As they go, I had super easy childbirths for the four children I’m raising. Seriously, when seasoned mothers are swapping war-stories in front of terrified mothers-to-be, I have nothing to brag about. I needed no pain meds. Just started labor, then 12-20 hours later I had a baby. No anger or screaming, just nice conversations (or bursting into “Part of That World” from The Little Mermaid). It was all so peaceful, I kinda think a nurse or two thought I was a part of a cult where you have to have silent births.
Now, don’t take from that experience that I’m super great with pain. I have certainly complained more about headaches than labor pains. Yeah, in general I’m not good with pain.
So what made the difference? I knew my pain during childbirth was purposeful. My body was doing what it was designed to do in order to bring a precious life into the world. Because I knew that, I didn’t fight what was going on. I just let it do what needed to be done.
Could you imagine what labor would feel like for a young woman who didn’t know anything about the childbirth experience? If she didn’t know what was happening in her body? The pain she experienced might feel unbearable, wrong, uncalled for. Because she didn’t realize what she would gain from it.
This concept of purpose has been rolling through my mind as I have been thinking about suffering. I’ve been listening to the audio book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller. He explained that our secular culture does a dreadful job of preparing us to deal with the inevitable pain and suffering of life. The goal according to this worldview is to enjoy life. Thus, any suffering was unnecessary for accomplishing life’s purpose. In fact, it is in direct opposition to how life is supposed to be!
Drastically opposed to that is the Christian worldview. Our prescribed goal is to be like Christ. And if you hadn’t noticed, Christ suffered purposefully. Thus, suffering is purposive in the life of a Christian.
You might be wondering, “What role does suffering serve in the life of a Christian?”
Our suffering helps us both know Jesus and demonstrate Jesus. Philippians 3:10 says, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Now, as you reflect on the life of Jesus, not just His death was suffering. He embraced humanity, and with that comes suffering. He experienced weariness, thirst, distress, rejection, grief, and heartache, just to name a few. He’s called the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief. His suffering was real! Dan McCartney said “Christ learned humanhood from His suffering (Heb. 5:8); we learn Christhood from ours.”
Another way that suffering serves a purpose in the life of a Christian is that it provides us with training. Hebrews 12 talks about suffering as discipline. The idea here is not punishment; instead, it is discipline like the training that it takes for an athlete to be in top form, where an expert is able to identify weaknesses and provide a regimen to strengthen them while securing the areas of strength. This is purposive, not punitive.
Kind of like the discipline of exercise I do for my mental health. Experts say that a certain amount of intense exercise will train my body to respond better to the stressors that it encounters. And so I work to train my lungs to take more oxygen, my heart to beat slower, my mind to strengthen in the logic centers, and my body to release the feel-good, calm-down hormones more regularly. Let me tell you, while I am working out I embody the verse “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful” (Heb. 12:11). But I trust the experts that this will produce the best results for me and help me live how I am designed to live.
God is more expert than any coach! So when He continues the verse to say about the discipline of suffering “Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it,” I have to believe that He knows what He’s talking about!
God is crafting something in me through my suffering.
Why, then, is it so very hard? Why do I cry out for it to stop?
For one thing, I think I have become surprised by it. That somehow we became at some level convinced that if we follow God, we will be immune to suffering. So we scream at it like a woman who doesn’t know what is happening in her body during childbirth.
1 Peter 4:12-13 addresses this exactly: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
But I do get surprised as the hits just keep on coming. I’m shocked when my anxiety relapses. I’m pained by the sorrow in my own life and that I experience vicariously. And I’m working to wrap my head around it all. To adjust my perspective on it.
As I trust in the goodness of my Sovereign God, I can believe in the purposive nature of my struggles. Will it make it hurt less? Maybe. I sure think believing my pain in childbirth served a purpose helped me not fight again labor, making my deliveries unremarkable. Perhaps if I struggle less against what God is doing in me through my trials, I can ease into them more. All my hurts, all my trials, all the discomfort in my life, my good God is doing something with them- birthing something in me.