I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer. Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.
There is a shallow, imposter Christianity--one popular with many, many people--that says believing in Jesus will keep you safe from suffering (or at least, will help you suffer less than those who don’t believe). And many of us, if we are honest, spend most of our time praying that God will protect us from or take away our suffering. And yet, again and again, the Bible talks about suffering as inevitable and even an essential ingredient in a Christian’s spiritual development. Jesus promised we would suffer because we follow him as Lord and Savior. In fact, he said, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself everyday and take up your cross and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) The cross itself, is a torture device that was designed specifically to cause excruciating, long lasting pain. And Christians are only faithful when we choose to pick one up everyday as we follow our Lord. So, far from ending our suffering or even helping us to avoid it, the Christian faith seems to guarantee we will suffer if we choose to follow Christ--the suffering servant of God. Now, to be sure, the suffering we endure is nothing compared to the joy of know the love of God through Jesus Christ or the glory of eternal life. However, we will suffer in this life.
Suffering takes us out of the shallow waters of pop-Christianity into the deep waters of real intimacy with God. To know true suffering, is to know something of what Christ knew as he hung on the cross; it gives us empathy with the Son of God who suffered for our sins. We understand in our very own aching bones: this is the price of our rebellion. We know the pain only in part, but Christ bore the full hell of sin--the weight of every person's sin, the whole world's, completely. So today, we will consider suffering as Scripture often does: as a deep form of prayer, suffering prayer.
2 Corinthians 4:6-10
6 For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.
8 We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. 9 We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. 10 Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.
God’s Word is Unchanging
I am so thankful for the Bible! Were it not for the unchanging Word of God, we would be lost in the shifting sands of the world's pop-philosophies. The world today says, “Suffering is bad.” That’s just an unchallenged idea in America these days. Perhaps our “avoid suffering at all cost” mentality is the root cause of many of our problems:
- kids that have no self-discipline because their parents sheltered them from all suffering,
- a sense of entitlement--like everything should just be given to us
- and obesity is an epidemic in our society because exercise is a form of self-imposed suffering that few want to endure. Better to just indulge ourselves as much as possible.
Most people take the easy road, one that bypasses short term suffering but leads to greater suffering down the road. We do not have the will to be healthy because it requires suffering and the world has told us the lie that suffering is bad and must be avoided at all costs. But the Word of God tells a deeper Truth: suffering can be a virtue--when endured rightly by those who place all their faith in Jesus Christ. Who do you believe? The world or the Word of God?
Prayer is so much more than we might have thought. Most of us are familiar with prayer as: something a preacher does in worship on Sundays, or a blessing before a meal, or asking God to help us or our loved one’s with a problem. However, the colorful spectrum of prayer is much wider just than these few hues. Prayer comes in many forms. One important type of prayer is called “suffering prayer”. Suffering prayer is prayer that asks God to use our difficulties in a redeeming way.
We all face trials in life. Some are only minor irritations--a traffic jam or aching muscles or a cashier at the grocery store who was not very polite. Other suffering comes from deep tragedies—our home burns down or our our parents neglect us or we lose someone we love. Whatever the trials may be, you can turn them into a suffering prayer. When you suffer, pray that God would use your troubles for redemptive purposes. You can pray as Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Matthew 26:39). Jesus didn’t want to suffer, but he was willing to accomplish God’s greater good--the salvation of the world. You too can ask God to turn your suffering into a blessing--for you and for others. You could pray something like this: “Lord, my feet are hurting today. May their aching remind me of those in the world who don’t have good shoes to wear. Take my suffering and turn it into a blessing for someone who’s in need.” Or as you encounter a rude sales clerk this busy Christmas season, pray to yourself, “Jesus, I don’t know why they’re being so rude, but people were rude to you too. Help me to be patient and a humble servant like you. And please show your love to this clerk, for I don’t know what they are enduring.”
Another way to use suffering prayer is to voluntarily suffer on behalf of others in order to help set them free. There is a way to listen as others share their troubles and prayerfully feel the pain with them. I have at times been moved to tears by hearing someone’s pain. I felt something of of what they felt. Others have sometime done this for me as too. When this happens, the load becomes lighter; two people can carry a sorrow better than one. It is a fulfillment of Galatians 6:2, “Share one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Now, it is also important to say you must let go of that burden after a short time. No one should carry other people’s burdens for too long. It could become too much and crush you. As a pastor, I am always hearing of other people’s troubles. Someone is always fighting with demons or falling ill or going to the hospital or grieving a loved one who dies. I take each one seriously, but I cannot carry all of their pain, all the time. So I try to carry it for a little while and then give it to Jesus, who is the only one who can carry all of it, all the time.
Fasting can be a very meaningful spiritual exercise that, unfortunately, is practiced too little in the Church in America. Fasting is voluntarily denying yourself food for a time in order to seek spiritual nourishment. Fasting could also be giving up other things besides food--like watching TV or using social media. Fasting is a form of self-inflicted suffering. Done rightly, fasting is not a way to go on a diet or lose weight; it is a deep form of suffering prayer. Fasting has been a valuable tool for spiritual growth in the Christian Church for 2,000 years. Many people in the Bible fasted in order to draw closer to God. Jesus, himself, practiced fasting. He fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness just before he began his earthly ministry. Jesus also taught that some demons can only be overcome through prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29 KJV).
It’s very common to tell someone struggling with a problem you will pray for them. “I’m having surgery this Friday.” “Oh! I’ll pray for you.” It encourages them and our prayers are a blessing. But consider this, how would they feel if you offered to fast for them? Perhaps they say, “I have a interview for a new job tomorrow and I’m worried about it.” And you say, “Friend, I’m gonna pray for you and I’m going to fast for you too.” Maybe you could skip breakfast or lunch as a fast on their behalf. Ask God to use your suffering as a prayer for them.
Suffering prayer keeps us humble and reminds us that we are very FRA-JI-LEE (fragile). It is wonderful news that everyone who believes in Jesus Christ is adopted into the royal family of God. We are kings and queens--a royal priesthood in God’s Kingdom. The divine light of Christ shines in our hearts, but 2 Corinthians 4:6 says we carry that divine light in fragile clay jars. We are tremendously blessed, but don’t be too proud of yourself because we are easily broken. Pride not only leads us away from God, it numbs us to the glorious presence of God all around us.
Suffering Prayer draws us away from our prideful delusions of grandeur back into the reality of God’s glory and love. Through suffering, 2 Corinthians 4:10 says, “...our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” How might you use suffering prayer to go deeper in your prayer life? Perhaps Christ is calling you to a more faithful and deeper prayer life through the use of suffering prayer.
A Prayer on Suffering by Bernadette Soubirous
Bernadette Soubirous [Sue – B – Roo] was a sickly child born in 1844 to a impoverished family in France. Her family was so poor they lived in the one-room basement of a friend that was formerly used as a jail cell. Bernadette contracted cholera as a toddler and suffered from severe asthma for the rest of her life. Her poor health stunted her growth. She only grew to 4’7” tall. Bernadette joined the Sisters of Charity working as an assistant in the infirmary until she died at the age of 35. Her life-long suffering kept her in constant communion with God. She is remembered and honored for her deep humility and spirit of sacrifice. I would like to conclude with her Prayer on Suffering (adapted):
Heavenly Father, we suffer. All our cries of anguish rise to You, our Comforter. In Your adorable heart, we grieve. To Your heart, we confide our sighs, our anguish, our grief to Your grief. Jesus, sanctify our sufferings by this holy union. Grant that by increasing our love for You, our grief may become lighter and easier to bear. Amen.