Get Well or Suffer Well?
A few years ago, during the blackest and most heinous time of my life I was asking the Lord what he wanted me to do about it. I didn’t hear an audible voice but I did have these two words come to my mind (ones I’d never thought of in just this way): “Suffer well!” It wasn’t really what I’d expected, and not at all what I’d hoped for. “Get well!” or “Be well!” (even “Well, well!”) would’ve been a much better boost to my bleak morale. But since God isn’t in the business of running around trying to make me feel good, even though I didn’t completely understand it, I registered the directive – “Suffer well!”
Recently I was in a prayer meeting with some friends and we were seeking God mostly for people’s healing. I found myself musing about how sometimes God gives us grace to get well and at other times his grace empowers us to suffer well. It’s not always one way or the other. He, being God all by himself, gets to decide which one of the two (or some facsimile of them) would best fulfill his purpose, bring him the most glory at the time, and benefit us somehow at least in the long run.
I went to the back of the church building while others were praying in order to write some of my musings down. My mind turned to Paul who sometimes by the power of God suffered well and other times by that same power got well. He suffered well in and out of prisons, during beatings, near drownings, and other scary persecutions. He endured his afflictions with amazing grace, and told his disciples to do the same. The story went far and wide that this was a man who had a lot of faith and endurance, and other believers were helped by his example.
- Romans 5:3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance
- Romans 8:17-18 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
- 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Sometimes he even lunged toward pain and imprisonment instead of away from it. His resolve about it was so counterintuitive to his friends that they begged him to change course, but he refused to be deterred. “When he would not be dissuaded, they gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’” (Acts 21)
At other times God relieved Paul’s suffering through miraculous intervention; instead of having to endure in his pain he enjoyed the removal of it. He got well and brought wellness to other people. For instance, while on the way to his eventual imprisonment, he was bitten by a poisonous snake, which he casually shook off into the fire, and that was all there was to it! The locals knew he should’ve died from such a bite, and when he didn’t even get a tummy ache they wondered what was up and asked him to pray for their “governor’s” father who was deathly sick with dysentery. After his instant healing a revival of healing spread over the entire island. Because Paul got well (by miraculous intervention), he was able to bring the same miracle to others. In this case, instead of suffering well he got well.
A lot of people think it’s always one way or the other, God either always wants us to get well or always wants us to suffer well when we’re suffering. Campaigners for each camp tend to pray pre-planned prayers that reflect their opinion about this. Some take profound issue with asking God what he wants in these situations (“God, what is it you’d like to do here?” or “If it’s your will, Lord…”), because they claim to already know. In their view he always wants us well, so they “claim” the healing “belongs” to them. Ones on the other side of the issue assume that God so seldom intervenes in miraculous ways that they rush to the conclusion that he wants the sufferer to endure their suffering with little or no expectation of a miracle of any kind.
The Mediocre Middle…
But, I’ve noticed that many of our believing friends neither suffer well nor get well! They’re not likely to knock on God’s door for a miracle nor would they routinely exert much effort to trust God during their pain. They neither campaign for healing from pain or for endurance in it. They live in a sort of in-between place. They may think it’s a wise place, a place of biblical balance where they’re safe from extremes, but to my mind it’s more of a “mediocre middle.” They just sort of float in-between places where little-to-no faith is required. They’re not trusting the Spirit to intervene with power or the Father to insinuate himself into their pain with comfort.
When you think about it, faith is required for both endurance in pain and miraculous escape from it. For either outcome we have to trust God. There’s not much faith involved in the mediocre middle. It’s a sort of languishing in a philosophically and emotionally safe zone where the citizen of this middle place takes a “it is what it is” approach to pretty much everything. He isn’t willing to wrestle with God like Jacob and walk away with a hurt hip.
But on the edges (that is, not in that middle place) the trick is figuring out which one would I should be believing for – endurance in the pain or deliverance from it! Should I be expecting a healing or a peace and patience if there is no healing? That’s where this wrestling occurs. When Jacob did finally get into it with God at Peniel, got body slammed hard enough to effect his gate (his walk), it was there that his name was changed to “Prince.”
God doesn’t seem to be committed to making things “easy” for us. It’s nice when he makes it clear one way or the other, like he did with Paul who had prayed three times for the “thorn in the flesh” to be removed. But it occurs to me that he prayed three times before he got the definitive answer, “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” Those three times might have been over a period of weeks, months, or ever years. Whatever the time period, throughout it Paul was contending for healing or deliverance, which is the logical approach to take when we’re in pain. But when he heard God’s clear directive, “Trust me, not to intervene with grace to bring healing from your malady, but grace to give endurance in it,” he submitted to the Father’s wisdom. Though his suffering continued, he seemed to be relieved to at least know which way to direct his faith.
Where do I aim my faith – God’s character or capability?
Speaking of directing our faith, to me this is the key to the get well/suffer well conundrum. Do I trust God to heal me or to comfort me in my sickness? Do I contend for a change in my friend’s horrific circumstance or for him to have the peace to endure it? Where do I aim my faith?
Can I have faith even though I don’t know the preferred will of God in a matter? How do I live with the tension between the options and not languish in the in-between and be a pawn of destiny? Jesus told his disciples to simply “Have faith in God.” (Mark 11) I think this is the key – have faith in God and not necessarily in a certain outcome. I think of it as having confidence in his character, in his good judgment. When I aim my faith more at God himself and not at something I want from God I think I’m much better off. My faith then, is rooted more in his character than in his capability. Sure, I know he’s capable of doing anything. Well, not anything. He can’t do mutually contradictory things, like make a “circular triangle;” nor can he contradict his character (“He cannot disown himself” – 2 Timothy 2). But for our purposes it’s pretty obvious that he’s capable (having made the world and all!), and our faith latches on to his capability. But the question is how will he wield his capability? Like I said, his capability is tethered to, better yet, functions under the advisement of his character. So, though God’s omnipotence heartens us, his wisdom centers us. His capability is in our sights, but his character is the bulls-eye!
[We’ll put a comma there… Next time more about the mediocre middle, a mature faith versus an immature one, and suffering well until you get well… In the meantime, I’d really like to hear some of your own musings about this unpredictable God who’s predictably good…]