It is not “if you suffer, how do you suffer well?” but instead, “when you suffer, how will you suffer?” If it is true that Paul is suffering because Jesus Christ, “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel,” (vs 10) then we all will suffer (see also 2 Tim 3:12, 4:5).
So then how does scripture, and specifically 2 Timothy, encourage us to suffer?
Firstly, your suffering is not yours. Biblical suffering is a communal experience. Paul repeatedly calls Timothy to share in his suffering. You are not intended to bear your suffering, get better, and return to community with a neatly packaged story of how God worked and what you’ve learned. Suffering is not neat and tidy. Consider the vast differences in types of suffering: betrayal, loss, addiction, conscience that condemns though Christ has forgiven, mysterious Joblike suffering (see also Psalm 44) (1). Add to that each persons unique story and personality and you will find there is no formula to make this easy. I implore you, brothers and sisters, do not compare your suffering to another’s. This is veiled selfishness. We do this to make ourselves feel better and escape or feel worse and wallow in our suffering; purposes that I am convinced God does not have in mind for us. We must bring our suffering into the light of community, for Christ himself asked his disciples to suffer with him in agony before taking up the cross. Let others wrestle with you through it, whether for a week or a lifetime.
Secondly, we must move towards those who are presently suffering. Not with answers or explanations but to comfort and encourage one another (2 Cor 1:3-11). Be present, listen, weep with, and love each other. Do not stay away from one who is suffering for fear of not knowing the right words to say. The Wonderful Counselor will do His work, and He has chosen to indwell you. Pray fervently together. Suffering is meant to be shared by the body of Christ.
Finally, suffer in God’s direction. In the midst of suffering, we tend to look around for understanding and for a way out. Our hearts are set on immediate relief while God’s purposes extend through eternity! When our questions pursue understanding our suffering before they pursue knowing God’s intimacy in our suffering, we are walking towards frustration, confusion, and numbness towards God. I am not saying that you should not ask hard questions or wish that you were not suffering as you are. I am saying that there is One who knows what it is like to suffer in this flesh and has proven Himself powerful and purposeful in it. Direct your questions to Him. I promise He can bear the weight of them. Use His intimate name. Open up the Psalms. These are the hearts of real people crying out to their Father in the midst of deep darkness. Be encouraged Veritas, “Suffering can refine us rather than destroy us because God himself walks with us in the fire.” (2)
by Emily Stiving
- Why do you think it is inevitable that we will suffer as Christians?
- What do you think is God’s purpose for us in suffering?
- What does it look like as a community to share in each other’s sufferings?
- How have you responded to suffering in the past? What has been helpful? What has been unhelpful?
(1) Categories elaborated from Tim Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
(2) b. 2 Ibid., p. 9