Reality, to a large degree, is constructed subjectively through the processes of the mind. “Facts” are perceived; variables of that perception shape an interpretation; and these interpretations ultimately serve to shape a person’s experiential reality. By no means does this diminish the fact that objective, absolute truth exists, but it is important to recognize that this process of perception, interpretation, and conclusion has a significant impact on the way people experience life. Understanding this can have a profound impact on helping people walk through difficult seasons of suffering.
A fascinating example of this is seen in the book of Mark:
“And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” (Mark 4:37-41)
The disciples and Jesus were engulfed in an objectively shared experience, but subjectively, they each experienced this moment very differently. The disciples were fearful and panicky while Jesus was relaxed to the point of sleep. For the disciples, their perception seems pretty accurate: “We’re in a raging storm, and in danger of going under.” But their interpretation of the situation completely enslaved them to fear and dread. From reading the account, their interpretation must have been something along these lines, “We’re in a horrible storm, and we’re going to die!” Their seeming admonishment of Jesus reflects this, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (v.38). On the other hand, Jesus responded to the situation with complete power and authority.
What was the missing variable in the disciples’ interpretation of the situation? It was faith. Jesus rebuked them for this asking, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” (v. 40). The Creator of the cosmos sat in physical form with them on the boat, in the storm, but their lack of faith in him caused them to miss the amazing providential moment of mercy that was unfolding right before their eyes. Jesus was there, and safety was imminent.
How does this translate into helping others who are going through difficulty and suffering? Let’s consider two implications:
The Variable of the Gospel Forces a Reinterpretation of EVERYTHING
Typical responses to suffering tend to foster contempt for and doubt in God. It is not unusual for me to hear statements (from Christians who are suffering) like: “Why is God punishing me?” “What did I do to deserve this from God?” “Why is God abandoning me?” “If God is such a good God, why is he allowing such evil in my life?” “I am very angry with God.” These responses expose a profound distortion in the flow of one’s perceptions, interpretations, and conclusions. While the perception that life is difficult, even grueling, demands enormous compassion from the counselor, the leap from this to the “God-is-against-me” type thinking demands extensive consideration. For example, like the disciples, these responses assume God is either asleep or apathetic to the situation. The interpretation is not simply that life is difficult, but that since it is difficult, God doesn’t care, or even worse, is working against them.
This myopic translation of reality completely expunges the “Gospel-at-work” dynamic from the person’s experience of suffering. If we help them bring the Gospel variable into the scene, the nature of God, from careless and cruel, is transformed into the realization that He is actually amazing and merciful. The person with the “God-is-against-me” mentality is going to have a very difficult time responding to suffering with humility and trust unless the light of truth is shed upon their experience in such a way that His mercy is meaningfully revealed.
The truth of the matter is that during moments or seasons of suffering, and particularly in the context of sinful responses to suffering, the Gospel is perpetually at work. When accusations against God are being catapulted from the heart, waging war against Him, and when anger and doubt are the predominant themes as it concerns one’s attitude towards God, the finished work of the Cross is stunningly active. Rather than being condemned for such responses, God ascribes to the one sinning the very righteousness of Jesus. God actually treats the suffering saint (with a sinful attitude) as though he or she is responding with perfect obedience to and faith in God. God examines all the doubt, anger, fear, and hostility directed at Him through the prism of the Gospel, and treats the individual as though he or she were responding with the very perfection of Jesus. In essence, in our weakness and sinful responses, we act like the disciples in the boat, but are viewed by God as though we were responding with the perfection of Jesus. Even further, Jesus took upon himself our guilt as though He were the one responding without faith in a loving Father.
This realization of the Gospel in the midst of suffering forces a reinterpretation of the God of the Bible. Suffering is no longer viewed as His divine lightning bolt intended to punish or curse the afflicted, but is understood as a divine context that is intended to radiate the glory of His love and mercy. As this reality crystallizes in the heart, people’s view of God changes. Where their Gospel-void interpretation once influenced their conclusion of God as the arbiter of pain as a means to justice, they now understand their pain as a means to understand His infinite grace resulting in the freedom to genuinely conclude He is truly a God that is good. They realize His mercy flourishing through suffering in that they were desperate in their weakness for the imputed righteousness of Christ, and that God was eager to offer it as a means to magnify His infinite love for them as they endure life in a fallen world.
As such, the variable of the Gospel completely reinterprets the entire scene of the narrative elevating God as a compassionate Father of His own. Furthermore, he is realized as a Person who demands absolute honor and obedience compelling the believer to repentance where sin has abounded in his or her response to suffering.
The Gospel Actualizes Christ-Like Responses in Real-Time
Not only is the Gospel at work by imparting the righteousness of Jesus to the believer, the message of the Gospel is also about actually changing human hearts. If we were to put this in modern, Western terminology, the Gospel is about conforming believers to the image of Christ, therefore empowering them towards true psychological health; this psychological health not being conceptualized through a Western view of psychological health and research, but understood and determined by the very nature of Jesus Christ.
Jesus was emotionally, mentally, and spiritually perfect. Therefore, he responded to suffering perfectly. As believers are conformed to His image, these aspects of human nature are being radically healed and transformed. Consider the words of James, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:24). Here, James is touching the same theme as Jesus did with His disciples in the boat: faith.
Suffering has a purpose, and that purpose is to create people of faith who are complete and lacking in nothing. It is a means of healing by conforming people to the image of Jesus. Basically, it is the trial that He uses as His instrument to equip believers in responding with a faith reflective of Jesus. Can you imagine what life would be like if you or those you serve faced marital struggles, depression, anxiety, or illness with the faith of Christ? It feels nearly inconceivable as to how this would change the experience we call life. But this is God’s commitment to His own, and it is through suffering that He is mercifully accomplishing His work of healing and transformation in the hearts of believers. Therefore, suffering should not be viewed as the wrath of God upon His children, but as the tool He uses to create beings who relate perfectly to Him in glory and honor. It is a means to help Christians learn to live with their minds set on the things of the Spirit; something Paul taught would bring life and peace (Romans 8:6).
Suffering: A Delicate Reality
As I write this blog, I recognize it barely touches the complexities of human suffering. Therefore, as you consider what is written, avoid making these things into formulaic, emotionally insensitive methods for counseling. The Gospel is rich, and effective for change. However, we as counselors must always be eager to weep with those who weep, and resist any tendencies of scripting the process of redemption for those we serve.
Human change operates on the divine timetable of a sovereign God, and we must submit to His will as we walk with others. Biblical truth brings freedom, but we must speak this truth in love with a keen sensitivity to the exterior and interior struggles that influence confusion about God and the human experience. Even more, we understand that it is God who will bring ultimate understanding, freedom, and peace in the time He has allotted. May we always humbly walk in light of this reality.