One of my favorite things about being a dad is watching my kids play. Like most kids, they love using their imaginations, and it’s fun to see the creative ideas they come up with.
Just the other day, my son caught me as I was about to throw away an empty paper towel tube and a cardboard box. “Don’t waste that! I can use it for my Ghostbuster’s costume,” he said, as he snatched it out of my hand before fetching the scissors and tape. Thirty minutes later, he came back into the room with a set of homemade Ecto Goggles, ready to track down and trap any ghouls that may be hiding in our house.
As I sat in the kitchen marveling at my son’s resourcefulness, it dawned on me that we often treat our suffering like that empty paper towel tube. We waste it.
Don’t Waste Your Suffering
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on this lately because of the amount of hardship my family has faced in the last five years. The first half of this decade has not been kind to my family.
In the last five years, my family has endured countless medical trials ranging from years of colic, reflux, and crazy allergic reactions in our kids to surgeries, heart problems, and retinal detachments as parents. After I told some of our story to our church, a retired pastor approached me and asked how we managed to survive. It’s been that rough.
I’ll admit. It’s been a hard five years, and I did not respond well in the beginning, but over time I’ve come to believe that suffering is a like lot money, we can waste it, or we can invest it. We waste it when we let it erode our character and corrupt our faith. We invest it when we allow it to become an instrument of our discipleship and devotion to Christ.
5 Questions to Ask When Life is Hard
Here are five questions I’m learning to ask when I suffer. These questions won’t make your suffering go away, but they can turn your suffering into redemptive opportunities to grow in the grace and knowledge of God.
1. What is (still) true about God?
Suffering has a way of making a person near-sighted, and the more intense our suffering the more diminished our view can become. The pain and the confusion associated with our circumstances can become so all-consuming that we begin to lose sight of the bigger picture, especially in seasons when it’s hard to make sense of what’s happening to us.
During those times it’s important to remember that God hasn’t gone anywhere. He’s still sovereign, he’s still good, and he’s still present, even when we can’t sense him. Taking the time to reflect on God’s character can bring his goodness and grace back into view when life is dark and difficult.
There’s a sign hanging in my mother’s kitchen that says, “Don’t judge God’s character by your circumstances, instead judge your circumstances by God’s character.” Reframing your suffering in this way can make all the difference.
2. What can I give thanks for, right now?
1 Thessalonians 5:18 tells us to “give thanks in all circumstances.” I used to think that was absurd, now I think it’s wise. Studies show that gratitude can boost your mood, and that people who routinely give thanks are generally happier than those who don’t. In some seasons, the best way to find a little joy is to simply give thanks for what you can. That’s one of the reasons God wants us to give thanks when we suffer. He is after our joy.
3. What gospel truths can help me persevere through this difficult season?
There’s a lot of self-help literature out there these days that says you can overcome any obstacle in life – no matter how challenging or impossible – with a growth mindset, all you have to do is look within.
There’s some good common grace there to be sure, but the truth of the matter is that there is a limit to what you can actually do on your own. A growth mindset and personal resolve simply aren’t going to make tragedy less overwhelming, suffering less painful, or the world less broken. You are a finite human being who has limits, and there is a ceiling to your ability to simply white-knuckle life all the time. You need help.
Thankfully, the help we need can be found in the gospel, the good news about what God has done for his people through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. While the gospel is primarily about Christ’s atoning work, it has broad implications for life – implications that can help us persevere through suffering.
The incarnation, for example, strengthens our resolve knowing that our God endured the full range of human experience. Christ’s resurrection gives us hope knowing that our God has overcome the brokenness and despair of our fallen world, and Christ’s return pulls us onward toward that glorious day when all will be made new and suffering is no more.
It’s hard to overstate how reassuring and empowering these truths have been to me over the years. Our God can sympathize with our weakness and overcame the grave. What could offer more consolation and hope?
4. What am I learning about myself?
In his essay, “On Providence,” from The Minor Dialogues, the Roman philosopher and statesman, Seneca, observed that “a man cannot know himself without a trial.” His objective was to reframe suffering for his audience in such a way that they would not get caught up searching out the reasons for their fate, but that they would instead see their tribulations as an opportunity to learn and grow. The writer of Proverbs agrees when he says, “The crucible for silver, and the furnace for gold, and the LORD tests hearts” (Proverbs 17:3).
Few things expose our character, test our faith, and reveal our weaknesses like suffering. It causes us to see ourselves as we are with our dispositions, vulnerabilities, and unbelief, which in turn helps us receive God’s grace in real and personal ways. Turn your trials into training by seeing them as opportunities to learn about yourself and grow your dependence on God. Doing so won’t make your suffering easier, but it can make it more meaningful.
5. What kind of person is God inviting me to become through this?
You are, in many ways, the sum total of two things: your life experiences, and the way you choose to respond to those experiences.
Take, for example, the simple fact that two different people can experience similar hardships, such as a job loss, a car accident, or a medical emergency, yet be affected in completely different ways. One grows bitter and depressed, while the other becomes compassionate and resilient. Why is that? Because we are formed as much by our responses to life’s circumstances as we are the circumstances themselves.
You are a story-formed person, and your circumstances are the unfolding drama through which God wants to form Christ in you. That’s one of the reasons why James can tell us to “count it all joy when [we] face trials of various kinds… that [we] may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2). But in order for that kind of maturation to occur in your life, you must choose to let your circumstances make you better instead of bitter. And the difference between the two is a matter of choice.
In what ways might your suffering become God’s instrument to help you grow and mature as a person and a disciple? How might your choices shape who you are becoming through the trials and temptations of life?
No one likes to suffer, but the fact of the matter is that suffering is a fact of life. We can disparage it and grieve it, but we cannot escape it. But that doesn’t mean that we have to waste it either.
Make your suffering work for you by asking these five questions. You might be surprised at the difference it can make in the way you perceive and experience life’s hardships.