CHARIS website can be directed to charis @ acu.edu.

2017-18 CHARIS Editorial Board:
Dr. Carisse Berryhill
Dr. Jason Fikes
Karissa Herchenroeder
Mac Ice
Chai Green
Tammy Marcelain
Molly Scherer
Dr. John Weaver

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