What to Do About the Three Kinds of Suffering

You are suffering. Surprise! Welcome to the human race.

And of course that’s not at all reassuring. Our culture trains us to run away from all kinds of suffering, or to try to find a way to alleviate it as soon as possible. Hungry? A microwave dinner can fix that. Feeling anxious or in pain? There’s a pill for that. Horny? Lonely? The supercomputer in your pocket offers an instant (and destructive) answer with a false promise of no strings attached. (Yes, I’m speaking about porn.)

If that’s truly working for you, I don’t think I have anything more to say.

But it’s not really working, and you know it. So what do we do now?

It will help to look at three different kinds of suffering. Sometimes these get blurred; the point is not to put your suffering solely in one of three different boxes. But noticing the differences in these kinds of suffering will help in seeing what to do next.

Stuff that Happens TO You

Every one of us comes to life with a unique bucket of “stuff” over which you had no control. Your grandmother grew up poor and terrified in an alcoholic home, and her fear got passed down to you epigenetically. One of your parents died young and tragically, leaving you with a permanent sense of abandonment. Your early experiences of church were marred by external religiosity but behind-the-scenes narcissism and sexual exploitation. And there could be a million other varieties.

There is no way to measure pain; as a doctor I have no blood test to measure it or EEG to quantify it in your brain. And comparing your pain to someone else’s is not helpful. Your stuff is “bad enough.” It happened to you. Or it may be happening to you now. And your body, mind, and soul are responding as they’re responding. This is what is.

And my heart aches for you. Whatever your stuff, I’m so sorry.

What do you do with the stuff that’s happened to you? You seek healing. You carefully seek for one or a few others to be with you. Your story is worth telling and grieving over. Those of us in the body of Christ do well to notice others who are suffering, and be with them. And for those who are suffering, as hard as it is, place your effort into being with a few others.

And you also need to experience Jesus being with you. Experiencing that changes your experience of suffering regardless of whether circumstances change or not.

Stuff You Do to Yourself

Where have you been your own worst enemy? Remember, stuff happened to you. But you responded. And as sinful human beings, your response was almost certainly not all good.

You stay holed up in your house alone. You keep going back to porn repeatedly as the way to deal with unpleasant emotions. It’s better to leave a relationship before they leave you, so you never connect deeply. You turn your back on God, or at least keep Him at arms’ length, after being harmed in His name.

Are these responses sinful? Sometimes, and sometimes not. You certainly didn’t wake up one day and “decide” to do bad stuff that hurt yourself and others. And in one sense it is all sinful; all the ungodly or incomplete or damaging responses mean you are not the person God originally intended you to be. Sin is both acts we do and it’s also the way our very nature has been damaged and corrupted.

But that doesn’t mean the image of God is gone in you; it’s only obscured. For the places in which you are not as God intended you to be, you repent. You turn away from the ways you hurt yourself and others and God. And you seek healing from the self-inflicted wounds as well.

You can’t repent your way out of a place you need healing for. And you can’t heal your way out of the ways in which you’ve sinned.

And if it seems fuzzy, know that Jesus is much less concerned with parceling out “blame” than He is in your ongoing process of transformation. It’s usually “all of the above.”

The Suffering of Transformation

Change is hard. We change when we have “suffered enough.”

Some may hear that and say, “Of course I’ve suffered enough. What more do I have to endure?” Others will feel that a cruel truth and walk away from the process of transformation.

Hebrews says, “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:4). And no, this does not mean that if you try hard enough you can stop sinning. You can’t change your heart any more than an Ethiopian change his skin, says Jeremiah 13:23.

Your role is not to simply try harder; your role is to keep showing up and keep saying Yes.

And sometimes that’s painful enough to draw blood.

You don’t want to show up; it would be so much easier to keep indulging in your addictions and ways or distracting yourself. And you certainly don’t want to say Yes when the Holy Spirit puts His finger on something and says, “This here; let’s deal with this.” That might mean leaving behind something you’ve come to rely on. And can you really count on the future He promises as being any better than the past?

So yes, the process of transformation usually involves suffering also. And that’s the kind of suffering that produces perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4). With this kind of suffering your role is to choose to keep showing up and keep saying Yes to what God is doing.

Suffering is NOT for its Own Sake 

In the daily life of our suffering, some have gotten the idea that we earn brownie points with God the more we suffer. And if that’s the case, then I’ve gotten enough brownie points, thank you very much; I’ll take a smaller mansion in heaven if it means my suffering can end now.

But that’s not how God works. You can’t earn God’s pleasure – or brownie points or anything else – by trying harder, or being “good,” or suffering more. There is priceless value in suffering not because of the suffering itself, but because of the glory that is to come. Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). In the middle of His suffering Jesus was looking forward – to glory, and to you and me (see Isaiah 53:11).

I would not have chosen to walk through the journey of grief after my husband died. AND, as a result of what God did in me through that process I discovered a priceless substance in my soul that I could not have obtained any other way.

How to Suffer Well

Suffering well is not “grin and bear it.” That’s neither healthy nor godly.

Suffering well means seeking healing for what’s happened to you. It means repenting for any way you’ve sinned in response – against yourself, others, and God. And it means continuing to show up and say Yes to God’s process of transformation in you even when it’s hard.

Glory and hope are worth it!

Your Turn: What does looking at these different kinds of suffering mean to you? Have you ever considered that transformation involves suffering as well? I’d love to hear from you; leave a comment below.

Want more? In this week’s podcast episode I talk with Dr. Curt Thompson about how suffering, rightly understood, is the doorway to hope. Listen or watch here.

Tweetables: why not share this post?

  • Not all suffering is the same. There are 3 different (sometimes overlapping) kinds of suffering; what happened to you, how you sinned in response, and the process of transformation. And you deal with these varieties differently. Tweet that.

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