There was a recent thread about suffering on a discussion board I frequent. The question had something to do with why some Christians seem to have constant adversity and suffering in their lives while others seem to have it easy. It made me think about why we suffer and how we should pray in the midst of it.
Why do we suffer?
1) Suffering can be result of the natural outcome of sin: The inevitable consequence of sin is some kind of suffering whether emotional or physical. Since we are all sinners, we will eventually suffer. While believers will not face the final judgment for sin, the sowing and reaping principle laid out in Scripture still holds true.
2) Suffering can be the result of someone else's sin: Often we suffer because those around us sin, and through no fault of our own, trials come into our lives. Persecution falls into this category.
3) We suffer because our enemy attacks: Jesus said that our adversary is going about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. This is the example we find in the book of Job.
4) Suffering comes about so that we may know Christ better: For the believer, we suffer because it brings us closer to our Lord Jesus Christ. While a non-believer suffers with no relief, the believer has the promise that God will take his trials and turn them around for his good. He also tells us that when we fellowship in the sufferings of Christ, we come to know Him in a deeper way. That is why Paul the apostle said he rejoiced in his trials.
This brings us back to the topic of this discussion. How should we react in times of suffering? How do I react? And what is the role of prayer in suffering?
So often when I am faced with suffering, my first reaction (after trying to worm my way out of it) is to complain about it. "Poor me. See me suffering? My life is so awful." etc. My prayer life is not much different. It usually goes something like this, "Dear Lord, please show me what to do; please give me direction." While there is nothing wrong with asking God to give us direction, and we should, I have to admit that many times what I am really asking God is to show me the way out.
While praying in a recent situation where my family is under great suffering and pressure, the message of Philippians chapter 3 and 4 began to take on a new meaning, especially in regard to prayer. Chapter 3 teaches that our highest goal in life is to know Christ, chapter 4 gives us a practical application of that truth and teaches us how to pray.
6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV)
When we come to God in prayer in the midst of suffering (and every time we pray), we are to put aside our anxiety. When the path in front of us looks the darkest, and we don't think we can bear it any longer, we must remind ourselves that God is sovereign, and He would never allow us to pass through anything (good or bad) without bring out something far better. (Romans 8:28).
We not only come with our prayers, i.e. asking God for something (like get me out of this), but we also come with supplications which have to do with petitioning God for our personal need. So often, we begin and finish our adversity prayers with God show me what to do, but we don't tell Him our real need. He is a loving Father, and His greatest desire is for our good, but ultimately fellowship with Him.
We also come to God praying with thanksgiving for what He is going to accomplish in our trial. It is an attitude of faith. We are expecting God to do exceedingly, abundantly above all we could ask or think. In my recent trials, God reminded me of this verse in Jeremiah 33:
3 Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not. (KJV)
In this thanksgiving prayer, we also realize that Christ has promised to be with us in our suffering. He does not let us go through our trials alone. He is there comforting us, guiding us and directing us, even when we don't realize it.
When we learn that prayer in adversity is more than crying out to God for relief, our prayers turn from "God get me out of this." to "Lord, I know You are in control of the circumstances. I know You allowed these things to happen, even though I don't understand Your purposes. I need You, here is my problem (lay it out to Him, the neighbor stole the cash I have and I won't be able to feed my family, or my husband is dying with cancer, and he doesn't know You, etc.) Father, I thank You for what You are going to do because You promised good will come out of this circumstance. Thank you that are walking through this with me. Thank You that I will know my Lord better, etc."
As the book of James teaches, we often do not see our prayers answered because we "ask amiss so that we may consume it upon our lusts." In other words, we ask for the wrong things so that we can get what we want to satisfy our fleshly desires. I would submit that while relief from pain is a natural desire, and it is not wrong to ask for relief (and we should), our prayer should also be that God would deepen our walk with Him while dealing with the pain. And we should be thanking Him that He will give us no more than we can endure.
God has been teaching me this lesson as I have been walking through the dark days He is taking me through. I am amazed (though I shouldn't be) at how quickly He has answered my prayers, and how good He has been to me in the midst of it. May it be the same for you.