When Suffering Sets Us Free

  In the summer of 2008, my father stole my identity.

He racked up thousands of dollars on a couple of credit cards. A week later, I learned that a house my wife and I purchased was going into foreclosure because my father, the mortgage broker on the sale and the current property manager, was keeping the rent checks for himself instead of paying the bank.

I thought that this was the worst it could get. Then I ended up in a jail cell, on the receiving end of a federal investigation.

My dad, on the pretenses of what we thought was helping me and my wife out while in seminary, came up with an idea to buy a house. He was a mortgage broker, and my dad, so we trusted him. However, he used us to lie and defraud money out of lending companies and apparently, he did this with many other people. He was the ring leader of a massive fraud scheme, and the total amount of money he stole was in the millions.

The FBI eventually was able to catch up with him. Wanting to get a better deal from the government, he claimed that I was his accomplice. The more guilt he cast on others, the more lenient the prosecution would be in their recommendation of his sentencing, so it was in his best interest to lie and tell the authorities that I was just as guilty. The FBI eventually charged me and arrested me. My own father would be their star witness against me.

Without Hope

We lived in this horror for about a year and a half. We often didn’t have hope. We wanted to give up. I was in deep, dark depression.

While in jail, I wondered, how do I live a normal life when you don’t know if the next four years (the prison term, if found guilty) will be in separation from my wife? How do I provide for her and love her then? If I was found guilty of this crime that I was absolutely innocent of, what does that mean for me, being a pastor with a felony?

I often wondered, “Is God good? Does he love me?”

Eighteen months later, my case finally came to trial. If you have never been in a trial on the federal level, there is one word to describe it: intimidating. Okay, maybe two words: intimidating and exhausting. After a week that felt more like a year, the prosecution rested their case. The judge dismissed the case, saying that no evidence was brought against me to warrant me being there. I was free!

The judge looked me in the eye and said, “Son, you are free to go.”

What Was God Doing?

The betrayal I experienced was off the charts. The depression I experienced was immense. My wife and I had no category to process any of this; we were living life in a state of shock. If we could have ignored it, covered it up or forgotten about it, we would have. But we couldn’t. It was always there, festering in the back of our minds and haunting us.

It often felt like God didn’t know what he was doing. It felt like he didn’t have a purpose in our pain. Yet, a passage that helped us make sense of this was 2 Corinthians 1:3-7:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.”

According to Paul in this passage, God’s mission in suffering is to comfort us, to comfort others, and to draw us near.

1. God Comforts Us

This passage talks much of comfort, but it is scary. It’s scary because the context of comfort is found in affliction. That means we are going to experience suffering. Sometimes we think that certain aspects of suffering are self-deserved or out of God’s limits, but this passage promises comfort in “all our affliction” because God is the God of “all comfort.” It is universal in scope. So even when there doesn’t seem to be a way out, when you are not in control, or even if your suffering is the product of your own sin, our good Father still promises comfort for his children.

And let’s get comfort right. Sometimes when we think about comfort we think about some form of a supernatural Snuggie, offering a mere reprieve from the troubles of this world. But this word 'comfort' comes with a sense of exhortation, of encouragement and the call to action.

This is no opiate of the masses; it is strength for the broken. God's comfort strengthens weak knees and sustains sagging shoulders so that one faces the troubles of life with unbending resolve and unending assurance.

My wife and I experienced many lows when going through my trial, but God gave us moments of supernatural comfort; comfort that allowed us to survive for that day.

Some of this might be seen as backward. Why would God allow suffering? After all, if he’s God, couldn’t he just cut out the middle man and give us comfort without the suffering? Instead of placing the problem with God, maybe the problem is with us. Franz Kafka has a great quote about books that applies even more to suffering: “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.”

Suffering must be that ice-axe. Sometimes parts of us are so frozen and arctic that we need an axe to break us. At this point, it’s an axe of mercy, though the initial strike does hurt.

2. God Comforts Others

Though the comfort we receive from God is to see his glory extend over the whole earth to all types and kinds of people in all places. At first glance, suffering seems to be the opposite of this mission. But Paul teaches us that the comfort we get is for a purpose. We are objects of grace “so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction.” Our comfort is not just for us! When you receive comfort in suffering it isn’t just for you, it’s for others. Paul makes it personal saying that if he and Timothy run into trouble it’s for the sake of the church at Corinth. And if they get comfort in their trouble, it’s for the sake of the church at Corinth. There is an astonishing level of Christian solidarity being played out in Paul’s life.

How can Paul say this? How can I say this? Is it merely mustering up enough strength and making it happen? Paul tells us this is how it works: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”

The foundation of this sharing comes in our unity in Christ. All believers share in Christ’s sufferings and comfort, and overwhelmingly so. It is because we are united to Christ that we can offer others the overflow of comfort. Not because we’re great at offering comfort, but because Christ is perfect at offering us comfort. Our work rests on him alone.

There is a great cost to withholding comfort from others. During the trial, if the people in our lives didn’t come around us and love us when we couldn’t go on, we’d be done for. We’ve been on the receiving end of comfort from others and we praise God for his people being faithful to extend that to us. And now that we’ve received this measure of grace, we are enabled to share it with others. We are more empathic. We are more patient. We are more loving to people in their distress. We are more able to come alongside those who are in situations that seem to offer no hope.

3. God Draws Us Near

God’s mission in suffering is also to draw us near to himself. Our comfort in suffering is an apologetic to ourselves; it existentially proves the gospel true. Verse 6 talks about enduring suffering. Endurance, unlike the main character in your typical Hollywood blockbuster, is something not dependent on yourself. Biblical endurance is an expectant waiting or intense desire directed towards God. If Christians endure, it’s because God enables it, not because they are extraordinarily heroic. The means that he ordains to this end is often His people, as in the previous point. God does not ordinarily draw us to Himself outside of the context of others. A sign of nearness to God is nearness to others.

If you’re feeling disobedient or not up to the task, take heart. The Corinthians were not known for being particularly obedient, yet Paul never loses confidence in them. Why is that? He tells us in verse 7 that this is because his hope centers on what God has done and will do in them.

After going through our trial, there is a hope we have been given that, I believe, could only be forged during our suffering. We saw God come through in amazing ways and have many stories of redemption. He has drawn us near to himself in a new and different way, one that stokes our imagination for the gospel to be worked into our lives and the lives of others around us.

Maybe you’re not feeling particularly comforted by God or by his people right now. Your temptation will be to pull away, but why pull away from the only option of hope?

Bring yourself to God, he’s your Father, run to him. And when he still appears silent, know that he is there. Psalm 9:12 teaches us that “he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.” Cry out to him, that’s what we’re made to do. That’s how our very bodies are constructed.

Free to Go

This is the worst thing my wife and I have ever been through, but it’s also been one of the best. I would never wish this upon anyone or want to go through anything like it again, but God did use these hard circumstances for our good. Only a few weeks after my trial, close friends of ours lost their baby girl. Though I have not experienced that particular pain, I had a better idea of what deep hopelessness feels like, and I was able to be with them in their pain that day. Recently, another friend of mine was in some legal trouble, accused of charges of which he was absolutely innocent. Naturally, my heart went out to him, and was able to talk and pray with him in ways I wouldn’t have before. Since God has shown me that there is purpose in pain, I know that it's true for others.

Being a pastor, you hear stories of loss similar to this every week. People carry so much with them. But I know that when Christ said, “My burden is light” he meant it. This has radically redefined what suffering really is for us. And it has radically refined who we are, bringing to light our idols in stark contrast.

Being in darkness, I’ve become more compassionate. My heart is moved more for those who don’t have this God to run to. My trial was hard enough to live through with God walking with me, what about those who don’t have him? I may have suffered, but I found myself in Christ’s sufferings. He went through utter darkness for me, that I might know who he is. And though I was innocent of the charges brought against me by the United States of America, I stood guilty of many more heinous crimes against a holy and transcendent God. Christ considered me worthy of his pursuit, though it cost him his life. If I am found in Christ and am formed by his story, I am compelled to leave my comfort that others may find theirs in him.

I would love to say that I’ve completely forgiven my father and other family members. But that’s just not true. Forgiveness is a daily repenting-and-believing process. It’s not easy and often I don’t want to do it. But the God who forgave me of my sins now lives in me, enabling me to live in radical forgiveness. Relying on the Spirit is the only path to this kind of freedom.

When clearing me of all charges, the judge declared me “free to go.” He declared me free. But not just free for freedom’s sake: “free to go.” In my declaration of innocence comes another command: go. It would have been crazy to say, “No thanks, judge, I’m good. I’ll stay here, please continue the trial;” but that’s exactly what we do when we don’t accept the comfort from God and when we refuse to give it to others. If you are free, you go.

In suffering, we join God’s mission of drawing all people everywhere to himself. Surely, this plan is “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9).


Greg Willson is the Church Planting Resident at Riverside Community Church. He likes creating music, and writes about art and the church at gregwillson.com. Follow him on Twitter: @gregoriousdubs.