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The Shepherd’s Crucible

Suffering is a funny thing. It may sound strange to use the word funny as an adjective to describe suffering. Actually, the two words are oxymoronic! Suffering is often coupled with words like hard, painful, and difficult. The concept of suffering is totally contradictory to the first law of nature: self-preservation. No, funny is not a word that generally comes to mind when we think of suffering. However, I would like to offer a perspective that will, indeed, support the use of these two words in the same vein.
To begin, let’s define the two terms: suffering and funny. First, given the denotation of the word, suffering (that is, feeling pain; distress), we can assume that it is the fate of all who live in this fallen world. The familiar imagery of God as the Good Shepherd, being with his people as they “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23), is a vision and verse beloved of all Christians—one that we love to Quote—one that has been a great source of comfort for many who suffer.
This picture also depicts the ministry of Jesus on our behalf, for Scripture says that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (2 Cor. 5:18). Just as God walked with Jesus on his journey as his Shepherd, likewise, we have assurance that Jesus will be a faithful Shepherd to guide us on this journey through life—a journey that has its destination at the heart of his Father and the home that he has prepared for us. He is familiar with the terrain of this journey because he has also experienced the feelings of pain, distress, and loss found on this path. He has endured evil, injury,pain, and death.
It is often said that some people need to “find themselves” because they are lost and in need of direction. As we follow the Shepherd, we will find our true selves through suffering, just s Jesus did. What is that true self that suffering will reveal to each of us? It is to be one with Christ, as the Apostle Paul said, “that I may know Him and the power of His Resurrection” (Phil. 3:10). Jesus found himself in the suffering imposed on him by sin. He became Savior and Redeemer by taking upon himself the sufferings of mankind.
In the popular devotional book My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers identifies another and perhaps more critical role of suffering in the life of a Christian. “It is not true to say that God wants to teach us something in our trials,” writes Chambers. “Through every cloud HE brings our way, He wants us to unlearn something. His purpose . . . is to simplify our beliefs until our relationship with Him is exactly like that of a child” (211). How often have we, as individuals, heard or even said, “God is trying to teach me something through this experience”? I have puzzled over many an ordeal, trying to discover what I needed to learn from them. Now, I simply ask: “What, Lord, are you trying to get me to understand about trusting you from this particular situation? What beliefs about myself, others, or you do I need to let loose?” For me, this has become a better, more meaningful way of discovering the reasons for my trials.
Finally, another aspect of the word funny is “strange; suspiciously odd or curious.” As we follow the Shepherd, our journey takes us through “the valley of the shadow of death,” yet we need not fear evil. God’s plan is that it will be “odd” or “curious,” especially to those who look on, that there is no fear on our faces or in our responses to trials. Looking at sufferings that come as shadows, we hold our gaze on the Shepherd and not on those shadows. Through the sufferings of Jesus, we do not receive the full impact of trials—only a glancing blow and only as much as we can bear.
Bible descriptions of the sufferings of Jesus are well-documented. He suffered according to the “will of God.” Jesus continues to do an amazing thing with suffering. From start to finish, his suffering is of a redemptive nature. He takes all the suffering of mankind upon himself: He removes its sting. He then gives it back to us—purified and designed to make us just like him. What was once from Satan’s hand and meant to crush us now comes from his hand as that glancing blow, only for our good.
It truly is a curious thing that Jesus does for us. Because of him, suffering, in a real sense, is a gift from God that Jesus invites us to receive and embrace. It is a curious thing, also, that Jesus himself is the embodiment of real suffering, and through him, we experience only the shadow of it according to the will of God. Much like the baptism that Jesus experienced for all of mankind, so suffering Jesus endures for all of us. We “complete what remains of Christ’s sufferings for his body the church” (Col. 1:24). We participate in the fellowship of his suffering without the lethal sting.
Scripture says that Christ himself has gone through suffering and temptation; he is able to help us when are being tempted (Heb. 2:18). God walked with Jesus on this journey. Shall he not bring us to a safe haven, even as he brought his Son? Accordingly, our suffering has a redemptive nature. This perspective has been a great source of joy for me, and I pray it will be for you as well as, this quarter, we take a look at suffering.

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