Who was best teacher you ever had in school? My finest teacher was Dr. James McCord, President of Princeton Seminary. Dr. McCord taught only one class each year, but I learned more about pastoral ministry and the nature of God in that class than in any other course in seminary. Dr. McCord was a master teacher with a voracious appetite for books, so he was always up-to-date on the latest theological issues of our time. The requirement for his class was a 50 – 100 page paper! Although 105 students showed up for the first class…once they heard that the requirement was a lengthy paper…the class shrunk to 25. Actually, this was our professor’s strategy…requiring a 100-page paper reduced the class right down to the size he wanted! The twenty-five of us who took his class had the privilege of sitting at the feet of the master.
But as wonderful a teacher as Dr. McCord was, I have learned more from life experience than from any classroom. And, of all the experiences of life, I believe that the greatest teacher in the world is suffering.
In last week’s devotional, I referred to waiting as the second greatest teacher in the world. But, suffering is an even more effective teacher because suffering gets our full attention.
Suffering got the full attention of a couple whose thirty-year-old son died tragically on New Year’s Eve and of a grandmother whose daughter-in-law will not allow her to see her grandson, in a complicated family system. Suffering got the attention of a church whose beloved pastor who was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
But, somehow, we as Christians are surprised that suffering is such a big part of our lives. When we start to follow Jesus Christ, we hope that our lives will be blessed by God. We expect answers to prayer and that God will give us good gifts. And, often we experience these God given blessings. But many of us aren’t prepared for the reality that suffering will be a part our lives too; this is disillusioning. In fact, sometimes we suffer more than others because we are following Jesus…and our hearts are broken by the things that break God’s heart! Followers of Jesus are not exempt from suffering.
When we enter the classroom called suffering, we learn spiritual lessons that we can’t learn in any other way. And, make no mistake about it, these lessons are difficult to learn. But, as philosopher, Paul Riccour says, “If we don’t run away from God in the midst of suffering, we inevitably encounter God.” Suffering teaches us important spiritual lessons such as:
- We are not self-sufficient. We need God and other people. Suffering binds us to God and to fellow sufferers in a way that nothing else can do. This is the basis of Alcoholics Anonymous and all 12 step groups and is what the Apostle Paul meant…” God helps us in our troubles SO THAT we may help others in their troubles, using the same help that we have received from God.” II Corinthians 1:3-5
- Suffering teaches us to rearrange our priorities. Suffering teaches us what is truly important and of lasting value. As theologian C. S. Lewis said, “I don’t like crises! But I do like the opportunities they provide!” When we suffer, we learn the importance of making God the number one priority in our life and we loosen our grip on the tyranny of the urgent.
- Suffering teaches us that God is a redeemer who can bring good out of evil. Just as the blast furnace burns off the impurities in the process of steel manufacturing, so suffering can burn off impurities in our lives, and make us more resilient than if the suffering had never occurred. Although I do not believe that God causes all suffering, I do believe that there is no suffering, no matter how excruciating, out of which God cannot bring good. This is the mystery of our Christian faith.
Here is a simple illustration of that point. Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the famous composer and pianist, was scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City. A mother brought her nine-year-old son to the concert, hoping that he would be inspired to practice the piano. Before the concert even began, the boy had difficulty sitting in his seat. While his mother was chatting with friends, the boy slipped away, wandered around the orchestra hall, and soon found his way backstage. Spying the Grand Steinway piano, the boy sat down at the keyboard, and began playing chopsticks! The audience was in a state of shock! People shouted, “Get him away from there!” Paderewski was unflappable! The great musician quickly put on his tuxedo jacket, walked out on stage, and stood behind the boy, whispering in his ear, “Don’t quit. Just keep on playing, son; whatever you do, don’t quit!” The boy continued to play chopsticks while Paderewski, on the spot, composed a counter-melody to harmonize with the boy’s childish rendition of chopsticks. Paderewski took the boy’s feeble attempts at chopsticks and used them as the basis for a masterpiece!
This is the way God works with us. God can take the suffering, pain and sins of our lives and produce a counter melody to bring something beautiful out of them. The same God who brought resurrection out of crucifixion can bring hope, and even joy, out of the pain and suffering of our lives.
These lessons that we learn in the classroom of suffering are best learned in retrospect. So…if anyone reading this blog is in the classroom of suffering right now, please remember this tender word from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, “When we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Sometimes, when our suffering is overwhelming, the only thing we can do is climb up in God’s loving arms and receive the Divine embrace. I call this, “Lap-time with Jesus.” In those tender moments, God will hold onto us, and will never, ever let us go! When we are suffering…remember that God suffers with us.