Utterly inadequate. That’s usually how I feel in the midst of something difficult, like a bird without wings, watching the rest of his flock whip past him. It can be something huge, like watching my father die or slogging through the day with an anxiety disorder. But it can also be something small, like trying to hold on to the last threads of patience when two kids are screaming about the only fruit strip left in the pantry.
Then the threads snap, and I snap. I look up and think, “God, why am I so fragile, so prone to fail with something this small? It shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s just Saturday afternoon patience. Really. That’s it. Why can’t I do this?!”
This response sets me on a downward path of self-loathing. It gets dark fast, and I grow despondent in the dark. I’m sure that’s exactly what Satan wants. In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape tells his devilish nephew in training, “The immediate fear and suffering of the humans is a legitimate and pleasing refreshment for our myriads of toiling workers.”1 Screwtape was speaking of physical war, but we’re all caught up in a great spiritual war everyday. Satan is always looking for pressure points to squeeze, whether that’s a great grief or a tiny irritation.
Lately I’ve been trying to think of suffering and difficulty as things that are entrusted to us. It’s not a quick solution, but it might be the best one I’ve found. And it helps us understand the purpose of our daily difficulties. Let me share it with you.
Entrusted with Suffering
We don’t usually put the words “trust” and “suffering” in the same sentence. But I’ve been going through some of the wonderful work of J. R. Miller, and I came across a passage that hit me really hard. It drew together things I’ve been writing and thinking about for years (see Finding Hope in Hard Things and The Book of Giving) but didn’t see.
One wrote to a friend who for some time had been a sufferer, “God must love you very dearly to trust so much pain and sorrow to your care.” The thought of suffering as something entrusted to us by God is a very suggestive one. We may not be accustomed to think of it in this way. Yet there is no doubt that every trouble that comes to us is really a trust, something committed to us to be accepted by us, used as a gift of God and then accounted for.
God trusts us with suffering? Really? Why? Why would God trust me with suffering? I fall short so often. Not just “in general.” I’m talking about . . . Every. Single. Day. There must be people out there more worthy of trust. And isn’t God aware of how unworthy I am of it?
Even if there were others out there more worthy of trust, there’s enough suffering and difficulty to go around. It defies the economic rule of supply and demand. There’s plenty of suffering in your life and mine; we don’t want any more of it. And yet it keeps coming. Whether we like it or not, God keeps trusting us with suffering. No matter how many failures or embarrassments, the trust keeps coming. Why?
First, understand this: God doesn’t just trust us with our suffering. In fact, he trusts himself with our suffering. God is the one working through us to process and manage the hard things we face. He did this first in suffering for us through Christ, and now shepherds us through suffering with his own Spirit. We never deal with suffering and difficulty on our own. He’s always with us, in us. He’s always working. God doesn’t just trust us with suffering; he trusts himself with it. And thank God! If this was all up to me, I’d fumble it every few minutes. God is with and in me when he entrusts suffering to me.
Second, trust is meant to go somewhere, to bless someone else. God doesn’t just trust us with suffering because he wants to unload some of his divine burden on us and see how we manage. He’s already taken away our burden in Christ, remember? So, why does he trust us with suffering? J. R. Miller suggests that God is going to give us a message through it. And that message needs to be shared. It needs to be given away. It needs to be passed on. It needs to bless someone else. None of this will probably happen, of course, if we aren’t prayerfully looking for that message. When we’re encountering difficulty, we need to keep a spiritual equation in mind. That equation looks something like this:
I hate math in a whole new way now . . . I’m kidding (sort of). God trusts us with suffering so that we can give away the message he gives to us. It’s the same with the gospel, and with everything else, Miller says. What we receive, we are meant to steward and give back. This was, in fact, the main point of The Book of Giving. The emblem of Christianity is an open hand, not a closed fist.
But all this means we have to be searching for the message. Without a message, we have nothing to give. Do you ever look for the message God is giving you in your suffering?
An Example: Gentle and Lowly
It’ll be clearer with an example. When I lost my patience with my kids and started the self-loathing on Saturday afternoon, I turned to God in prayer and said, “How am I supposed to respond? What message do you have for me in this?” I had just been reading Dane Ortlund’s excellent book Gentle and Lowly. Knowing that I’m being shaped to Christ’s image each day (Rom. 8:29), and having Jesus as gentle and lowly fresh in my mind, I said, “Oh . . . that’s it. You want me to respond as someone gentle and lowly!” It didn’t stop there, since I don’t have the spiritual strength to mimic Christ. I need the Spirit’s help to do everything. I prayed quickly, “Spirit, please fill me with new life so I can be gentle and lowly. I can’t do this myself.”
The tests of patience did NOT disappear for the rest of the day. They kept coming. But I didn’t raise my voice. I tried to keep muttering, “Gentle and lowly. Gentle and lowly.” And something happened without much effort: I responded to my kids with gentleness. I started doing what I knew I couldn’t do on my own. And I know that’s the Spirit working in me.
What’s the message I’m supposed to give others in all of this? In a way, I think it’s the fact that I’m writing this article. I wanted to do other things with my frustration and self-loathing (including binge on candy). But instead I tucked myself away during a rare quiet hour and typed this out . I’m giving this to you because God gave it to me.
God trusts you with the suffering he sends your way . . . because he’s going to be with you in the midst of it. No matter how many times you fumble and trip, he still entrusts suffering to you, because he’s also entrusting it to himself. And that’s a great comfort! In your suffering, he asks you to hold it, to stay with it, to look up at him in the midst of it as he indwells you. And if you’re searching for the message he wants you to give others, I have little doubt that he’ll show it to you. It takes more time than we’d like, of course. It would have been nice to get my message during the fight over which audio book was being chosen, instead of the argument over who gets to sit on the bean bag. But hey, God has his own good timing. And I trust him.
Trust, like giving, is circular. God trusts us with suffering. We trust him in the midst of it. Then we entrust our message of suffering to others. Trust is always central.
Now that I know this, I’m hoping I can bring J. R. Miller with me into the little moments. That was his gift, after all. God entrusted him with suffering. He wrote The Ministry of Comfort as his message, and now I have that gift. I’m continuing the circle of trust. And once you read this, you can too.
- C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2002), 135.
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