Not long ago, I listened to an audio book about George Washington while running. This particular biography opens with several lists, such as animals Washington owned, titles he had, offices he held. Among the lists are diseases Washington contracted. I could not believe my ears as I listened. He was sick most years of his life with one or more grave illnesses like dysentery, tuberculosis, malaria, and small pox. He suffered mightily from disease.
But, as the author notes, often during an outbreak it was Washington who emerged standing again, healthy, with no long term side effects from the illness; at least, until his final illness of acute bacterial epiglottitis, which took his life at 67, in 1799. While he suffered terribly, and the book goes into detail about the physical ailments of each condition, along with suffering from blood letting and other primitive medical techniques, Washington emerged resilient, and better for his experience, having grown stronger and more resolute as a result.
Suffering can do that: make us stronger as a result of having lived through whatever ails us to tell the tale. It can, but it doesn’t always.
As we continue our patience series, we take a hard look today at suffering. It’s something none of us want but all of us experience. It comes forth in physical maladies, like with Washington, but there are many other kinds of suffering, too. We know suffering from strained and failed family relationships, from financial issues at home and at work, from lost friendships or poisoned relationships, from loneliness and despair, from an anger that burns and will not go away and from a depression that lingers. There are many ways we experience suffering and the question for this series on patience, the question for us today, the question for any of us who are human, is how do we wait through suffering?
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning from Isaiah. These particular verses come from a narrative titled The Suffering Servant.
We are well acquainted with suffering in this life. We have known it ourselves in various ways. Suffering comes upon all of us who are human. And here, in this scripture, we find someone who has suffered mightily.
Isaiah tells us this servant of the Lord, “shall prosper…be high and lifted up…be very high,” according to the first verse. This is the same servant who shall have “no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He is “despised, rejected…a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account.” This servant of the Lord, who will prosper, is a man who, upon seeing him, we would look the other way, either feeling pity for him or reviled by his appearance.
Later in the scripture, Isaiah tells us that this was God’s will that the servant would suffer. In particular, verse 10 says, “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.” God has brought this suffering upon his servant. It’s God’s fault he’s suffering so mightily with infirmities, with an appearance that startles, with afflictions, rejected by society, lonely in his marred state.
In sum, the suffering servant of the Lord is a person despised by the world, sick, marred in physical appearance, who will also be exalted on high, whose sudden rise to great heights will startle, surprise, the kings of the world. All of this by God’s design, God’s will.
We have perhaps not suffered as mightily as this suffering servant, but we are acquainted with at least some of his suffering. We have known what it is to feel marred physically. For example, I remember back in high school being ashamed of how I looked. Perhaps you have known that kind of body shaming that we do to ourselves.
We have also known what it is to be despised. For example, I once worked for a company where I was despised by the executive team, who sought my ouster and attempted to mar my reputation. Perhaps you have known a time where your reputation was poor, where people at church or in town looked away from you, not wanting to be associated with you.
We have known what it is to be sick, constantly sick, like Washington much of his life. Too many of us, including my family, have known too much of that recently.
In these ways and many others, we have known what it is to suffer. In fact, it’s fair to say we are well acquainted with suffering. We know loss and heartache, we know pain and exhaustion, we know despair and hatred. We bump into these things all the time as we live our lives, reminded of relationships lost, family strife, the struggle to pay bills or get out of debt, the fear of what will happen in the future, and the loneliness and depression that cling too closely.
And those things we suffer through can come to feel like a heavy burden; a weight we must carry around with us.
Sometimes, with the weights we carry, it feels as though there will never be an end. In fact, it can feel like the suffering is the end, and it will just be that way forever. In the darkness of human suffering, it can seem like there is no end, that the darkness has overwhelmed and it will never be light again. At least, not for us. It might be for other people, but not for us. Sometimes, suffering is like that.
Sometimes, with the weights we carry, we wrestle to seize control of it, to resolve it, to fix it. We’re busy trying to make things right again in relationships, trying to fix our illnesses, trying to repair our reputation, trying to get out of our lonely place, trying to make our anger better by acting on it, trying to just end the suffering somehow under our own power.
We despair or we wrestle against the weights we carry, against the suffering. That’s the typical human response.
Sometimes, we’re the suffering servant. How are we to handle that suffering when it comes? Despair and wrestling against it never seem to work. As much as those might be typical human responses, we also know they’re failed and flawed responses. How do we wait patiently through suffering?
That’s the question for today in our patience series. We’ve seen that God will act in the first sermon, we’ve seen how God calls on us to endure and provides hope and joy in the endurance in the second sermon, but when we’re really suffering, when things are really bad, when life is really bleak, what are we to do?
Let’s take a closer look at this suffering servant.
We Christians think of the suffering servant as referring to Jesus. In fact, the New Testament quotes parts of this passage in referring to Jesus. He was despised by the world, rejected, marred in appearance, and people thought nothing of him, when he went to be crucified. Except for this passage’s reference to illness, Jesus fits the bill as the suffering servant of the Lord, fulfilling God’s will to defeat sin and death, destroying their power forever.
Not only does Jesus fit what’s listed here, but he also surprises the world. Our scripture notes that the kings of the world will be shocked by what they have seen, by what God will do through this suffering servant. It will be unbelievable that a man of no regard, rejected by the world, beaten and bruised, led to his death by a world that rejected him, that this would be the one whom God prospers, through whom God accomplishes the defeat of sin and death, establishing this man of no regard as the one of highest regard.
Jesus is the suffering servant. And indeed, he suffered mightily. Not just at the crucifixion, either. In each gospel, as the narrative moves inevitably toward the crucifixion, Jesus is increasingly rejected, despised, and alone. Each gospel near the start paints scenes of crowds gathered to hear this new teacher, to be in awe at his powerful works of healing and other miracles. But gradually, the crowds disperse. Jesus increasingly becomes despised, rejected, a persona non grata. By the end, at the crucifixion, Jesus is nearly alone. Most of the disciples abandon Jesus. Only John and the three Marys remain at the foot of the cross until the end.
Jesus suffered mightily, physically, spiritually, socially. In the garden, as the end approaches, he prays that the cup may be taken from him, that he might be spared what’s coming. Even Jesus knew despair and fear; knew tremendous suffering as he prayed God might relieve him of it. Then, on the way to Golgotha, he collapses under the weight of his cross, having to have someone else carry it. Jesus knew physical, total, exhaustion, and pain that are sometimes the hallmark of suffering.
But note, for all the ways Jesus shows us his humanity by suffering, he also shows us something else: patience in the suffering. Jesus doesn’t wrestle with the weight he carries. He asks God to remove it, but then he asks God that God’s will be done. He’s not trying to fix things himself, he’s not trying to shed the weight on his own. He could have run away, he could have killed the soldiers who came to arrest him, but he doesn’t. He continues to walk forward, into a future he knows is filled with hardship. He accepts what’s in front of him, the road of suffering, patiently enduring the suffering until it’s over.
He does so because he has hope: God will redeem his suffering, turning what was meant for evil into a powerful good, for God defeated sin and death, destroying their power forever; redeeming the suffering into a powerful good.
So it is for us. The promise of being one of God’s people is that suffering is not forever; God will do something new and surprising through our suffering, turning it into a powerful good. That is God’s will; that is what we call redemption.
While it might be tempting to say Jesus could endure his tremendous suffering because of what he knew would come on the other side, we must admit that we, through the eyes of faith, can see what’s on the other side, too. Just as God redeemed the suffering servant, just as God provided mightily through Jesus, so God will do for us; there will be redemption of our suffering.
God redeems our suffering, taking what we go through and making us stronger as a result. And the best way to see that is to look back to the past. Philip Yancey, the Christian author, says that “faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.” To have that kind of faith, we must look back to our past to see where God has provided; knowing that God will do it again.
So think back to past suffering you’ve known. Ways that you’ve experienced tremendous hardship in this life. Can you see where God has taken the difficult, terrible, things in your life and made something wonderful out of it? Something good? Something that’s used for the benefit of others?
I have known those who suffered through cancer and beat it who are now the best encouragers to those suffering under a recent cancer diagnosis. I have known and seen those who have experienced tragic deaths be the best comforters of those who recently experienced a tragic death in their own life. I have known how those who once felt their reputations were ruined and then restored help others find their way. This, in fact, is part of the design of addiction support groups like AA and Al-Anon: those who are farther down the journey of sobriety are there to help those just starting, sharing how God redeemed their addiction, providing strength for those wrestling mightily against their own addiction.
God takes the suffering we’ve known and makes something good out of it, something powerful, something so amazing that it’s astonishing to those who knew us when we were suffering, who knew what we went through. That’s the answer to our question this morning. How do we wait through suffering, even when things are at their bleakest? We wait in the hope of knowing God is going to do something amazing, something surprising, with our suffering, turning our suffering into a gift we can give to the world. We believe in advance what will only make sense in reverse.
That, in fact, is God’s will. Sometimes, God allows suffering to happen in our lives. Other times, it’s just the consequence of the presence of evil in the world. But regardless, God does something new and amazing in our lives, something incredible, something surprising, through our suffering by redeeming it, giving us a gift to give to others who are suffering as we once did.
God will do this. That is, if we will let him.
While we have known people who suffered and came out resilient, equipped to help others, we have also known people who suffered and never seemed to have emerged from the suffering. After a long period of time since the suffering began, they have become bitter, resentful, rejecting of help, isolated, hateful, despising, and angry. They know little of God’s redemption.
The difference between those stuck in their suffering and those who know God’s redemption is just this: do we, in the midst of suffering, become hopeless, believing that it’s the end, or do we accept that there will be suffering in our lives, choosing to wait through it, patiently enduring, believing that God will redeem it?
The latter is the example Jesus shows us: accepting that suffering will happen in our lives; it’s inevitable, we cannot avoid it. Typically, there’s little we can do while we’re suffering. After we’ve visited the doctor, taken the medicine, apologized to those we’ve hurt or offended, confessed our sins, admitted we’re powerless to change things; after we’ve done what it is in our power to do, the task of suffering is to accept our suffering, to embrace it even, patiently enduring it.
And we can do so if we believe, if we cling to the belief, that God will do something amazing through our suffering. That’s how we become the resilient people of God. We accept our human limitations to end the suffering and we reject the temptation to believe there’s no hope for us. Those who do the opposite, believing there is no hope or trying to fix their suffering under their own power, get stuck in their suffering, becoming bitter, angry, and isolated.
That’s the paradoxical reality of our suffering. When we try to fix it ourselves, we get stuck in our suffering and it is never resolved. When we accept that suffering will happen and rely on God alone to fix it, to redeem it, to bring us out of it, we find that one day our suffering does end and God has done a powerful work of redemption in our lives.
Resilience in this life comes by placing our hope for resolution of our suffering in God’s hands, not our own.
This morning, where do you know suffering? What’s happening in your life that’s causing you to suffer?
Wherever you’re suffering, believe that God will do something amazing. Practice that form of examen where you ask yourself what are you most grateful for today and what are you least grateful for today? One of the best ways to remain hopeful in the midst of suffering is to see where God is working in your life. This form of examen causes us to see exactly that on a daily basis.
Then also ask yourself where you’ve known God’s redemption of your suffering. How has God brought you through in the past? Whatever that is, it’s a gift to the world. When you find people who are suffering as you once did, offer the gift of your comfort, encouragement, presence, or lessons to them.
Our suffering in this life does not have the final word. God will do something new and surprising through us, giving us a gift to give to those who know our same suffering. If only we will, while we’re suffering, patiently embrace that suffering, choosing to wait patiently until God acts.
That’s how we emerge resilient from suffering in this life, better for the experience, having grown stronger as a result. Suffering can do that: make us stronger as a result of having lived through whatever ails us to tell the tale, just like George Washington and all his illnesses. Suffering can do that because God does that. God will take our suffering and turn it to good. God will do so because our suffering, once redeemed by God, will become a gift to the world. We will become the people who can comfort like no other, can offer encouragement like no other, can pray like no other, helping and healing those who are suffering as we once did.
Embrace your suffering in the hope that God will do something wonderfully surprising through it, giving you a gift to give to the world. God will redeem our suffering. Then we will be the resilient people of God.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.