Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. – Romans 5:3-6
Last Sunday was Communion Sunday at Mercy Pres. It came at the end of a very long week for me, and at the beginning of another. I am chronically ill, and I always feel bad, but recently I have felt … very bad. Sometimes I think it’s wrong to describe my illnesses as though they’re somehow worsening — I don’t know if that’s accurate, though it feels accurate to the way I experience things. Sometimes new symptoms arise out of the blue, scare me for awhile, then fade into oblivion as though they’d never existed. Sometimes old symptoms flare up, distressing me with near-unbearable pains. Sometimes it comes and goes in frustrating cycles of hope/victory (when I feel a little better than normal, or when I’m able to try some new way of treating myself or helping ease my symptoms), depression/despair (when inevitably any attempts at treatment or betterment fail, and when my fluctuating emotions get the better of me), apathy/indolence (when the sadness fades, and I just stop caring about whether or not I’m doing anything to help myself feel better), and anger/anxiety (when I just can’t take it anymore, and frustration overwhelms me in a flood of helpless discontentment). Although I know my pain is very real — it’s not just in my head, thank you very much — I am also aware that my varying moods affect how much pain I feel, and/or the intensity of my pain affects my varying moods.
Regardless of its current severity, the fact is that I suffer — daily. Some days are worse than others, but it’s always there. And in the past few weeks, I’ve felt particularly incapable of dealing with it. I’ve cried out to God, “I can’t. I can’t do this. Help me.” I have cried out in anger, “This isn’t fair, it isn’t right — Why me?” I have melted into my couch, subsuming myself in the distraction of television, and bitterly moping until sleep comes to deliver its rest — which is never nearly enough rest. I have begrudged others their health, and blamed them for not understanding what I’m going through, for not knowing how to be helpful. When things are at their worst, my sin shines furiously forth in its pale, ugly, filmy, shadowy light — it is dark, but I cannot ignore it. And guilt, seizing the opportunity, flies to my side, wailing out its own tunes in malicious harmony with the violent melody of my pain.
I have two overwhelming desires in life: to be understood and to be comforted. Sometimes I long for these as though my very life depended on them. And often, in His mercy, God places in my path people whose lives encourage me — because they do understand. And even more often, God grants me friendships that are truly comforting — people who will share my burdens, and with whom I can rest, laugh, find joy and peace. But every earthly comfort, every human understanding eventually falls short. I think anyone who has suffered (and that is everyone, as I would do well to remember) knows that this life offers no permanent solutions to the problem of pain.
Last Sunday was Communion Sunday at Mercy Pres. And I was reminded, in the midst of my cold and sinful and hopeless week, that there is One who not only understands suffering, who not only provides comfort in the midst of suffering, but who also has borne my suffering already on my behalf, so that in His presence guilt must flee, and even my blackest sins are forgiven. It is only in the death and resurrection of Christ that we can find hope in this life — Indeed, my only hope in life and death is that “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God, and to my Savior Jesus Christ.” This gives me comfort when I long to be healed, but shudder at the thought of asking God for such a surcease of pain, which I do not deserve — it reminds me that He is able to heal me, for my very body belongs to Him, and it encourages me that when I feel pain, it is according to His good and perfect will, and for His purposes in my life. It reminds me that I am both to trust Him with my deepest desires, and to submit to His will, even when it seems as though my desires remain unmet. It is a tense and weighty hope, but it is hope, and a hope that depends wholly on the grace of our kind and loving God for its continuance.
Furthermore, my suffering pales in comparison to the humiliation of Christ — “he descended into hell” — and to the anguish out of which He prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” My suffering is like a mere pinprick when compared to the glorious suffering of Christ on the cross, where he bore the full wrath of God, and died in my place. And it is a blessing, not a curse, to be granted the grace that I might partake in his sufferings to some small degree — that I may learn gratitude, trust, patience, love, endurance, character, hope.
As we prepared our hearts to receive communion, we sang this hymn, and I was shaken to the core:
Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.
Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.
Man may trouble and distress me,
’Twill but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’tis not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’twere not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.
Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain.
I have called Thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.
Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine.
Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’s eternal days before thee,
God’s own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.
And as I saw each member of my fellowship proclaiming the words of that song along with me, I remembered their suffering, and our mutual burdens to bear. And as I took the bread and wine from the hands of godly men, in the presence of the body of Christ, His church, I was told, “be thankful,” and I felt the sting of my ingratitude and the incredible weight of God’s forgiveness. And as I ate and drank what for me are otherwise forbidden — wheat and wine in even moderate quantities make me very ill, but in communion I consider the minor discomfort I might experience from consuming a small amount of each as another beautiful reminder of Christ’s suffering for me — as I ate and drank, the words of Psalm 4 flooded my mind, and I prayed with tear-filled eyes, “You fill my heart with joy beyond when wine and grain increase.” Because, you see, wine and grain are joyful indeed, when they are abundant (and when you can digest them, haha) — but in communion they are symbols of misery and brokenness, of the very body and blood of Christ, battered and poured out for our salvation. And so, when sufferings abound in our lives, we ought to “count it all joy” that our trials should increase, that we might be made complete in Christ alone. Only then may we be comforted, although we mourn. Only then may we be satisfied, although we hunger and thirst. For we will learn that the mourning and the hunger draw us to God, break our foolish human pride, and teach our sorrowful hearts to find joy in the midst of pain, and hope in the midst of disappointment.