The Uninvited Companion Called Suffering
No one is exempt. It cannot be avoided. If you have a pulse, you will suffer. Adversity is all around us.
Several years into my personal version of long-term adversity, I dubbed it my “uninvited companion.” I had not sought this out; it found me. I had not wanted this level of uncertainty, but nonetheless here I was. Every day that I awake, my “companion” is there to join me through the day. Many a dark night it has disrupted my sleep and sense of well-being.
There are no pills to cure it. No supplements make it scurry out of my life. No diets make it suddenly disappear. It’s my uninvited companion, apparently for life. For the past 3,650 days in a row, I have experienced some version of crummy. Usually, it is not debilitating, but some days it is. Nearly every day it has an emotionally wearing effect and requires an act of faith in some way.
Depression. Cancer. Abuse. Rejection. ALS. Unemployment. Divorce. Singleness. Childlessness. Loneliness. Anxiety. Poverty. Doubt. Persecution. Fibromyalgia. MS. Neglect. What is the name of your uninvited companion?
Some uninvited companions come and go, some linger in the shadows for all our days, while others hover over us, eclipsing any sense of light. Does yours have a name? Are there more than one?
There seems to be as many hardships as there are people. No two people experience any of these realities in the same way. The truth is that our adversities impact each of us differently. These are our uninvited companions.
A Working Definition of Suffering
In Western societies, suffering is not an acceptable life experience. Pain is not to be endured well; it is to be remedied or otherwise numbed. We lack an adequate theology of suffering. Indeed, we are not sure how to bring hardship into our conversations with friends and family. We feel as if we are to apologize and cover up our struggles. Yet adversities are as normal as the sunrise. Because of this, we need a helpful reorientation on this subject. God’s Word provides clarity and gives us a vocabulary for the adversities we experience.
In God’s Word, there are many words that are translated as trials, tribulations, afflictions, temptations, persecutions, and other similar terms. Two Greek words are used in many of the central passages to which we will refer. Parasmos is used in key passages such as James 1 and 1 Peter 1. It has a dual meaning, referring to outward trials and inward temptations. Flipsis is another New Testament word that is used forty-five times. This word means pressure that squeezes painfully. Both these words are extremely generic—they can encompass the breadth of the human experience. Of course, they include our sufferings with Christ as well—the many adversities believers experience due to life lived in the reality of the gospel.
A tendency in the church is to dismiss and minimize suffering. But the Word of God never does that; it always honors the human experience. In this book, I will be using words like trials, adversities, and sufferings to be inclusive of any human hardship. If it is hard for you, then it is a form of suffering. This includes pains caused by another or those that are self-inflicted, and, of course, those pains that are a result of living in a fallen world, such as natural disasters, illnesses, and even death itself. In this book, the word suffering (and all synonyms such as trials, adversities, etc.) will refer to any human experience that causes pain—emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically, relationally, or in any other area of one’s life. There is danger in oversimplifying here. One of my objectives is to give vocabulary and permission to speak of life’s hardships in a culture that constantly seeks to numb and minimize them.
With this understanding of suffering, we must lean into some jolting realities.
Hard Life Lessons
There are crucial lessons that God has taught me along the way regarding the experience of personal suffering. I cannot recall where I learned these lessons, but they have transformed my response to the reality of suffering. These two lessons can be startling, so we will take them on one at a time.
The Necessity of Suffering for Maturity
The first lesson is that God has designed the human soul to require suffering to reach maturity. We require many elements to mature throughout our lives. For example, we need love, grace, truth, forgiveness, community, time, and all sorts of daily provisions—all of which are graciously provided by God. But we also require suffering. For without suffering, we do not fully mature.
Both James and Paul, for example, argued that suffering is a means to maturity in various passages (e.g., James 1; Romans 5). Peter plainly states “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:7). Suffering is a necessary ingredient of maturation. God’s Word does not give us stories of people who floated through life unscathed. The central characters of faith in the Old Testament, for example, were all transformed by God through trials such as betrayal, barrenness, exile, failure, rejection, and isolation. We will press into many of these central passages and stories as we move through this book.
Some years ago, I sat with a man who was providing me with spiritual direction. I spoke candidly of my deep desolation over my chronic illness. The first comment he made after I had spoken for several minutes was, “I have never seen a conversion apart from suffering.” His comment jolted me. We sat there together for a moment in silence, allowing the words to sink in. Then he repeated it, emphasizing the word never: “I have never seen a conversion apart from suffering.”
By conversion, he did not mean coming to Christ as a new believer. Rather, he meant a significant inner transformation; a profound inner shift to a deeper level of spiritual depth and insight. One could call it a paradigm shift or a new insight into reality or a new openness to God’s work in one’s life. His observation was a deep affirmation of a truth God had been teaching me.
I had already experienced substantial growth through Jesus working through pain in my life. God had been showing me that I would not become the man he had created and redeemed me to be apart from sufferings.
Redemption Involves Suffering
The second lesson I learned was that God has designed the redemptive process to require suffering. This also was a striking reality for me to absorb. If you balk at this thought, then I point to exhibit A: Jesus Christ hanging on the cross.
Our redemption, or we could say, our maturation as a human being (i.e., all God has created and redeemed us to be), begins with the suffering of God. The Father purposely did not rescue his Son from the shame and torture of the cross. Jesus took upon himself our sin and his Father’s loving wrath for that sin. He died a torturous death. Now we can have life, and have life to the full (we are reminded that life is a deepening relationship with he who is Life). Without this act of love expressed through suffering, we would have no hope of moving beyond being self-absorbed, God-rebellious, hurtful people.
Our justification is made possible by the just work of Jesus’s suffering on the cross. Furthermore, our sanctification (that lifelong process of being drawn deeper into communion with the Triune God and, as a result, increasingly resembling Jesus and living for his purposes) also requires suffering. It must be emphasized that God’s sufferings made way for us to have communion with the Father and Son by the Spirit. As we will see, God uses our sufferings to have the same impact—to draw us deeper into himself. This is about relationship first.
Shaum, Scott E.. The Uninvited Companion: God’s Shaping Us in His Love Through Life’s Adversities . Cresto Riposa Books. Kindle Edition.