Suffering is a very difficult topic. When people talk about suffering, they often focus on what they are going through rather than how it is an opportunity to grow in the grace of God. Still others focus on their circumstances to the point where they push God out of the equation. Suffering is an opportunity to grow in the grace of God. When we consider suffering we first need to look at Jesus. The Old Testament prophesied that Jesus would come and die a bloody death in the place of sinners for their sin (Isaiah 53). The New Testament records how Jesus fulfilled this promise by coming as the God-man to live, to die, to rise from the dead, and to ascend to the right hand of God where He is now our Intercessor, Mediator, King, and Lord over all (1 Corinthians 15:1-10).
The key to suffering well as a Christian is to grab hold of the suffering of Jesus. In the Gospels, we see Jesus suffering unjust criticism, experiencing a great deal of opposition to His teaching, and even bleeding after praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. While the popular picture of Jesus is one of a cute and cuddly Jesus who will do you no harm, the Jesus of the New Testament is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, confronting sin, rebuking the religious while also demonstrating compassion for those who are hurting. If we are going to suffer well and count the cost of following Jesus in all of life, then we must have a fully-developed understanding of Jesus from His Word.
You may read the previous two paragraphs and think, “What do you know about suffering? Aren’t you just a seminary educated 32 year old young man with very little life experience?” I understand the question, and trust me the thought has crossed my mind more often than not– what do I really know about suffering? I am not going to sit here and tell you I know a lot about suffering, but I do know something of it. I know when my parents got divorced it took me five years to get over it. I know when I saw my parents fighting while growing up, I suffered. I know that when my dad left my family for six years, my family and I suffered. Coming to grips with my dad and dealing with his dementia in the past year has been a huge battle and a cause of suffering for my family and I. While I am not the expert on suffering and admit that I am young, in my time on earth I have experienced suffering. I write not as an expert in suffering, but as a pilgrim, as one who has suffered and will continue to suffer. In other words, I write to come alongside you with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Suffering is not easy and is the result of living in a fallen world. One day all suffering and disease will end, but until that day, there will be suffering. Some people view that as cruel– why would God allow suffering? People often lament, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The problem with this question is not just the perspective of it, but the fact that it is the wrong question. Rather than asking this question we should ask, “Why do we sin?” When we ask that question we come face-to-face with the fact that we are sinners. If we ignore our fallen nature and focus instead to the problem of evil, we miss the point. Evil exists in the world as a direct consequence to our sin. Adam sinned and the Bible records the result and consequence of that sin is death (Romans 3:23; Romans 5; 6:23). Death, destruction, disease, and suffering all began in the Garden of Eden, but one day they will all end at the second coming of Christ. Death, suffering, and disease are only temporary, but the Lord Jesus is eternal and unchanging.
How do we deal with family members who are suffering? First, understand that all disease is the direct result of the sinful nature of man and the sinful world we live in. The erosion of my dad’s brain will cause him to become impaired to the point at which he will no longer function. In other words, my family will visibly see the awful effects and consequences of sin. Second, apply your identity in Christ. There are days where it is hard to deal with the disease from which my dad suffers. Yet, understanding that we have a Savior who suffered, bled, and died in our place and rose again helps us to hold onto hope, knowing that this is not our final home. Conversely, our final home is a renewing and restoring place where God dwells with His people and sin and death are no more. Third, ask people to pray for you. I have asked my church family and friends to be praying for me. Ask people to pray for you and keep them updated as circumstances change. This will create a community around you that can care for and pray with you. I know that as my dad progresses with this disease, having others praying with me will become increasingly important for me and the rest of my family. I’m also thankful that my wife is very supportive as she prays with me and listens when I’m hurting about my dad.
Finally, dealing with those with mental illness is just plain hard. I won’t sugar coat-it for you and say that it will get better because I’d be lying. Yes God can intervene and heal and do a miraculous work of His grace, and yet we live in a fallen world. As noted earlier, our true home is not this fallen and decaying earth; it is instead a place Jesus is preparing for us, a place where issues of sin and death will be gone forever. As believers, our citizenship is in Heaven (Phil 3:20). We are pilgrims on a journey of grace with Jesus at the lead as the captain of our salvation. Grow in your faith by reading your Bible that you might grow in your understanding of the work of Jesus on your behalf. Doing so will enable you to persevere when difficult trails like I’m going through come your way. Additionally, reading your Bible will provide you the ability to find your identity in Christ. If you haven’t already, become involved with a community of godly Christians who can pray with you, encourage you and care for you as you go through trials. I know this approach has helped me cope with my dad’s dementia and I pray that if you are experiencing this that it will help you also.