The pain was almost unbearable. The smallest tasks overwhelmed me. I could barely focus through the fog to take care of my children. My whole world had been rocked, but I still had to function. I still had to do the next thing. And I had to do it all while hiding the pain in my heart, because no one else knew that anything was wrong at all.
Sometimes, our suffering is out in the open, and our pain is no secret. A car wreck. The death of a friend or family member, spouse, or child. A battle with cancer. A house fire. A divorce. We suffer greatly through these times, and everyone knows and sees how we respond. Our church family and other believers can encircle us with prayer and love and lend us their strength to continue walking down the path.
Suffering in Secret
Other times, and maybe even more often, our suffering is done in the secret places. Maybe someone hurt us deeply and they don’t even realize it. Maybe a wrong was done to us, but we chose not to make it public. Maybe it’s an unrealized dream that is breaking our hearts—infertility, another baby that died before we could even announce we were expecting, singleness when we long for marriage, another job or promotion that went to someone else. Maybe it’s a marriage that looks completely different at home than it does in public, a struggle with depression or anxiety, or even a private battle against our own sin.
Sometimes, we suffer in silence unnecessarily. We’re too embarrassed, ashamed, or prideful to admit what’s really going on. We shudder to think about anyone finding out, afraid they’ll reject us if they know, so we refuse to tell the truth, put on a mask, and pretend everything is fine. These are the times when we rob ourselves of the comfort and strength that can come from sharing our pain in a safe place, hiding behind sinful pride when we could be helped greatly from the humble vulnerability that says, Everything is not okay, and I need you to pray for me.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t a situation that we have the freedom to share, and we must stay silent out of respect for someone else. When I was hurting privately, it was because it wasn't just my story, and to share my pain would be to betray someone’s trust. Sometimes, we just aren't far enough down the road to share. Maybe we can tell others later what was going on, but in the midst of the pain, it’s too private and personal. For whatever reason, there will be times when your heart is broken and you cannot let anyone see.
These times can be particularly excruciating in the Instagram world in which we live. On the surface, everyone is so happy. Everyone has it all together. Everything is perfectly arranged for the picture, and the effect is beautiful. All we see is perfection, and all we feel is complete brokenness. So it appears that we are the only one struggling. The only one whose picture is distorted. The only one suffering.
Truth to Cling To
I think most of us really know that no life is as perfect as it appears on social media. And this isn’t a post that’s going to tell you to spill everything in public, to be completely real and post equal parts ugly and beautiful. Instead, I’d simply like to give you some solid truths to cling to when your life isn't picture perfect, and you have a sorrow that can’t be publicized.
1. Your pain isn’t hidden from Christ, even if no other person on earth knows about it.
Isaiah 53 is a bedrock of hope for the suffering Christian, particularly one suffering in private. This chapter is one of the most beautiful, agonizing descriptions of the suffering of Christ. We focus on the fact that He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our sin and that His suffering was because God laid our iniquities on Him, as well we should.
But sometimes we miss the simple fact that He suffered—and what that means for our suffering. He was well-acquainted with grief. He was a Man of Sorrows. And right after this description, nestled in among all the descriptions of what He suffered for us, we read these words: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (v. 4).
Whatever else this may mean theologically, it at least means this: Jesus knows your suffering, and He understands it. And not only that, He carries it with you. No matter how great your pain, no matter what the source, even if it’s a result of your own sin, Jesus loves you with a compassion in a way that no one else can. When you feel like you cannot share your sufferings with anyone else, pour them out on Him. He is already well-acquainted with your grief and is ready to comfort you and help you.
2. No suffering is wasted, not even when it’s private.
Sometimes it can be easy for us to see a purpose in our suffering. Other times, it just appears senseless. We know that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28), but we cannot see any way that good could come from our pain.
This is where the rubber of our faith meets the road of life. God has promised to work ALL things for our good. He has promised to redeem all pain, right all wrongs. He has promised that He has a plan for the world and a plan for us, and that nothing can thwart that plan. When we’re suffering and can make no sense of it, these are promises to which we must cling and upon which we must stake our hope.
I can’t begin to suggest what His purpose may be in your pain. I can only promise there is one and point you to the cross, where your Savior demonstrated His love for you while you were still dead in your sin. Trust Him. Suffer with faith in Him. Preach His promises to yourself over and over, as often as necessary, to help you trust and not despair. And suffer with the end in view—the glorious end of all suffering for all eternity.
3. Participate with God in your suffering.
When we’re hurting badly, it’s often a huge temptation to do anything we can to feel better, even if it’s all just pretense. Don’t do this. Don’t mask the pain, don’t pretend everything is fine, don’t drown it in temporary “fixes” that often leave you in more trouble than when you started. If it’s true that God has a purpose in your pain—and it is—then you will only fulfill His purpose by experiencing the suffering.
Romans 5:3–5 gives us an overall view of God’s purpose in every pain:
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
We have a hope that will not put us to shame because God’s promises are guaranteed to be true. In the midst of our deepest pain, when we cannot share it with anyone else, God promises that through the suffering He is producing a good work in us. He is conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29) who suffered. For us to be like Jesus, we must suffer, but our suffering is never arbitrary. If we submit to the loving hands of our Father, even in the midst of our suffering, He will refine us as gold in the fire.
4. We are in no way obligated to publish our pain.
In a culture that publishes everything from what we had for dinner to whom we voted for in the last election, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to keep it private from the masses. With social media being so prevalent in many of our lives, it can began to feel like we must keep our followers updated on what’s going on with us. However, the deepest suffering often brings the deepest growth, and this most often happens in the quiet, secret places.
Instead of making your pain public, find one or two trusted believers who can help you walk through the fire. Find friends who will remind you of the truth in your darkest moments, hold your arms up when your strength is gone, cry with you, fight the battle with you, and lift you before the throne of God when you have no words to pray for yourself. This kind of sharing happens person to person, not over social media updates. Your pain does not always need to remain absolutely private, but it does not often need to be public, either.
When you are suffering silently, no matter how great your anguish, God sees your pain and has compassion on you. Psalm 56:8–13 says:
You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your book? Then my enemies will turn back in the day when I call. This I know, that God is for me. In God, whose word I praise, in the LORD, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid.
What can man do to me? I must perform my vows to you, O God; I will render thank offerings to you. For you have delivered my soul from death, yes, my feet from falling, that I may walk before God in the light of life.
You might not see the light when your suffering is darkest, but God sees your tossing and your tears, and He is for you. You can trust Him. You need not be afraid, though darkness be all around you, because God has delivered your soul from death and your feet from falling. You can even render thank offerings to Him through the pain, because His promise is true. And even when no one else in this very public world knows your pain or your victory over it, He sees. He sees, He cares, He helps. And you may walk before Him in the light of life that is abundant in spite of the pain.
A version of this post originally appeared in RTM Magazine.