2016 is quickly coming to an end, and many of us couldn’t be more ecstatic. Although a new year doesn’t necessarily change situations, the fresh start comes at a good time. This has been a year in which the world has witnessed senseless violence, disregard for life, natural disasters, religious contention, financial emergencies, and so much more. Some of what we’ve seen has been on a global level, but I’d be remiss not to acknowledge that much of this year’s suffering has occurred behind closed doors.
Whether 2016 held many personal highlights or several intense challenges, a quick glance at the news or a social media feed confirms what we already know: life can be indescribably tough.
Suffering is not a 21st century phenomenon. The apostle Paul endured unthinkable hardships, and in Romans 8 he addressed the Christian perspective of the universal reality of suffering. Paul made one of the chapter’s main points in Romans 8:18: present suffering, he claimed, is not worth comparing with future glory. There’s no contest. His argument is not that everything will even out in the end; it’s that future glory will be so glorious that present suffering will no longer seem noteworthy.
Paul also wrote that “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17). Admittedly, at first it seems like Paul is being insensitive, but what he’s doing is actually the opposite. When a deep, legitimate sufferer like Paul speaks on the topic of pain, people usually listen. Because of his experiences, Paul was able to make these bold statements, not to downplay the pain of suffering, but to demonstrate the gloriousness of glory. It’s precisely because he endured the most extreme kinds of suffering that Paul was able to prove his point, namely that no matter how bad things are now, coming redemption, restoration, comfort, and glory will eternally overshadow all our earthly heartache.
In all of this, Paul doesn’t call us to turn a blind eye to suffering. He doesn’t encourage us to deny reality or to minimize pain. He does, however, exhort us not so dismayed by the way things are that we forget to live in light of the way things will be.
I once heard my pastor say, “God, in His sovereignty, allows us to experience suffering, in part, to keep us from falling in love with the world.” Suffering has a way of reminding us that this world isn’t our home – we weren’t created to experience grief, loss, and pain. It can cause us to anticipate eternity and to be eager for Jesus’ return.
Also noteworthy is that suffering is a universal reality – no one is exempt. F.F. Bruce wrote, “‘Suffering now, glory hereafter’ is a recurring New Testament theme, and one that corresponded to the realities of early Christian life.” Difficulties also unite us with our Savior who suffered on our behalf. As Sinclair Ferguson once said, “Jesus came without sin, but not without suffering.”
Unfortunately, turning a page on a calendar doesn’t erase the devastation many have experienced in the previous year. It won’t bring back loved ones or automatically end war. It isn’t a guaranteed deposit into a bank account or assurance of improved health. As we enter a new year, what we do know is that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). And if that isn’t great news for the start of 2017, I don’t know what is.