Up until the last year, I can honestly say that I have suffered very little in my life.
Growing up, I was the princess, the last child in our family and the only girl. I wouldn't say that I was spoiled rotten, but I never wanted for much. My mom loved dressing me in cute clothes, my dad thought that I hung the moon, and my older brothers played with me and doted on me (except for when my brother Ryan was beating me up). I am fairly booksmart and school was never a challenge. College was a breeze, and I graduated in four years even though I did two majors and one minor. Master's degree done by 26 years old. Married to my high school sweetheart at the age of 21. Perfect, healthy son. No problems with pregnancy. Always had a teaching job even in a tough economy. Even more amazingly, no one close to me has ever died. I still have all four of my grandparents. My parents are still living. I knew even before cancer struck my husband that I had a golden life.
What is suffering?
In April of 2011, I finally learned what suffering meant. Before, I thought that suffering was having to eat out less in a month because we had spent too much money in another area of our budget, or having to take antibiotics for a bad sinus infection. No. That's not what suffering is. Those are minor annoyances.
When a doctor looked at me levelly last year and told me that my husband was going to surely die of cancer and most likely within the following year, I felt like my life screeched to a sudden halt at that very moment. In a way, it kind of did. The golden life ended. There were times in the couple of months after Ryan was diagnosed that I cried and sobbed and raged and despaired until the point that I could hardly breathe. There were days that I felt like I wished I was dead, because I couldn't bear the pain I was feeling in that moment and could not scarcely imagine the pain that was ahead of me. I haven't felt the physical effect of this journey, but the emotional hell that I've been through already has been harrowing at times. By definition, suffering is a participle of "to suffer", which means to experience something bad or unpleasant. Yeah, I've been there.
What purpose does suffering serve?
So many people have asked God, "Why Ryan and Kendra? They are good people. They should not have to go through this," and I cannot answer that question. I know that amazing things have come out of this and I see purposes, but I do not know why us as opposed to someone else. It begs the question, has God ordained for us to go through this, or has He allowed us to walk through this fire? Does it really even matter? Either way, we as Christians are called to share in the sufferings of the cross. That means that not only are we NOT guaranteed a comfortable life as Christians, we are expected to live a life that includes a degree of suffering. Think of it this way: early Christians were pretty much assured of a life of extreme suffering and persecution for following Christ. Would you still have followed Christ if you were certain that your life would be difficult afterwards?
Through suffering we are purified. Not purified of our sins, which were paid for by Christ's death on the cross, but purified of our unbelief, our apathy, and our worldly desires. When all those things are stripped away from us, Christ shines more completely and more brilliantly through us. Throughout the cancer journey, I feel like God has had me on a tether of 12 inches or less. Even throughout my mini-depression that has come on lately, He has not allowed me to wander too far from Him. My understanding of God and His character and the way that his promises are intimately entwined with each other is priceless. In fact, as I was discussing with my friend Cindy, who lost her husband to cancer just over a year ago, she and I agreed that though we have been through stages of hell (she much more than I have), we would not trade our suffering. Our relationships with the Lord have both thrived and He has become everything to us...after all, when life and security is ripped away, He is one strong tower that will not fall or waver. Would we have had this dependency on Him if it hadn't been for cancer? No, probably not. And you really can't put a price on growing thisclose to God.
Our eternal glory
Paul was pretty adamant that even extreme suffering is pretty minor when we compare it to the riches that await us in eternity. He mentions this comparison a few times in the New Testament, among them:
Romans 8:18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
So those moments where I despaired and sobbed and raged and felt so much heartache that I had a hard time dragging my weary load...
Are nothing...light and momentary troubles!...when compared to the glory that awaits those of us who follow Christ.
Never before this time in my life has Romans 5 made more sense:
Romans 5:1-5 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Can you honestly say in your heart that you are not afraid of suffering? If your hope is in the things of this world, then the loss of your physical and emotional comfort will lead to insecurity, instability, and fear. But when your hope lies in the incomparable glory of an eternity abiding in Christ, you will have the ability to face suffering with an unshakable hope, a direct result of God's grace lavished on the people that He loves enough to allow them to share both His son's suffering and His glory.