A few weeks before last Easter, something snapped in me and let me assure you, it wasn’t pretty. After 10 years of intense and complex emotions being built up in our home due to our child’s neurological issues and chronic illness, for some reason, this particular moment seemed to draw everything to the surface. As the lengthy battle with him finally drew to a difficult end, I walked out of his room, shut the door, and poured out ten years of tears, grief, anger, hatred for the damage that’s been done, and fear over my own unsettled emotions.
It’s impossible to explain all that brought me to this point, and even if I could, it wouldn’t necessarily be beneficial – because the circumstances aren’t the point. This is one of the crosses that I’ve been given to carry and no one can fully understand the weight of it but Christ.
As Christians, we are all given our own cross to bear. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” That may look different in each of our lives. For some, taking up our cross to follow Christ means being rejected by the ones we love. For a good part of the world, that means fearing for your live or the lives of those you love on a daily basis. For many of us in the Western world, it can mean missing out on opportunities by standing up for what we believe, enduring loneliness and opposition for living differently than the culture, and for most of us – it means daily choosing to deny our natural draw towards the world and trusting God through the incredibly painful circumstances that he has allowed in our lives.
Taking up our cross is never easy, it’s often painful, and it goes against every fleshly bone in our body. But as we reflect on the death and resurrection of Christ this week, we can be assured and comforted that our suffering is never pointless.
However, what struck me recently is that the painful circumstances we are each given to carry are not only painful because of the trials themselves, but because suffering is one of the most powerful and uncomfortable tools of sanctification.
As I’ve prayed about and considered what happened a few weeks ago, I have realized that one of the strongest emotions that unexpectedly arose in me was the grief and horror of seeing the true face of my sinful heart in ways that I’ve been somewhat blind to, or easily able to excuse. But God allowed the pressure of my circumstances to rise to a point of breaking through my human resolve, coping skills, and my natural tendency to use my pain as an excuse for my response.
The truth is, having to face the reality of our sinful thoughts, actions, and reactions, which trials tend to expose, can be quite frightening and uncomfortable. Are we really that out of control of our emotions? Are we all just as sinful as the next person – even when our lives look far less corrupt on the outside?
For most of us, easier circumstances allow us to believe the subtle lie that, although we know we need a Savior, we don’t believe we need a Savior quite as much as someone else.
In all honesty, I think that deception had subtly woven its way into the hidden areas of my heart. This season of intense suffering, however, has increasingly led me I resonate with Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:15-16 more than ever.
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
Although to some this may sound as though I am defeated and “being hard on myself”, the reality is that I am now freer to receive the grace, mercy and forgiveness of Christ because I see more clearly how desperately I need it. When we are able to get a truer picture of how corrupt and sinful we are to the core – without any false perception of our own human goodness – we are able to grasp and appreciate more deeply the incredible gift of Christ’s shed blood on the Cross.
Suffering, although hard to understand at times, can be the greatest path to understanding the undeserved and glorious treasure of the Gospel. Therefore, rather than viewing suffering this Easter as an inconvenient, senseless glitch in the plan, let’s look at it through the lens of the Cross and our sinless Savior who suffered in our place. From that vantage point we will be better able to trust whatever cross God asks us to carry will be used by Him is to accomplish His sovereign purposes until we enter into his glory.
Here are five ways that the pressure of suffering has been used in my life to reveal who I am apart from Christ, and what I have gained in him.
The pressure of suffering has revealed pride; the subtle belief that I believe I deserve the best in life – including comfort, health, success at what I pursue, and met expectations.
And yet, Christ sacrificed his comfort, health, earthly reputation, and life so that you and I could have far more than these temporal desires, which we never deserved in the first place – including a secure identity in him, forgiveness of sins, growing character to reflect him, joy that isn’t dependent on circumstances, a purpose for every moment of our life, and a promised eternity with him. As we see more clearly how little we deserve, we see more clearly how much we have gained in Christ.
In fact, the very trials that have caused me to question God’s goodness, have been the very tool he has used to show me just how good of a God he is.
The pressure of suffering has revealed how selfish, conditional, and temporal my love is.
And yet, Christ willingly and deliberately entered into horrific suffering to offer the ultimate sacrifice, His very life, even while we rejected and hated him, living our lives as though we could do just as well without him.
As anger, self-protection, and self-pity arise in me when I feel the hurt and pain caused my child, I am freshly reminded of how Christ’s response was the opposite of mine as he was mocked, beaten, and rejected by the very people he was giving his life for. The only way I will be able to offer unconditional love to my child (or anyone else) is through the sanctifying work of Christ to expand my heart to love others out of his love for me.
Friends, our love tank will always run dry when running on the checks and balances of those around us. It is only when we tap into the endless fountain of Christ’s love that we are able to extend ourselves, give of ourselves, and sacrifice for others with an unconditional, Christ-centered love.
The pressure of suffering has revealed how ugly my heart is when I don’t have comfort, self-confidence, control, and manageable circumstances to hide behind.
And yet, Christ knew the true state of my heart – selfish, prideful, self-seeking, angry, impatient, entitled, and rebellious – even before my life began; and he still chose to love me, die for me, forgive me, and offer me new life in him at his expense.
Sometimes, God allows uncomfortable (or downright devastating) circumstances in order to expose the true state of our hearts and magnify the holiness of his. Until we are willing to face the reality of our sin, we will never fully grasp the freedom and treasure that we’ve been given in the Cross.
The pressure of suffering has revealed how much I desire to be my own god.
And yet, Christ has allowed my suffering to free me from the prison of trying to be my own god and to teach me to trust him, lean on him, and find rest in him as the One and Only true God who is in control and working out his good and loving purposes in my life.
Trying to control our lives is exhausting and, eventually, we will crash and burn. In God’s grace, he sometimes allows circumstances that strip away our ability to have any semblance of control in order to free us from the vicious cycle of self-reliance and teach us to rest in his loving purposes and faithful promises.
The pressure of suffering has revealed how far I fall short of being the holy and sanctified child of God that I desire to be.
And yet, Christ came to earth to live the perfect life I fall so short of every day. He died in my place to pay the penalty of my sin so that his holiness and perfection would cover my failures, sins, and attempts at self-glorifying morality – and he is now faithfully changing my sinful heart to reflect the holiness of his. As the Psalmist said, “He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” We may not see it in the moment, just as it’s hard to see the sun’s light coming up because of how gradual it is. However, for the true believer, when we look back, we will see how the light and character of Christ has grown within us.
If you are feeling discouraged by your sin; take heart, and be comforted by the fact that you see your sin and are grieved by it, because it means the Spirit is at work in you. He will be faithful to his promise and will bring your righteousness to completion. And even now, we have the confident hope that as we travel the road of sanctification, we are redeemed and hidden in the righteousness of Christ.
Fix your eyes on the cross.
I always thought pain and suffering would ruin my life and rob me of joy and happiness. In reality, suffering has removed the illusion of happiness, exposing the emptiness and brokenness of my soul apart from Christ, and gradually opened my eyes to the treasure, joy, and hope of being forgiven, loved, and restored by the blood of Jesus.
This Easter may we see the contrast of our sin in light of the holiness of God.
Christ suffered in order that we may know him. If you are hurting today, may it lead you to know your Savior more deeply than ever before. For those who are in Christ, we can trust that, just as his suffering had a holy and glorious purpose, ours does as well.
Today, let’s press on in hope, trusting that the cross we carry on the road of following Christ is immeasurable worth it and eternally valuable.
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
To read more on suffering with hope, order “Hope When It Hurts – 30 Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering” authored by Sarah Walton and Kristen Wetherell here or here.