I had a vivid moment when I was growing up. My parents were pastors and they were struggling significantly in their marriage. I was young, maybe six years old, and felt a lot of uncertainty, fear, and pain in seeing them struggle and not knowing what the outcome was going to be. Would they stay together? Would they divorce? I remember kneeling at that age and asking Jesus to come and help—just kneeling in my room by myself—and receiving a lot of comfort. It was a really sweet moment. Things did not get resolved right away, but my parents’ marriage was eventually restored and there was a lot of fruit that came out of that crisis. So I was able to see God’s restoration firsthand, and how he was hearing my prayers and accompanying me all along. That was a key moment for me. Later in my life, while praying, I felt the Spirit saying, “I planted devotion through that suffering.” Although there was a lot of struggle in my suffering, there was something deep being planted about relating to Jesus in those difficult moments of my early life.
Three years ago my dad died unexpectedly. He was a very influential person in my life; we were really close. I always remember thinking, whenever my dad passes away, I’ll probably experience depression. Even beforehand, I knew it would probably be one of the most difficult things I would encounter because of the relationship I had with him.
But in that season of deep grief after my dad’s death, I sensed God’s invitation—an invitation to consecrate this grief for Kingdom-producing life.
What do I mean by that? I don’t mean diminishing the grief; losing my dad was very painful. But I found there could be fruit in God’s Kingdom and in my relationship with God through my pain. Experiencing God’s consolation and finding his Kingdom life in the middle of the grief made it less dark.
I believe we can all suffer in a way that produces life for the Kingdom.
Here are some things I’ve learned about what that kind of suffering looks like.
1. Suffering that produces Kingdom life is done in the context of a real, honest, relationship with God.
Facing real struggles with honesty can transform the knowledge and experience that I have about myself and about God. The struggle can produce a lot of fruit and intimacy. In the struggle there is possibility for movement and growth. Honesty about how we feel about God, being genuine about the “disintegration” of some concepts of our theology, acknowledging that sometimes we feel God is distant or want to hide from him, being angry with him at times, a lack of understanding and trust in him, and other elements, are part of an authentic, life-producing relationship. God can handle all this, and he will faithfully accompany us through all the seasons of suffering.
If we can go through all the struggle and messiness of pain in the context of relationship with God, then even the darkest moments of struggle can bring life because they’re feeding the relationship. This is true in human relationships, also. If I’m fighting with my husband for a good reason, it’s actually feeding our relationship. The conflict or doubts I have are connecting us, because we’re going to each other to work through it. I believe that kind of struggle can be part of our relationship with God, and that he really longs for an honest relationship with us.
2. Suffering that produces Kingdom life will include times of new consolation, healing, and experiences with God.
Pain sometimes distorts theology; it just messes with our understanding of God. Pain undermines our confidence in the goodness of God. I think this is normal, if we don’t get stuck there. When we’re struggling with pain, the invitation is to express our pain and wait on him for new consolation and new and fresh revelation of who he is.
It’s possible to express what our heart is feeling (i.e. “I’m not sure that I really trust you in this. I’m not sure that you’re really taking care of me in this situation.”) and then to have this holy pause to wait for what God wants to say to us. King David is our role model here. He poured out his heart authentically, received consolation and truth from God, and then was able to remember who God was in the midst of suffering.
I love how Hebrews 4:15-16 encourages us: “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.” In my Spanish version, it says “walk up to him to find timely help.” This is a reminder that I don’t have to live off the help I received two weeks ago or yesterday. I can go to him for the help I need right now.
3. Suffering that produces Kingdom life guards against victimhood.
I try to guard myself and other people against victimhood. I don’t have the most painful story compared to some people, but I think we all have felt a little victimized at different moments—by someone or some circumstance. Victimhood takes us from the path of life to another path that doesn’t bring life, and I have seen people stay in victimhood for so long. It’s a cyclical path, just going around and around without hope.
So in my painful circumstances I try to remember that I’m a daughter and that there’s purpose or redemption, that there is a bigger picture that I don’t see. Of course, if I was with someone who had just been victimized I wouldn’t say, “Snap out of your victimhood and move forward.” There’s some grieving that we have to do. But we can’t stay there. We have to remember who we are and remember who God is, remember that we can learn and grow and be strengthened by him.
4. Suffering that produces Kingdom life keeps moving toward hope and life.
In suffering, I think the end goal of the enemy is to take us away from a path of life and lead us onto a path of death—not physical death, but a place where there’s darkness, no hope, no movement, no joy, and no relationship. Suffering will try to derail us from the path of life and the abundance that Jesus has for us.
Suffering on the path of life doesn’t mean denial or that you’re numbing yourself. You can face the fact that this place is awful. You feel it all. You have to go through the valley with the pain and the grief. But walking through the valley on the path of life means you don’t get stuck there. You continue to move forward, in a relationship with God, with hope, and even with abundance. Surprising as it sounds, I experienced a lot of abundance in my journey through suffering. God was abundant in consolation, comfort, peace, grace, hope, and in receiving my pain. He was enough because of how he held me through it. This is a different kind of abundance than what we often think of, but it’s right there.
5. Suffering that produces Kingdom life connects us to others.
If we posture ourselves to suffer on the path of life, it brings relationship, hope, abundance, and also community. Struggling in the company of safe people has been a key part of my journey. My story of suffering intersects other people’s stories. Suffering can even connect us to other parts of the world where there is great suffering.
When I returned home after my dad passed, after a week of recovering physically I felt the Spirit saying, “Will you prayer walk?” “What? Why do you want me to prayer walk? I don’t have the strength to fight a battle.” But I did as he asked. And as I was praying and walking God said, “Would you take your grief with you, and would you call for all the people who are grieving to connect their grief to Jesus? Pray for the people, for the region, for Spain—that has so much hidden grief—to find divine appointments and moments where they can connect their grief with a relationship with me and not blame me for all the grief they’re experiencing.”
Grief and suffering connect us to others in a mysterious way. They connect us with others and their stories, but they also connect us to the depths of suffering in the world in this season before heaven. Our suffering will connect us to Christians who are suffering, and also non-believers who are suffering. It’s a common theme of all humanity, no matter where we live.
We know that we will encounter suffering of many types. Jesus told us so. So let’s ask him to help us when we suffer. Let’s consecrate our suffering to the Kingdom so that it produces fruit: fruit in our relationship with God as we experience comfort and growth in our struggles, and fruit in our relationships with others.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Doralicia Gonzales and her husband, Randy, have served with CRM since 1997. They began their work in Venezuela, then Costa Rica, and now live in Málaga, Spain. Doralicia works with CRM’s Ethne collective, walking alongside emerging and missional leaders. She and Randy live in Málaga with their two daughters, Abigail and Sophia.