Suffering takes many of us by surprise. About five years ago, I was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in different parts of the body. To my then thirty-three-year-old self, it felt like a crushing blow. I had three young boys to keep up with, the daily pressures of being a church-planting pastor’s wife, and (I thought) a full life ahead of me. Now my days were filled with fatigue, joint pain, and an uncertain future.
Little did I know that I would experience more joy in the Lord over the next five years than I had previously known. God taught me something about hope through suffering that I’m not sure I would have learned otherwise.
Suffering in Christ is different from suffering outside of Christ. I don’t mean that a believer is immune to negative emotions. I felt many of the same things that someone outside of Christ would feel, including disappointment, grief and loss, but these were tempered by my growing understanding of what it meant to have my identity in Christ. God used my suffering to expose my misguided thinking, and paradoxically, this is what gave me very real hope for my future.
We Belong to the Lord
The first barrier to hope that I had to overcome was the idea that my emotions are always true. I belong to a generation that has exchanged the perceived old stoicism for a new emotional authenticity. We grew up on movies that told us to “follow our heart.” If we feel something, it must be true. But when we are suffering, this doesn’t work so well because sin disorders our emotions. When life gets hard, our emotions can actually overwhelm and cripple us. Pain, anger, disappointment, anxiety, or grief can become the most defining characteristics of our life, and when we allow them to consume us, we take on a false identity.
Romans 14:7–9 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”
This may seem like a strange verse to encourage a suffering saint with, but if we belong to the Lord, both in living and in dying, it gives us an identity beyond our suffering.
When I was first diagnosed with lupus, a dear older woman in our church (perhaps in her mid-eighties) told me that when she was young, they didn’t have a term for what I have. I nodded, thinking of how much better off we are now with more information about autoimmunity. I wasn’t prepared for what she said next.
“In my day, we just called it arthritis and got on with life.”
I was instantly offended. What an insensitive thing to say! I felt undermined in my struggles and dismissed in my suffering. It was only later I realized she had offered me a gift. She was trying to tell me that I am not my disease. That I did not have to let my fears and disappointments about my health define my life. That I still had a life to keep living. At that time, my emotions were disordered and dysfunctional. I was disappointed and overwhelmed. Her message was a God-send—and one I needed to hear.
Emotions are a gift from God. Desire, joy, and the full gamut of human emotions are painted everywhere in the pages of Scripture—but when we are suffering, emotions don’t always feel like a gift. And my encounter with this dear sister in Christ taught me something important: We are not our emotions. We are not our suffering.
When we begin to define ourselves by our suffering and the feelings it produces in us, we’re actually moving away from who we are at the core of our identity. This is very different from what Paul says in Romans 14: “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
I have great hope because I belong to the Lord. This sickness I have doesn’t own me. It has some temporary control over me, but even that is under the sovereign hand of God. Not one antibody in my system rebels without God’s permission.
We Belong to Christ’s Church
Another source of hope for me is that I never have to suffer alone. I’m part of the Body of Christ, joined together in “one Spirit” and with “one hope” (Eph. 4:4). While it’s true that many people find suffering to be a lonely experience, it becomes even lonelier when we forget our corporate identity. Sometimes we feel that our Christian brothers and sisters don’t understand us. It can be tempting for us to get into the mindset of “these Christians over here don’t get me, but my suffering friends over here do.” But if you are a Christian, you share a core identity and purpose with every member of the Body of Christ. In God’s eyes, you are loved, adopted, and redeemed in Jesus Christ.
It’s important that we keep our identity in mind when suffering, because it means that death and declining health are not the climax, nor the end, of our story. We may identify to a certain degree with all people who are sick, dying, and suffering, but this is where the resemblance ends.
This grief, this broken relationship, this illness—whatever you are going through—it is not your forever and most defining characteristic. Christ died and rose again to give you new life and a new identity and that identity is “the Lord’s.” Our trials and our suffering do not own us. In the midst of the very worst of the worst thing we can be going through, we belong to Christ. We are part of the Church that Christ loves and “gave himself up for” (Eph. 5:25). And not only that, he has plans to “present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle” (v. 27).
We have a real, concrete reason for hope. Make no mistake, when Jesus rose from the dead, death was “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). It no longer has the final say. Christ’s resurrection guarantees ours (vv. 20–22).
Have you let your trials define you too much? How does knowing that you belong to God change the way you think about suffering? Leave a comment with your thoughts.