How to Suffer Well
Imitation is the highest form of respect. We all have people we look up to, people we want to be like, whom we imitate at least to some degree. We need role models. When we are children, we look up to our parents, an older sibling, or a teacher. I remember looking up to my dad and wanting to be like him, dressing up like him, going to work with him, even trying to walk like him. He was my dad and I admired him and wanted to be like him. The apostle Paul says that having role models and imitating others who have gone before us is the way it is supposed to be. He even says to the believers, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” However, the perfect example for us to follow is Jesus Christ.
At the cross Jesus sets an example of how to suffer well. He demonstrated three qualities that we can learn from and apply to our own experiences of suffering.
Entrust yourself to God
Jesus knew that God the Father was sovereign, in control, and that all things were working out exactly according to his will. He knew the Father and he knew that he could be trusted. No matter what. Even in the midst of incredible suffering. 1 Peter 2:21-23 says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
Christ suffered for us, and in doing so he also set the example of how we should suffer as believers. The varieties, types, situations, and circumstances of suffering are many. Jesus never did anything wrong. If anyone was innocent and not deserving of death, especially a brutal criminal's death, it was Jesus; but how did he respond to this horrendous act of injustice? Well, it tells us what he didn’t do - he didn’t fight back, he didn’t revile, he didn’t threaten or curse, he didn’t defend himself. He entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He committed himself to the Father’s hands and the Father’s plans. God was working his plan out in the cross, his plan of salvation, and Jesus trusted the plan.
When I was 15 I did a wilderness survival course in Utah that lasted 14 days. Near the end of the course we had to slaughter a ram. The instructors taught us that it was important to wait for the animal to be calm before slaughtering it because if it was anxious, stressed, or afraid it would ruin the quality of the meat. When we walk through suffering anxious, worried, stressed, and fearful, it ruins the taste and quality of our witness.
When Jesus went through the unjust suffering of the cross, he didn’t fight, revile, mock or insult. He entrusted himself into the sovereign, good, loving hands of God the Father, who was working it out for good. We should have this perspective as well. When we are experiencing suffering, we can know that God is working it out for our good. We can trust him, and entrust ourselves to him, even if we are suffering unjustly. We can trust that the power behind our suffering is God and that he is working it out according to his plan. 1 Peter 4:19 says, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
Focus on the joy that is before you.
Since Jesus knew that the Father was sovereign over his suffering, he chose to focus on the good that his suffering would accomplish. Hebrews 12:2 says, “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The verse just preceding this one says, “…since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” - the Old Testament saints who have gone before us are examples to us. Our ultimate example is Jesus. We should look to him because he is both the founder and the perfector of our faith. It says that he endured the cross for the joy that was set before him. What was the joy before him? Three things come to mind: 1.) bringing glory to his Father, 2.) saving those who would believe, and 3.) being exalted to the right hand of God.
Jesus understood that enduring suffering well meant focusing on future joy. A pregnant woman does this when she is enduring the aches, pains, morning sickness, and ultimately labour and delivery. What is her driving focus? What one thought helps her endure the pain? The joy of holding her newborn baby. That is what makes the pain worth it. We can have the same perspective on all of the pain we experience in life. Even if it is not obvious to us, we can know that God is using this pain in our lives to give birth to something good and beautiful. Jesus set an example for us in suffering well by showing us to endure by focusing on the joy that is set before us.
We don’t always know what good our suffering is accomplishing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t trust that God is doing some good that we can’t see. Your pain is producing the birth of something beautiful in your life. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.”
Look through your pain to care for others.
When we look at the narrative of the cross, we see that Jesus continued to care for and minister to others even in the midst of his greatest suffering and pain.
- He was concerned for the welfare of his mother. (John 19:25-27)
- He told the women not to weep for him but to weep for themselves and their children.
- He prayed for the forgiveness of those who were crucifying and mocking him.
- He ministered comfort and assurance to the thief on the cross. (Luke 23:26-49)
Sometimes our own suffering so dominates our mind and perspective that we stop looking out with compassion towards others. Our suffering can be so pervasive that it is all we can see. Jesus looked through his suffering towards the needs of others. It doesn’t help us or anyone else to pretend that everything is ok when we are suffering. What does help us and others is looking through our suffering, being changed by our suffering, and gaining perspective through our suffering. If we do that it will actually give us insight rather than blind us to others’ pain.
When Jesus was experiencing the height of his pain and suffering on this earth, he looked out towards the needs of others. When we go through suffering we need to keep our eyes open to others' pain. Resist the temptation to only look at self and remember to look up in hope towards God and look out to help those in need.
If Jesus was only our perfect example at the cross, that would be bad news for us because none of us has perfectly lived this out. We have all become defensive when suffering unjustly, we have all grumbled and complained instead of focusing on the joy set before us, and we have all forgotten to look outward towards the needs of others because of all the things consuming our attention. Here is the good news: Jesus wasn’t only our perfect example at the cross. He was also our perfect sacrifice. He died for our sins to set us free and give us new life. 1 Peter 2:24 says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”
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