I had not been an agnostic for very long before coming back to Christ. Just long enough to make a general mess of my life. In coming back to the faith, I expected to find a community I'd not found elsewhere at my college. I expected to experience a newfound joy—after the hard work of setting my life straight, to be sure, but joy nonetheless. I did not expect to be sexually assaulted by a pastor barely three months into my new faith. I did not expect to be plunged into a different, almost deeper, darkness than any I had known in my life apart from God.
In Philippians 3:8–11, the apostle Paul writes, "I have suffered the loss of all things . . . that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead" (esv). The apostle Paul wrote these words to the Philippian church from prison, most likely in Rome. Just like in our time, life was rife with sorrow for the Philippians, but Paul wanted believers to understand suffering in a different way than the rest of the world. For believers, suffering had purpose.
Paul's words on suffering have meaning for us even today. In 21st century America, we're inundated with the message that the purpose, the goal of life, is a life of happiness and ease. Advertisements tell us that new acquisitions make us happier. Television shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Real Housewives teach us that money and fame mean happiness. The edited lives we see on Facebook depict life free of suffering and filled to the brim with Instagram moments, happy marriages, gifted and obedient children, success after success. A whopping 17 percent of American Christians identify with the "name it and claim it" prosperity theology—a view that was once on the religious fringe.
From the media to the church we get the message that the happy, easy life is the blessed life, and if we're suffering, something is wrong. It's a message that has seeping power. It seeps in the cracks of our theology and our human frailty so that even the most theologically grounded persons are not exempt from asking God, even pleading with him, "Why?" Why can't I find a job? Why can't I find a spouse? Why did my marriage fail? Why didn't I have parents? Why did I have bad ones? Why did I have to bury my baby? Why didn't you protect me from being raped by someone I trusted? Why?
For all of those who, like me, ask "why," I have good news and bad news.
The bad news about suffering
The bad news is that suffering is an inevitable part of the Christian life. God allows suffering. God allows rape. God allows the death of children. God allowed Auschwitz. God allows the sufferings that creep into everyday life—the depression and anxiety that often accompany the routines of the everyday. God allows us to suffer for our faith. Even Christ could not escape suffering. The hours of his approaching death were hours of agony. He begged his friends to be wakeful, to be his company in his hours of anguish and anxiety. He pleaded for another way, a way other than the Cross. "My Father!" he asks, "If it be possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me" (Matthew 26:39). Not this, anything but this.
As I say in my book Dare Mighty Things, "sometimes our calling leads us to places we do not want to go. Sometimes God calls us to Nineveh, and to Nineveh we go even though we say no. Sometimes God calls us out to lonely places, out to the desert or to the waiting place, to the threshing floor during harvest, before the king of Persia, to the Coliseum, to a hill called Golgotha. Sometimes our calling will, like Jesus, make us cry out, 'Please, if there's any other way, let it be! Not this.' Our lives will not always look as we expect them to. We're told to expect suffering. We're told, incredibly, to rejoice in it. The apostle Peter tells us, 'Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings . . .' (1 Peter 4:12-13)."
God allows suffering. That's the bad news.
Good with the bad
The good news is this: God uses it for ultimate good. "As for you," Joseph says to his scheming brothers in Genesis, "You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people" (Genesis 50:20). Through suffering, God refines us, creating within us the character of Christ, so that we, too, will greet his will with the very same selfless devotion: "Yet I want your will to be done, not mine" (Luke 22:42).
Through suffering, we learn patience and perseverance. Through suffering, we learn our limits, but also the limitlessness of his strength and power. We are not alone in our suffering. We can trust God in our suffering. "Safe?" said Mr. Beaver in The Chronicles of Narnia. "'Course he isn't safe. But he's good." God allowed me to be raped by a pastor, but through that he developed in me a passion for leadership that's spirit-filled and spirit-formed, so that I've oriented my entire life to the cause of helping leaders become more like Christ.
During Easter, it's easy to overlook Good Friday and skip straight to Resurrection Sunday. It's hard to stay awake and wait with him in the garden. It's hard to take up our cross and walk with him to Golgotha. It's hard to crucify our self, our wants, our desires. But knowing Christ involves knowing his suffering. Without the Cross, there would be no resurrection; it's only through sharing Christ's suffering are we able to experience the power of his resurrection. It is only through suffering that we are able to experience real life, real joy, real happiness. Our part is to be faithful to the very end, even when—especially when—our lives do not look like we think they should.
Halee Gray Scott, PhD, is an independent social researcher who focuses on issues related to leadership and spiritual formation. She is the author of Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women (Zondervan).