The past few weeks have been some of the most difficult I've ever experienced in my life. As I've reflected on everything that has happened this past month, I can say with certainty that everything bad that could have happened, happened. It's interesting how when we begin to notice things are not going our way that the problems of our lives only compile and then go on to compound our negative circumstances, leaving us in this metaphorical pit, characterized by an overwhelming feeling of encroaching hopelessness. This complete loss of control came to fruition a couple weeks ago, when I received news that my grandpa had died quite suddenly from a condition brought about by chronic tobacco use over several decades. His death was really the last piece that had to fall into place to make me understand how truly horrible things were in my inner spirit, that bad circumstances were slowly taking control of my thought life, conversations with close friends, and my own relationship with God.
I've always been astounded by how easily I allow my circumstances, fears, and sufferings to take the foremost position in my thinking, taking preeminence over any moment of joy, happiness, or peace I may have had reason to praise God for. My doubts, hardships, and selfish concerns naturally flow to the top of my list, consuming both my thoughts and my interactions with others. I cannot honestly say how many times I complained to someone over the past few weeks, but in thinking about it now, I can admit nearly every conversation I had with someone involved some aspect of negativity or hopelessness when discussing my present state-of-affairs.
What's even worse is the fact that when I allow myself to dwell on my sufferings and hardships, I tend to view God as if He is very far off, that if He truly were here, He would deal with everything that was hurting and put an end to it. Flowing naturally from this spiritual isolation, my life becomes characterized by a self-committed and self-constructed solitary confinement in which I have trapped myself in a room that is far too small to keep God and others who care about me at the distance I deem safe. It is a refusal to allow others to do what God intended for them to do: edify and encourage. Not only is this isolation harmful to my relationships with those who are concerned about me, but this self-inflicted separation from genuine godly relationship only further damages my inner spirit. It is a vain attempt to establish control and dominance over my present circumstances, a pointless endeavor to try to maintain control over something I was never meant to be master of.
Throughout the course of the semester I have been studying the book of Philippians for one of my classes and in following through with an assignment given by my professor, I've read the epistle start to finish about five or six times. When you actually take the time to read a book of the Bible all the way through in one sitting, you really begin to see the unity of the message presented by the author, that every phrase and sentence is pointing towards one central point or thematic statement. This has been especially true of my experience in reading Paul in his letter to the Philippians.
Paul and the church at Philippi were well acquainted with suffering and hardship, having dealt with the matters personally in their experiences as followers of Christ. The Apostle Paul was most likely writing during his imprisonment in Rome, awaiting a trial before the imperial court that would ultimately sentence him to death. The church at Philippi was under constant threat and opposition by the pagan society that surrounded it, making day-to-day life extremely difficult for the believers. Their lives were in constant danger from those who opposed the gospel, and Paul suffered immeasurably, including several other imprisonments, public beatings and scourging, shipwrecks, and a stoning that left him near the point of death. Paul's life as a follower of Christ was characterized by his sufferings, often prompting the question in my own mind, "How could anyone press on through all of that?"
Despite the overwhelming tribulation and daily hindrances experienced by both Paul and the church at Philippi, Paul makes mention of joy on numerous occasions throughout his letter (1:3-4; 1:18; 1:25; 2:17-18;) even going so far as to encourage the believers to rejoice even in his own suffering.
My reaction to suffering could not be further from the reaction Paul demonstrated throughout his life as he diligently followed after Christ even to the point of his own martyrdom. In looking at how I've dealt with suffering in the past and even recently, I don't believe I could ever see myself telling someone to rejoice while my life was fast approaching the 90º cliff overlooking rock-bottom. It's just not how I've ever dealt with pain in my life and while I've tried to look at my hardships through Paul's eyes, I find it so incredibly difficult to live with this mindset regarding suffering.
Recently I've began to see how much I seem to gravitate towards a persona that thrives on pity and the feeling I experience when I know people feel bad or sorry for what I'm going through. In reading Philippians and seeing Paul's commands to rejoice and not grumble or complain, I've been incredibly humbled. The man who had suffered all things for the sake of the gospel, including public shame, terrible mistreatment and abuse, and the constant threat of danger to his life, not only found time to rejoice in his own life but even encouraged others to rejoice in the fact that he was suffering for the sake of Christ. I am astounded by both Paul's dedication and perseverance despite overwhelming tribulation, traits that scarcely manifest in my own life.
The ultimate demonstration of this embrace of suffering and hardship is captured in the picture Paul paints of Christ in his own suffering on the cross. The portrayal of Christ crucified convicts me more than I can properly explain. That God would humble Himself by taking the form of a servant and die the death I rightly deserved, baffles me. Not only did Christ suffer and die on my behalf but he accepted the cross willingly. Christ did not spend the time he had with his disciples complaining about a lack of bread or that his sandals were worn out, but instead lived his life joyfully, never dwelling on the suffering that he would surely experience for the sake of the world. Upon being handed over to the Romans, Jesus willingly carried the cross that was set on his back, for you and for me. That Jesus allowed himself to be mistreated, shamed, accursed, and rejected speaks to the perseverance we as followers of Christ are called to. We are to look at suffering as an opportunity for growth in our relationships and in our trust of God as the God who sees our pain. We are not to become characterized by our laments or a melancholic demeanor, a mindset to which I all too readily subscribe.
I'm not entirely sure of the purpose for the suffering and hardship I have recently experienced but because of Christ, I know there is purpose behind it. I know despite the present sufferings of my life, I have reason to rejoice in the fact that God sustains the spirits of those who are hurting, that He draws near to those who are broken-hearted. I can look to the example of Jesus as the one who suffered on my behalf and see the immeasurable value of hardship in my own life. For in hardship we draw ever closer to the God who loves us, who will surely see us through anything, no matter how many doubts we may possess. He is faithful, may we never forget that truth.