Best of Messy Grace faith Grief

When Life is Painful, You Need a Suffering Savior

When life is painful, you don’t need a God who is disconnected from the harsh realities of daily life. You need a suffering savior.

Hear my prayer, O God;

do not hide yourself from my petition.

Listen to me and answer me;

I have no peace, because of my cares.

—Psalm 55:1-2

In our woundedness, it’s tempting to believe that God doesn’t hear our prayers. Even though the Bible is clear that God bottles every tear, some combination of toxic theology and deep pain has done its best to convince us that God is not concerned with the harsh reality of human life.

We manage to kneel at the altar rail on a Sunday morning, hoping Christ will show up in the bread and the wine, and more often than not, we bring with us a nagging sense that God has left the building. Our anxiety has destroyed our peace: shoved it out the back door in the middle of the night. The black dog of depression howls in our ears all night long, and if we’re not careful, we buy into the lies that we’re suffering because of a lack of faith or something we have or haven’t done for Jesus.

My advice? Embrace the One who suffers with you.

“He will be raised up and highly exalted.”

—Isaiah 52:13

How often the Egyptian slaves must have prayed for a Deliverer to stomp Pharoah into dust. How many times the scribes and Pharisees must have read the kinds of promises in Isaiah about the Messiah being “raised up and highly exalted” and dreamed of their King, coming in majestic splendor to crush the Romans and take his rightful place, high above all the rest, the Ultimate Victor. 

Even Mary: oh, how the lowly servant girl must have sometimes reveled in the future glory her son would bring, not only to Israel, but to her family: the temporary embarrassment of her pregnancy, eventually redeemed, because look at Jesus now, the King of the Jews—high and exalted!

If only they’d just read the very next line:

“But he didn’t begin that way.

At first everyone was appalled.

He didn’t even look human— 

a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.”

—Isaiah 52:14

Jesus was indeed raised up, highly exalted on the worst kind of torture device humans could conceive: a cross. The opening of Isaiah 53 says it perfectly: “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?” James Cone says the reason Jesus told Peter to “get behind me, Satan,” is because “he could not connect vicarious suffering with God’s revelation. Suffering and death were not supposed to happen to the Messiah. He was expected to triumph over evil and not be defeated by it. How could God’s revelation be connected with ‘the worst of deaths,’ the ‘vilest death,’ ‘a criminal’s death on the tree of shame’?”

Don’t we all feel like Peter when it comes to suffering, if we’re honest? Lord, I don’t want to go through that! We’ve built entire Christian movements around nothing but happiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost, and as much prosperity as you can ask for. But suffering? No, thanks.

Understanding the expectation of Peter in this light, his infamous denial of Jesus also makes a bit more sense:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind,

a man of suffering, familiar with pain.

Like one from whom people hide their faces

He was despised, and we held him in low esteem.”

—Isaiah 53:3

Seeing Christ mauled, mutilated, and beaten beyond all recognition? Of course, Peter struggled. It’s not supposed to be this way, Jesus! Did I know him? Him?! You must have me confused.

Like Peter, when unexpected suffering comes our way, we too are tempted to live in denial. Surely, this kind of pain isn’t what God had intended for me! We stuff down our anger and run from lament because we want the sweet, serene Savior who lives in the early morning glow of stained glass windows. Instead, we get a lamb taken to slaughter. As Niebuhr puts it, the suffering savior is not crucified by criminals, “he is crucified with criminals.”

Unfortunately, the longer we run and deny, the longer it takes us to heal.

​The longer we deny our suffering, the longer it takes us to heal. - via @iamsteveaustin

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So, my challenge to you today is to surround yourself with those who won’t encourage your denial of hard times. Be strategic by placing people in your inner circle who believe in a co-suffering savior. Hold tight to those who will wail with you: those gritty friends who will tell you the hard truth about suffering, who will mourn with you, who will not tell you to “just choose joy” when your whole world is falling apart. Cling to those who have been beaten up by life (and perhaps, the church), because more than likely, their own suffering has broken them open to compassion, empathy, and the transformative power suffering brings to each of us.

Reflection questions:

  1. What would it take for you to let go of your preconceived notions of a victorious warrior who makes you magically immune from pain, and instead place your hand in his side, seeing that God is suffering, too?
  2. Before you go sharing your deepest fears, wounds, and shame with someone, be perfectly clear on why you’re sharing it and what you need. Perhaps something like this would help clear the air: “I’d like to share something really difficult with you. But before I do, I need to know that you’ll hold this in confidence, that you won’t shame me, and that you won’t try to fix it or even make me feel better. I just need you to sit with me and let me feel this. Can you do that?”

When life is painful, you don’t need a God who is disconnected from the harsh realities of daily life. You need a suffering Savior. - via @iamsteveaustin

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By Steve Austin

Steve Austin is an author, speaker, and life coach who is passionate about helping overwhelmed people learn to catch their breath. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers, "Catching Your Breath," and "From Pastor to a Psych Ward." Steve lives with his wife and two children in Birmingham, Alabama.