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Our suffering is not who we are

Someone has said that life is so much about stories that when we go to sleep, our minds stay up all night continuing to tell us stories until we wake up again. The other night, I had a dream. I’m not sure what it was all about. Unlike so many of them, this dream was close to reality. I was catching up with a dear friend. We were recapping the last year at my house. A global pandemic unfolded and changed life in so many ways for everyone. 

Within 90 days of each other, Elizabeth and I had each lost a parent. As an only child, Elizabeth had to sell my Mother-in-law’s house and settle her estate, all from 10 hours away. That took months. Then, there’s my brother. At his request, we are only now talking openly about his five-month battle with COVID-19. His cancer treatments had left him with a compromised immune system, and the virus nearly killed him twice. Then, a scheduled renovation at our house started and we are just about to wrap that up.

In the dream, I told the person that I was only just now realizing how easily any one of us can slip into an insular world that is part dedication and part survival. The net result is that you find yourself getting absorbed in your own stuff. You find yourself retreating into the overwhelm and simply trying to get through it all.

The apostle Paul believed in what he was saying in our scripture found in 2 Corinthians 4: 13-5:1. He felt so strongly, and had lived through his own hardship, that he simply had to speak up about what he had noticed in his faith. You and I are the beneficiary of what he was so conflicted about. You see, Paul had both caused a lot of suffering and he had survived a lot of his own. He says to not lose heart in this week’s scripture. We do well to listen to him. 

The hardships, the challenges and demands, they can become your own little world that swallows you up. Try as you may to just go on with things as usual, nothing for a season is normal. One of the critiques I have of pop-Christianity is that it tries to make everything sound as if you’ll just be faithful enough to God, if you’ll just be nice enough and “good” enough, then your life will be so blessed.

If you’ve ever been tempted to buy into the prosperity or wellness gospels that are peddled ceaselessly on your TV sets, the apostle Paul can disavow you of that very quickly. Is there any wonder people have walked away from the Church over the last several decades when we ignore how hard life really can be?

The apostle Paul knew about struggle and hardship. He is the poster-child for a simple message. You can be faithful and hard-working. You can sacrifice for God’s kingdom work and go to church, read your scripture and pray hard. Despite all that, life will still bite you sometimes. His own letters and the book we call the Acts of the Apostles tell story after story of his sufferings for the sake of his ministry. I cringe when I hear someone say, “God won’t give you more than you can carry.” Because if we stop and think about what we’re saying, we all know that life sure will give us more than we can carry on occasion.

That’s yet another reason we need God in the first place. So, I have good news for you. Your suffering is not who you are. My pain or hardship is not all of who I am, either. 

Hardship very rarely gets the last word, if we’re being fair. It just feels at the moment of our deepest worry that it will. 

There is more to life than the crisis of the day. There is more to life than the overwhelming question we can’t find an answer to. There is more to life than the bad news or terrible diagnosis we’re trying to get a handle on. I think that’s one thing Paul was trying to say to the Corinthian church as he wrote. I hope we’ll take that encouragement with us as we live on. The loneliness, the hurt and overwhelm, the disillusionment or physical suffering that is so real does not get to speak the last word of our lives unless we let it.

DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 757-562-5135.