Actually, no. This is not a trick question.
Last week, amid the polarizing play of arguments, the usual drama of politics, the weekly dose of outrage, the never-ending churn of scandal, and the new products touted as the latest easy answer we’ve all been looking for, two headlines stood out. Both featured people bearing witness to God’s grace and sovereignty in the midst of suffering.
On Monday, Kathie Lee Gifford returned to the Today Show after time off to mourn her husband, Frank, who died August 9. She thanked her friends and fans for their support, and she preached. “His world got smaller as his God got bigger, and he’d want you to know that, that he died in complete peace,” she said of Frank. “He knew every sin he committed was forgiven.” She spoke of the incredible gratitude and peace that had grown in Frank, and she testified to God’s faithfulness in sticking with Frank even when he wandered.
Three days later, former president Jimmy Carter opened up at a press conference, discussing his health, which is precarious. Carter is fighting cancer, which has spread to his brain. As he discussed his upcoming plans for treatment and travel, reporters were struck by his gracious and peaceful attitude, with one writing, “Carter’s sanguine acceptance of his prognosis seems to lie in his deep religious belief.” Indeed it does, and the depth of comfort Carter finds in his relationship with God seemed to surprise even him: “I do have deep religious faith, which I’m very grateful for, and I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t go into an attitude of despair or anger or anything like that. I was just completely at ease.”
Yes, these two are people who have access to large audiences. Both have long lived, to some degree, in the spotlight. Both have the capacity to call a press conference and have people with cameras show up. But what gained them an audience last week was their suffering.
It’s hard to miss the contrast with fallen activists like Josh Duggar, whose hypocrisy built a platform fragile as paper.
I’m sure neither Gifford nor Carter relishes the hard road they’re walking–no one would. But they have stumbled onto the same thing the apostle Paul discovered on his own painful journey: A relationship with God is deeper, more powerful, and more attractive to others when we suffer. Paul begged God to remove a particular form of suffering from his life, and God refused for a very specific reason. “Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In our rush to gather credentials, build platforms, and come up with convincing apologetic arguments, we often overlook one of the simplest and most potent sources of credibility for our faith: our own suffering.
Paul knew this. In 2 Corinthians 11:16-33, he boasted of his sufferings, using them to support his credibility as a teacher in contrast to false teachers, who boasted about their achievements. Paul even claimed that our suffering is a way we can know Jesus better and actually participate in his own suffering on behalf of humanity.
It’s fitting to consider that Jesus’ suffering itself became our only source of credibility in approaching God. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said. “No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And he declared us especially blessed when we suffer specifically for his sake: “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers” (Matthew 5:11).
Want your life to bear witness to the power and grace of God? When it arrives, open yourself to suffering and what it produces in you.
Many of our churches are missing a robust and sound theology around suffering. We have become far too focused on three-point sermons that tell people how to avoid the avoidable kinds of suffering, or how to use our faith to help us feel better when we’re suffering. We have become so afraid of giving trite answers, we have abandoned the task of giving the difficult answers. A life in pursuit of Jesus is not a way to skirt suffering. It’s a way to walk through it and recognize it as a fertile land.
Our churches should be teaching us how to suffer better–that is, not how to suffer more comfortably or more happily, but how to let it mold us, how to let it draw us together, how to see and appreciate what it produces in us. After all, the human experience is not going out of style. Our calling in this life is not going anywhere. And somebody needs to hear about what God has done in the very worst moments of your life.
© 2015 Amy Simpson.