Pain enters into our lives in many forms. It often arrives as a physical injury. Our hospitals are filled with suffering people. Surgeries and broken bodies always bring some level of suffering. But the varieties of pain abound. A cancer diagnosis. A personal failure. A painful divorce. Financial collapse. The loss of a close friend. Rejection. The onset of a mental illness. The death of a family member. The loss of a job. Pain comes in all shapes and forms, often when you least expect it. Seasons of suffering sweep over us like a blustery spring storm advancing across the plains. You and I can no more hold back a season of suffering than we could reverse the weather. And while we delight in the gospel of convenience, all too many of us find ourselves abruptly locked in the dark room of suffering.
Your average Joe typically obsesses over two things when he finds himself in this dark room. Thing number one: how do I get out of the room? How do I ease this pain? How do I end my suffering? Where is the exit? I would just as soon be at home with the sun shining, eating a ham sandwich. I’m not greedy. It is not as if I want to trade my pain for obscene wealth or grandiose success. I’m not shooting for the stars here- I will happily settle for that ham sandwich. I would rather be anywhere, doing anything, than have to sit in the dark room of suffering.
When we find ourselves trapped in these dark seasons for any length of time, I find that there is a second question that rises to the surface. Why did this happen? Why me? The spiritually inclined person may have the common sense to ask the One who perhaps has the answers. God, why did You allow this? Why is this been permitted in my life?
We see this illustrated in a story that John relates in the ninth chapter of his Gospel. There we meet a man born blind, with no hope for cure. There is no escape for him from his literal ‘dark room.’ And so everyone around him is going about the business of unpacking the second question. Why did this happen? Who deserves this curse, the child or his parents? What is the cause of his suffering? Such considerations sweep us into a never-ending theological debate, and we get lost in the question.
It is exactly this obsession with the two questions of suffering that make it impossible for us to see the truth. Lately, I have been trying to unpack a startling revelation. Jesus himself is in the dark room. Stop. Take a breath and read that again. While I frantically search for the door, He waits in the darkness. I beg and plead for answers, and still He waits. I am desperate to get back to ‘normal.’ Jesus, why can’t I return to my ham sandwich? But Jesus frequently waits for those who are wise enough to settle down and ask a simple question.
“Jesus, are you here?”
You see, our theology of suffering leaves much to be desired. We are more than happy to find God in the victories. God is in the blessing, He is in the abundance, He is in the overflow of my life! God is in the success, the financial windfalls, and the sunny days. But is God in the dark room of suffering? Surely God is not there! I may never sit still long enough to ask.
The writer of Hebrews addressed this issue in a passage that has challenged me in so many ways. The very suggestion that Jesus had to learn anything, or that He was ‘made perfect;’ these ideas deconstruct so many of the fairy tale notions that I cling to. What is the thing that the book of Hebrews suggests made Jesus perfect? The answer is clearly suffering. What’s more, scripture shows us how Jesus asked to escape the pain of the cross as He wrestled in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. There in the garden, the Father chose not to give Jesus an easy exit from His dark room of suffering.
This was true for Jesus, as it is true for us. There is something going on in your dark room. There is something important happening in those painful spaces. The kingdom of God is shaking and rumbling in the dark room, but most of the time I don’t have the common sense to see it. I am too busy looking for the door, too busy demanding an answer why. What would happen if I silenced my cries and began groping about in the dark? What would happen if I tried to find Jesus in the dark room?
I assure you my friend, the crucified Christ is there! It is revelation enough to stumble across Jesus in my seasons of suffering. It is sufficient just that He is present. But there is so much more. Did you know that God is speaking to us in those painful places? Jesus is more than present, He often has something to tell you. Did you know that if we would simply settle down we would hear something from the very heart of God?
And this is the great mystery of suffering. There are pieces of the kingdom of God that you will never find on a normal day. There are revelations that simply do not come through a ham sandwich. It is often in the dark room that He tells you who you are. Greater still, He shows you who He is. There are great treasures to be found in the painful spaces.
Beyond that, there is profound brotherhood in suffering. Go and take a vacation with a good friend. Three years from now you will likely only be able to remember 10% of it. But spend one night in a fox hole with a total stranger, and the two of you have become lifelong brothers. Any veteran will tell you that the bonds of battle run deep. Think back over your own life, and you will see that this is true. In His goodness, God often sends us sisters and brothers to guard us in the foxholes of life. They come and join us in the dark room, but we often do not appreciate what they offer. Mutual suffering is one of the most powerful mediums for connection. Aside from the people that God sends to be with us in our suffering, Jesus is in the room! Isaiah called Him the despised and rejected one, the man of suffering, familiar with pain. You can discover a deep connection with the crucified Christ in your suffering, if you would only look for it.
Friends, be sure that I do not wish pain on any of you- If I had my preference, each of you would walk a smooth and easy path. But I know that my wishful thinking is an empty exercise. You and I will face difficult seasons in the days to come. Some of you are in that dark room even now, as you read this. Let me encourage you, whatever the storm, to courageously settle yourself and begin to look for the kingdom in your suffering. Stop asking Jesus why and start seeking His heart.
You will be surprised at the riches waiting to be found.