The Suffering Spectrum - Get Me to the End!

I've gone through some tough times lately. I've heard people say their faith was strengthened through tough times, and I know that's biblical. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul described what I call a 'suffering spectrum.' He said that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope. Personally, I'd like to move out of the suffering phase to the hope end of the spectrum as quickly as possible, so lately I've been scouring the Bible for something to help me get there. And of course, since the Bible is the living Word of God, I found it. Several times.

First, I read about Joseph, Mary’s husband. God had given him a dream, and an incredible responsibility. There he was, with his wife about to give birth, wandering around Bethlehem looking for a decent place to stay. Where did he end up taking her? A stable. Imagine his reaction when he led her through the doorway and looked around. Imagine the dirt. The smell. Surely he thought, “This is IT? Are you kidding me? Here we are, doing God’s work, and this is how He takes care of us?” Maybe he even questioned, “Was my dream true? Or did I conjure it up because I wanted to marry Mary so badly? Surely if God is in control, He would provide a nicer place to give birth to His Son.” (I’m putting words in his head, I know. But he was human. Surely he had some questions.)

Then I read about John, the beloved disciple. This guy was all about love. He experienced Jesus’s love first hand. He preached love. He lived love. While all his fellow disciples were killed for their faith, he lived to an old age, still loving God with his whole heart, mind, and soul. Then he was exiled to Patmos. In my study, I discovered that Patmos was a tiny rock island where criminals were sent to do hard labor. John was an old man by now, but his frailty wouldn’t excuse him from long days filled with back-breaking labor, from the derision of the hardened men who were his fellow exiles, from the cruelty of the guards. He was sent there to die, not to sit on the beach and write his memoirs. Did he fall, exhausted, onto his pallet at night, his aged body aching and miserable, and wonder, “What am I doing here, Lord? You broke Peter out of prison, so I know you can get me out of here. Why aren’t you moving?” (Maybe he didn’t, because, well, he was John. But I certainly would have wondered those things.)

And then there was the other Joseph, the one in the Old Testament. God gave him a dream, too. Several, in fact. Because of those dreams, his brothers sold him into slavery. He became a servant, then was unjustly accused of a crime he didn’t commit and went to prison, where he was forgotten for several years. Do you think he might have stared at those prison walls late at night and wondered, “What’s going on, God? Didn’t that dream come from you? What am I doing here, then? When are we going to get to the part where the sheaths of grain and the stars bow down to me?”

You know what I realized about all three of those biblical men? They all went through a time of extreme difficulty, when God’s plan was impossible to see in the surroundings in which they found themselves. They lived on that ‘suffering spectrum,’ just like I am now. Maybe they didn’t question. Maybe they moved from the suffering part all the way to hope in record time. One thing I’m certain of: God was with each one of them, whether it looked that way or not.

There was a reason for the stable – if Jesus had been born in a place that was easy to find, then King Harod wouldn’t have had any trouble sending men to kill him, would he? God used that stable to protect His Son. And He used the prison to make a connection for Joseph that would lead to the fulfillment of his dream when his family returned and bowed before him. As for John, historical evidence indicates that the leaders of the day were trying to kill him, just as they’d killed Peter and Paul and the others. If they’d killed him outright instead of exiling him on Patmos, he wouldn’t have lived long enough to have the vision that became our book of Revelation.

I’m not one of those people who believe God makes bad things happen to His children in order to teach them a lesson. But I do believe He can take any situation—bad or good—and use it to fulfill His purpose in our lives. There is no doubt these men suffered. There is no doubt their suffering produced character, just as the Apostle Paul said. Neither can there be any doubt that God’s faithfulness gave them the triumph of hope in the end. When I look at their tough times, I find I’m able to see the hope at the end of my own ‘suffering spectrum.’