Suffering, Part III: Deliverance from Suffering is Not One-Size-Fits-All

Dave Shive lives in Catonsville, MD, and has been married to Kathy for 52 years. They have 3 married children and 11 grandchildren. Dave writes, not as a clinician or therapist, but as a pastor. His thoughts on suffering emerge from his study of the Bible, reading widely, pastoral counseling, and personal experience. This is Part III of a multi-part series on suffering.

Have you ever felt like you aren’t “getting over” your suffering as fast as someone else? Have you ever felt pressured to move on in your grief by those around you and you just weren’t ready yet or didn’t know how? Are you mentoring someone through a hardship they are experiencing and find yourself wondering, “why hasn’t this person gotten over it yet?” There’s a reason for these differences- deliverance and growth from suffering, are not a one-size-fits-all process. In my last post I shared how God gives us biblical language to express our heartache and sorrow in suffering. Today, I am going to close out this series by looking further into the spiritual growth and deliverance from suffering experiences of some popular Bible sufferers.

The many shades of affliction and deliverance. The Bible tells us that Abraham, David, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul all suffered. And yet a careful examination of their stories surprisingly teaches the reader that their afflictions were not identical. Abraham could not have a son. David could not be king. Jeremiah could not stop the Babylonians. Jesus had to deal with Pharisees and disciples and go to the cross, and Paul got a lot of beatings and spent time in prison.

Though God intends for all believers to experience the same ultimate outcome from their trials – conformity to the image of Christ – He nevertheless uses different means of bringing us to that point.

This proposition likewise applies to deliverance from affliction. Because every sufferer is different and because afflictions are all unique, God has an infinite number of tools at his disposal to bring our suffering to an end. This principle can even apply to the duration of affliction. Some trials may be short in duration while others may last for a very long time. In other words, we can’t put God in a box as to how or when our suffering will end. But we can be assured that the final results will be spectacular. So, after decades of affliction, Abraham got Isaac, David got a crown, Jeremiah saw Babylon destroyed, Jesus saw his disciples thrive and then returned to his Father, and Paul got his heavenly reward.

I have been talking in these posts on suffering about the need to understand the biblical tools and language God has given us to help navigate the difficulties of life that come our way. Part of that language focuses on the delightful topic of deliverance. Here is the main point: deliverance out of affliction is not a once-size-fits-all process. People experience pain and loss differently and grow through it in unique ways. There is no timetable for healing, so how do we press on when the details of our future release are so murky?

Finding an Oasis

As I mentioned in previous posts, on April 1, 1991 the bottom had dropped out of my ministry and I had found myself in a 30-month season of affliction. But everything changed in the fall of 1993 when a series of “serendipitous” events brought me into pastoral leadership of a church. I could not have seen this coming, nor did I knowingly initiate the events leading up to my being invited to lead that congregation.

It dawned on me that something within me had happened during those thirty months. My first sermons at the new church were on affliction. I was stunned when a young man came forward at the end of the sermon and excitedly asked, “Where did you get this stuff?” That question encouraged me to consider that my unique experience of suffering had been uniquely designed for me and that, through my affliction, God had done something unique in me. UNIQUE!

Affliction with Benefits

Psalms contains very encouraging words about affliction. There we learn that life’s difficulties usher in blessing. Regardless of your specific affliction, the psalms can rescue you from defeat by pointing you to an exciting future outcome: “Before I was afflicted, I strayed, but now I keep Your word…It is good that I was afflicted, that I may learn…” (Psa. 119:67, 71). A hidden dimension to suffering existed all along, but after 3-months of intense training, I was discovering that God had not only been involved in my trial but was up to something huge!

Release from difficult situations is the beginning of a season where we are liberated from misery and drudgery to do what is “life-giving” and deserving of our passion. David was at his most profound when he found himself released from his pit. Let me illustrate this idea from three of his psalms.

Psalm 22: Despairing complainer to ecstatic worshiper. In Psalm 22 David begins with his famous line, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” By the end of the psalm he is heard saying things like, “I will declare your name to my brethren, in the midst of the assembly I will praise you” (v. 22)? In fact, the last ten verses of Psalm 22 are a cacophony of praise, gratitude, and a declaration of intent to proclaim God’s greatness to everyone. In one psalm, David traveled from the misery of abandonment to celebrating God’s greatness.

Psalm 40: Chronic sufferer to determined witness. Perhaps David’s most famous “pit” psalm, Psalm 40:1 opens with David in a difficult situation. But in short order we are treated to his announcement that as a result of his suffering and deliverance “many shall see and fear and trust in the Lord” (v. 3b). Like Psalm 22, David has journeyed “from the pit to the pulpit” (for example, see Psalm 40:9-10).

Psalm 51: Melancholy sinner to exuberant evangelist. Psalm 51 may be David’s most melancholic psalm. It is written by a guilt-ridden sinner. In the first eleven verses he recounts the awfulness of his sin as he pleads for God’s mercy. But by verse 12 he has gone from the melancholy sinner to the exuberant evangelist. In the last eight verses of the psalm, it is apparent that he is determined to spare no energy in publicly affirming God’s greatness.

Deliverance from suffering is not “one size fits all.” Whether in a season of affliction because of one’s own sinful choices (Psa. 51) or suffering for unknown reasons (Psa. 22 and 40), God is still at work. And whether the “size” of that season is for the short-term (my 30 months of affliction) or more long-term (some may suffer for years), God is still changing lives and producing fruit for the future. As a result of my light affliction, I have repeatedly seen God’s blessing in my life and ministry over the past decades.

The biblical stories of affliction survivors help us embrace Paul’s teaching that the grace of God that is discovered during affliction is sufficient (II Cor. 12:9). This is the essence of “spiritual grit,” a robust and vigorous courage in responding to life’s difficulties with a deep confidence that God’s grace will prove adequate for all circumstances.

A time to reflect:

  1. Can you identify a key current affliction that you are experiencing?
  2. What possible growth might God be wanting to produce in you through your suffering? How God might be intending to shape your future through your suffering?
  3. How have you been praying to God about your hardship and pain? Is gratitude a part of your prayer life as you talk to God about your affliction?
  4. Do you have hope in the midst of your pain that God is near and at work?

Recommended books on various types of suffering.

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