Ministering to persecuted Christians in Orissa, teaching CPE at the Baptist hospital and now serving in restricted access countries, I’m asked questions on the purpose of pain. Suffering is a human experience we are ‘called’ to endure (Phil.1:29), the one language we all recognize. Yet our view of and reaction to pain makes a difference. It depends on how we perceive what is happening to us during suffering. Following Christ on the path of true discipleship is marked by constant struggle, conflict and trials. In all this, we need to discover pain’s meaning, God’s design and greater purposes. Normally we seek relief, a quick fix, some way out at any cost. A criterion I’ve found helpful to understand and undertake God’s purposes in and for my pain is to ask: Is this a rod, a thorn, or a cross?
1. If the analogy of a ‘rod of correction’ is what my suffering is about, I dare not miss my lesson in God’s training course and parental care (Heb.12:5). There is always that selfishness or stubbornness in God’s children that makes us careless and disobedient in doing His ‘good, acceptable and perfect will’. So, if it is a rod, we don’t choose it, God gives us this chastening. While experiencing the pain of His rod’s rebuke, remember it is not because our Father God doesn’t love us, but precisely because he does! His rod, and staff, both comfort, i.e. strengthen us. We must recognize the rod is administered not to bring out the worst but the best in us; to make us like Jesus.
2. A ‘thorn in the flesh’ can be a persistent physical discomfort, ache or ailment that reveals our weakness. Thorns can be from different sources, like from the devil as in Paul’s case (2Cor.12:7). It could come from an enemy or a friend, as a result of our own stupidity or just being part of fallen creation or humanity. It can be Satan’s ‘attack’ or God’s ‘gift’. Hence, a serious question to ask is, whether the Lord wants us to get rid of it or experience more of his presence enduring it. The thorn can refine our pride, remind us of our frailty and cause us to rely on God’s sufficient grace. It is purposeful in prodding us to selfless, humble service for the good of others and God’s glory.
3. Unlike the rod God administers, and thorn He allows, my cross I freely choose in sacrificial love, for another – Jesus! This mark of true discipleship indicates self-denial and total commitment to the cause of Christ (Lk.9:23). The cross is never externally imposed. Bearing one’s cross means daily dying to selfish ambitions, often to suffer unjustly for righteousness or Christ’s sake and share in his sufferings. Those crucified, hung dying with outstretched hands, totally surrendered with no rights and no more fights. Such costly identification, the badge of a true witness, meant martyrdom! Followers of Christ pay this high price for someOne they value more than life. They willing endanger their comfort and endure shame, fully aware Jesus’ Spirit is with them, there’s a joy God has set before them and they will soon share in Christ’s glory.
Sufferings come in various shapes, sizes and from different sources but always by God’s directive or permissive will to fulfill His purposes in and through us. So, how should we respond to suffering? Christians don’t consider pain in a retributive framework, balancing good and bad (karma), nor resign to it in glib fatalism (kismeth) but as God’s sheer grace (charis). This grace is embodied ‘in Christ’ and symbolized by his cross, where he was beaten with rods and pierced with a crown of thorns. Herein is comfort; that Jesus knows our pain and what is best for us, in love he shares our suffering and his power delivers or sustains us through it. Thus, the cross of Christ is the alchemy that transforms our sufferings into an experience of God’s glorious grace – now, that’s what is so amazing!