Does Growth Always Require Suffering?
A friend told me a story about a speaker who always said, “I asked for patience and God gave me cancer.” So many things about that statement bothered us (its theology, its implications about the God’s character and will), but it also made me start noticing how Christians consider suffering to be the primary way we grow. How else could a person possibly learn patience except by having cancer? (See below.) People also say: “We only learn the hard way”; “God has to hit me over the head with a 2x4 to get my attention”; “I get so close to God when I’m in trouble (the rest of the time—not so much)”.
Is it true (or wise) to think that people don’t develop a daily life with God unless they’re struggling? Such an idea goes against God’s pre-creation, pre-Genesis intention to create a community of people to fellowship with, to love and to do dynamic things with. It reduces God to being “a 911 emergency operator who quickly and cleverly cures all our ills. People view God mostly as a problem-solver so they think they’re closer to God when they have problems. . . . It’s a radical thought to many Christians that they can have the same connection with God all the time that they sense during crisis moments. You can be bonded with God all day long.” (p. 71, When the Soul Listens).
Humans were built to have this dynamic connection with God and are only half alive without it. When we live in that connection, God progressively transforms us into very different people. As God woos us and invites us, we connect by means of spiritual practices: solitude (hanging out with God), silence (quiet that stills your soul), study (becoming so interested in what draws your attention in Scripture that you forget what time it is), meditation (tasting the words and experiencing truth you need for your life), service (asking God to show us what to do next), fasting (not having something when I think I must have it—now that teaches patience!) and so on. (Consider also worship, celebration, prayer, listening, secrecy, confession, community, submission, simplicity, fasting, sacrifice, chastity, frugality and welcoming strangers.)
We don’t do these things in a legalistic, check-box way, but as God leads. There’s no one way to practice these disciplines. They’ll look very different for each of us. So we ask God to show us: Which one might I do more of to connect with you? How might I do that? Then as we connect we grow.
What about suffering? While some people seem to “find” God, many others distance themselves from God and become bitter during times of suffering because they haven’t been connected beforehand. The better we connect with God when we’re not struggling, the easier it is to connect with God when we are struggling.
When we unconsciously rely on crises as our primary time and means of growth, we’re much like people who decide not to get married because we don’t have time. Then when we get into trouble (we need money or all our friends die) we panic and think, I better get married now to save myself! What a silly way to live. We miss out on such great stuff in much of life!
What if we choose to connect with God daily instead of waiting until life is a mess? That means stepping back and asking God, How might I arrange my life so that I might connect with you? Then we wake up every morning and think, How can I connect with God in some tangible way today and find myself fully alive? The odd thing about living this way is that you almost stop noticing when you suffer (not like you used to!). You just keep moving along with God, no matter what.
Grace and peace,
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