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What does God teach us when we suffer?

I’ve been talking a lot with my family recently about appropriate responses to suffering.

One of the most common responses I’ve come across is “You need to find out what God is trying to teach you through this.”  Sometimes it’s true.  God does discipline us, so it may be that he is encouraging us to address a specific issue in our life.  He may want us to develop perseverance through the testing of our faith.  He may want us to develop character and hope.

Sometimes it’s even helpful to be told this.  Most of the time, though, I have found it to be one of the least helpful things.  It gets a bit too close to Job’s comforters, who told him his suffering was his fault, because of unconfessed sin.  It implies I am suffering because I am ignorant, or lazy, or not listening.  Sometimes it’s true.  Sometimes there is something God specifically wants to say to me, and when I start to listen, I start to get through the suffering, or learn to rejoice in it.

A lot of the time though, I feel this isn’t the case, or isn’t all of it.  What if I’m suffering just because I live in a broken world?  What if I’m suffering because of someone else’s sin – because someone else chose to act in a way to harm me, or chose not to act in a way that would help me?

Sometimes life is just hard.  It’s stressful; it’s painful; it’s exhausting; it’s unrewarding.  At times like this I don’t need to be told to “find out what God is teaching me.”  If I haven’t learnt to trust God yet, to be confident in his love, to know that he is clever enough and powerful enough to be in control, then the time when I feel let down is not the time when I learn.  The time when I learn is the good times when I learn from the Bible how he came through for others; and the time when he comes through for me.

What I need is someone to show me what God is teaching me – that he loves me.  That no trouble, hardship, presecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword can ever cut me off from his love, stop him feeling love towards me or stop him showing love towards me.  That death, life, angels, demons, present, future, powers, height, depth, anything ever created – none of it can separate me from God and his love.

If someone would do the housework, look after the children, meet a deadline, make a cake, write a letter; then I would learn that God cares for me and takes action to look after me.  If someone would help us over the financial hole, relieve the pressure by doing some of what needed to be done for us, and remind us every day that they love us and will help us, then I would know too that God loves me and will help me.

Sometimes suffering just is.  And sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is not to preach to them, to enter a discourse on the merits of suffering, or expound on the latest self-help book.  The world is broken; people are broken.  Sometimes we need to stop theorising and get on with practical care that allows others the time to heal, without demanding that they put themselves back together through their own strength.

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