Once upon a time, before raising babies and writing for Grace Church, I was a middle school English teacher. It was the era of the gel pen, and trending research suggested that using a red pen to grade students’ work had a negative impact on their psyche. I don’t know if a “D” is actually more encouraging in purple ink, but I bought an arsenal of colorful pens anyway. I marked many an essay with sparkly green comments like “insufficient details!” Sometimes I just wrote “awkward” in the margin, because doesn’t that basically sum up middle school in general?
The truth is, it’s nice to be the person wielding the pen. The person assessing, critiquing, determining what’s right or wrong.
When I think about my own life, and the story God’s writing, I find myself longing to reprise my gel pens. To strike through entire sections of the narrative, like the parts where God teaches me the same lessons over and over. (“Repetitive; introduce new theme.”) I want to edit the chapters filled with heartache, the Covid chapter we’re living right now. (“Lengthy; shorten or eliminate.”)
If you could be the editor of your own story, how would you revise the manuscript? Would you rewrite your regrets? Scratch out unsavory characters? Would you draw a carrot stick under your 29th year and make a note to “add spouse” (or “delete spouse”)?
When it comes to the sorrows we’d like to rewrite, the Bible reveals a surprising paradox: Suffering is valuable…and suffering can be hazardous to our faith.
Most Christians are familiar with the first half of the paradox. James 1:2-3 says, “Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” It’s a beautiful truth: Like exercise, which painfully strengthens a muscle, so suffering produces endurance and godly character.
But there’s a point at which exercise ceases to strengthen a muscle and destroys it instead. Just ask Pastor Rick, who spent a week in the hospital last July recovering from rhabdomyolysis. Pastor Rick strained his muscles until the fibers literally died. This, too, can be a picture of suffering – not in how it strengthens us, but how it strains us. Have you ever met someone who said, “I used to believe in Jesus until my sister took her own life”? I have.
Intense suffering can tempt us to doubt God, to falter, to sin. This is why Jesus taught His disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Jesus wasn’t talking about “temptation” in the “don’t sit in a parked car with your boyfriend” kind of way. James 1:13 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone.” God would never tempt us to commit adultery or tax fraud. That’s Satan’s work, not His.
So what is Jesus talking about? A more literal translation of the Greek is “lead us not into trials.” Lead us not into suffering so intense it tempts us to sin against God, but rather, deliver us from evil.
Now there’s a prayer that reveals Christ’s heart.
I think that sometimes, in our haste to recognize the value of suffering, we accidentally view God as callous and indifferent to heartbreak – as if He’s the coach barking, “Keep going! What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!”
But how tenderly Christ must have loved His disciples to long for them to be spared the agony of suffering. To teach them to pray for it, even!
Jesus Himself prayed this way in the garden of Gethsemane. As He prepared to face the greatest suffering imaginable – the full wrath of God poured out against sin – the Bible says that Jesus fell facedown on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39).
Jesus was praying to be spared from suffering. Wow, right?
Surely, it is not shameful to say, “I don’t want this, God! Please, let it pass me by.” But then we must finish His prayer, “Yet not as I will, but as You will.”
This is where the paradox comes together: Suffering stinks. It’s not desirable, and it’s healthy to acknowledge that. Like Jesus, we should have enough intimacy with our Father God to fall on our faces and cry, “Please, no!” But then, in the very same breath, we must open our hands and surrender, “Not my will, but Yours be done.”
Why? Because if He chooses to answer our prayer not by removing the trial, but by granting us strength to bear it, then somehow He will use it for good. It will produce the steadfastness James promises. And one day, like Joseph, we will be able to say, “What man intended for evil, God has used for good” (Genesis 50:20).
This is the dichotomy: Ask God to lead you not into trials (Matthew 6:13); consider it all joy when you face trials (James 1:2).
Only the Bible – the inspired Word of God – could bear such tension so beautifully. These two seemingly contradictory principles come together to give us a theology of suffering that’s compassionate enough to weep with those who weep, and brave enough to endure the fiery trial.
The truth is, you and I don’t need gel pens and the authority to edit our own stories. Deep down, I don’t even think that’s what we want. What we really want is to see Jesus, facedown in the dirt, weeping with us. We want to know that He cares.
Oh, weary Christian, He cares!
Not only does He know what it’s like to plead with the Father, He knows what it’s like to hear, “No.” And He willingly embraced the “no” all the way to the cross, for you and for me. That’s who Jesus is. That’s how much He loves us.