Struggling or Suffering?

Scripture is filled with images of struggling and suffering. But while we often use these two words interchangeably, they’re two very different things. When I struggle, I’m wrestling with an opponent. When I suffer, I’m losing in my fight against that opponent, and painfully so. Each one requires a different perspective.

First let’s take a look at struggling. While it certainly doesn’t feel like it sometimes, just about every struggle actually involves a looming victory. Perhaps the victory has already been partially achieved!

We struggle because we’re so close.

The finish line is in sight! We know what we need to do. We know where we need to get. We aren’t beaten! We aren’t defeated! We’re simply having difficulty as we push towards the goal. And we’re making hard-fought progress. The “struggle” is the resistance we feel as we near that goal.

Not that I’ve already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my final goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Jesus Christ.

Philippians 3:12-14

That’s Paul struggling. That’s how he pictures it, explains it. That’s how he thinks of it. A race with a goal, and the struggle is his striving for that goal.

A recovering alcoholic struggles with addiction. They see the goal of complete sobriety that continues to be set… they’re aware of how to remain vigilant and successful. Yet they will always feel, in one way or another, the strong or slight gravitational pull of the bottle or bar. They aren’t currently falling prey to their temptation. Perhaps they occasionally — and with great remorse — “slip” thanks to good ol’ fashioned human weakness. But they are by and large holding true to their convictions and pressing toward their goal. Even with alcoholism clutching onto their flesh, warring with their spirit.

Struggling is typically glimpsed in the Bible when a person finds him or herself locked in a physical or spiritual battle and has to fight — hard — to obtain victory. This sometimes invites God’s direct intervention. Think of Paul and Silas being miraculously freed from prison in the midst of their struggle. However, at other times, a struggling person does not receive a direct intervention from God, but instead has to utilize his or her innate God-given gifts. Think of David killing lions, bears and, oh yeah, a giant. Or Peter or Paul moving in their gifts to minister, spread the gospel, and see people by the thousands saved. Their victories are all still in God, but He allowed them to move in their own talents and abilities, through His Spirit and their service.

Now let’s take a look at the enemy we definitely don’t like to look at, much less deal with: Suffering. He has many faces, some physically repulsive, some ever worse… all of them straight out of a nightmare. And he has no qualms putting you through as much pain as he can devise.

Suffering comes, inherently, when we are losing the fight. Or losing ground. Or losing ourselves. Unlike struggling, which occurs while we’re moving forward, suffering rears its ugly head when we’re stagnant. Or stuck. Falling down. Or being yanked backwards. Suffering is the pain we feel when we try to struggle forward but can’t seem to move an inch. When we can’t take a step, or get up, or make headway. When we can’t escape our prison and God doesn’t seem to be sending any earthquakes or angels to snap the chains and open the doors.

Trapped, with deep pain and even deeper heartache, we suffer.

We suffer when we feel despair. When we don’t see a way forward. When the hurt and the misery seems too massive to bear. When we feel as if our end is in sight. As if we couldn’t possibly overcome whatever enemy has us in its clutches.

I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I don’t understand what I do. For what I want to do, I don’t do, but what I hate, I do… As it is, it’s no longer I myself who do it, but rather sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I can’t carry it out. For I don’t do the good I want to do, but the evil I don’t want to do. I keep on doing it… 

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature, I’m a slave to the law of sin…

excerpts from Romans 7:14-25

“What a wretched man I am!” That’s Paul suffering. He loses to sin. Constantly as it were. And he hates himself for being so weak, so susceptible. When it comes to the goal of living sinlessly like his Lord and Savior, Paul is failing and, as he makes oh so clear… failing miserably.

In II Corinthians 12, we learn of another thing that’s causing Paul to suffer: a “thorn” in his flesh. We aren’t told if it’s a physical ailment like a deteriorating vertebrae, a spiritual issue akin to lingering pride from his Pharisee days, or something more daunting. What we are told is that it causes Paul to suffer.

So much so that he begs God to remove it.

And God removes it! Promptly!

And Paul lived happily ever after.

Or not.

God instead makes it clear to Paul that 1) He put the thorn there, 2) it’s not going anywhere, and, my favorite part, 3) the thorn has a purpose.

It causes Paul to suffer. Horribly. Paul can’t possibly overcome it and God explicitly states He isn’t going to miraculously intervene and remove it. So… what then?

Let’s pull back and take a broader look at struggling and suffering.

God allows me to struggle because struggling makes me stronger, teaches me to rely on Him, opens my eyes to the spiritual truths and lessons around me, and forces me to face the fact that I’m not enough.

God allows me to suffer because these things… um… make me stronger… teach me to rely on Him… open my eyes to the spiritual truths and lessons around me… and… um… force me to face the fact that I’m not enough?

Doesn’t that make suffering and struggling the same thing?

Let’s try that a different way.

God allows me to struggle because struggling makes me stronger… when I’m pushing forward and achieving my hard-fought goal. It teaches me to rely on Him… even when I’m making progress in the race. It opens my eyes to the spiritual truths and lessons around me… so I don’t start to assume my forward momentum is of my own doing. And it forces me to face the fact that I’m not enough… so that, later, if I find myself in the midst of suffering, I turn to Him. I turn to Him when moving forward… I turn to Him when stuck or falling down.

God allows me to suffer because suffering makes me stronger… when I can’t possibly win or charm my way out of a situation. It teaches me to rely on Him… even when I’m literally making no progress whatsoever. It opens my eyes to the spiritual truths and lessons around me… when all I can see with my human eyes is doom, gloom pain and heartache. And it forces me to face the fact that I’m not enough… so that, later, when I do begin to move forward… to make progress… I remember to keep my focus on Him. So that I remember to look to Him when moving forward as much, if not more so, as I did when I was stuck in the prison of suffering.

Do you see it?

Struggling and suffering are different, yet God uses them to accomplish the same glorious work in our lives! He is ever present, ever alert, ever faithful, ever powerful, and everlasting. He is our God in times of plenty, times of struggle, and times of suffering. He remains the same today, tomorrow and forever. His love never fails. His mercies never cease. His promises are never broken. His love is never lifted from us. He reigns and can never be unseated.

Now… if only we could remember that when struggling.

If only we could remember that when suffering.

Imagine how wonderful a life that would be…

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6

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