Editor’s note: Brandon Braun formerly served as senior pastor of River Valley Christian Church. In December, that congregation voted to come under the leadership of Southeast Christian Church and is now Southeast Christian Church River Valley Campus. Brandon now is part of the Southeast staff family serving as a pastor.
Aug. 8, 2018, was my last “normal” day.
Things had been going great at the church where I served. I returned home from my yearly preaching retreat confident they were going to get even better. Better still, my wife and I were weeks away from the birth of our fourth child. To quote Gershwin, “Who could ask for anything more?”
And then came Aug. 9.
That morning, I found myself in the hospital. I had started experiencing severe pain in my side in the middle of the night. Thinking it was something simple, I drove myself to the emergency room, figuring they would give me the once over and send me home. Yet, test after test revealed nothing. But a doctor soon shared the terrible truth: I had leukemia.
Not only did I have leukemia, but I had an aggressive kind that would require aggressive treatment. The way my doctor put it, the road ahead wouldn’t be a sprint; it would be a marathon.
In the months since then, I’ve come to see how true those words were. I have gone through four cycles of chemotherapy, fought a bout with pneumonia that landed me in the ICU and had a bone marrow transplant. If this journey has been a marathon, it’s one that’s been run on a rollercoaster track, full of turns and twists we never saw coming.
In the next month or so, doctors will begin testing to see if the leukemia is gone, but so far, every indication has been good and my recovery has been ahead of schedule.
All of this has made me wonder about the nature of our suffering. Why do bad things happen? More importantly, how should we approach them when they do happen?
In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul writes about the idea of stewardship. Now, he’s not talking about stewardship in terms of tithing. The chapter is full of words like “servants” and “managers.” Paul presents the truth that all of life is stewardship. Everything we have comes from God and will ultimately return to Him.
It’s at the end of the chapter that Paul takes an interesting turn:
“Even now we go hungry and thirsty, and we don’t have enough clothes to keep warm. We are often beaten and have no home. We work wearily with our own hands to earn our living. We bless those who curse us. We are patient with those who abuse us. We appeal gently when evil things are said about us” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13a NLT).
Paul’s view of stewardship included suffering. When he and his companions lacked the basic necessities, their resolve to keep going was an act of stewardship. When people said untrue things about Paul, his response was an act of stewardship. By sharing this view of hardships, Paul presents us with one of the most beautiful and difficult truths about suffering: Suffering is a matter of stewardship.
Like I said, that’s a difficult truth—particularly in the middle of suffering. Yet, we would have to admit that our suffering is something our sovereign God has allowed into our lives. That means we need to handle it with care. We can’t just dismiss our suffering as an anomaly or an accident. We have to approach it as though it has purpose.
It’s then we discover the beautiful part of that truth. Our suffering is not meaningless. Our hardships are not hollow. We can find some meaning in the middle of them. More than that, we can find Someone in the midst of them.
Our Master has not left His stewards on their own. If the cross shows us anything, it is that Jesus is right here in the mess with us.
Suffering is stewardship.
So, how do we steward suffering well? I wish I could fully answer that question. Still, I think there are a couple areas we can focus on as we attempt to steward our suffering.
Focus on the “what?”
What is the first question we ask in times of suffering? “Why? Why is God doing this to me?” We want God to explain Himself. But what if we changed the question?
Instead of asking “why?” ask “what?” Specifically, “What does God have for me in the midst of this? What could God be up to here?” It’s often hard for us to see God’s hand in the midst of our suffering. Part of the reason is because we are so concerned with what is happening to us that we fail to consider what God might want to do in us.
Asking ourselves the “what?” question puts us in a posture of expectation, allowing us to better see how God might be leading us.
Focus on others
When we’re experiencing pain, we are prone to lash out in bitterness, sarcasm and anger. Notice, however, how Paul responded to people as he dealt with his own difficulties. There in 1 Corinthians 4, he uses words like “bless” and “patient” to describe how he treated the people who were causing his suffering.
We cannot properly steward our trials if we fail to treat others in a Christ-like way. So, we extend grace even when we feel attacked. We share kindness even though our own pain may be overwhelming. Just because we’re suffering doesn’t mean we have to make others suffer.
Focus on the end
One of the hardest parts of suffering comes from the uncertainty it causes. There often is no way for us to know how our suffering will end. And yet, the Bible assures us that we do know how it ends. Revelation 21:4 reminds us we are destined for a world with no more death or mourning or crying or pain.
We are headed for a world without suffering. In our darkest days, that may be the only hope we have. One day, we get to take all the suffering and pain—all the cancer, the Alzheimer’s, the broken bodies and the hurt hearts—and set it at the feet of Jesus.
No matter what, our suffering isn’t terminal. We are merely its stewards, and our Master gets the final say.