The Elephant in the Room
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." --Romans 8:18
In 1814, a Russian poet and storyteller named Ivan Krylov wrote a fable entitled The Inquisitive Man. In the story, a man visits a museum and is fascinated by all sorts of tiny things he sees. However, he pays absolutely no attention to an elephant, there, in the room with him. Later, Fyodor Dostoevsky repeated the proverb about a character in one of his novels. And so the saying has come down to us. We use the phrase to describe any idea or situation that is both obvious and yet actively, even intentionally, ignored by most everyone involved. When it comes to Christian discipleship, the “elephant in the room” is suffering. There aren’t many programs or manuals that list distress and pain as key ingredients in the disciple-making process.
However, Jesus made it clear that it comes with the territory. In the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount, He told those who would follow Him that they would be blessed when “people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” (Matthew 5:11) Not if, but when. At the end of the same teaching, Jesus told the story of a wise man and a foolish man who both built houses. Rain pelted each house, streams rose around them and wind beat on them. (Matthew 7:25) Not if a storm was coming, but when. Right before his crucifixion, Jesus told the disciples that no servant is greater than his master. “If they persecuted me (and they did all three years of Jesus’ public ministry, culminating in his death), they will persecute you.” (John 15:20)
The disciples themselves made it clear in their own writings that the resume of one who wants to follow Jesus will always include suffering. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthian church that disciples “share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:5) and he explained to the Philippian Christians that to really know Christ meant to share in His sufferings. (Philippians 3:10) Paul told his young protégé and mentee Timothy that good soldiers in the Lord’s army suffer. (2 Timothy 2:3) Even Peter warned of the inevitability of hardship for those who would come after him as disciples. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12)
If suffering is so much a part of the formation of a disciple, why don’t we talk about it? Well, let’s face it, if you are in the business of recruitment, no one wants to scare off potential candidates. Unfortunately, when the first, or second, or third wave of misfortune and discouragement comes, and we have already determined it will, many “would be” disciples walk away because they assumed that surrendering their lives to the Lord meant their troubles were over. No one warned them that their troubles were actually just beginning. And besides all of that, we don’t want to dwell on affliction because no normal human being enjoys it. The story goes that St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Spanish nun, near the end of her life, fell into a river while on a scouting trip to find suitable locations for new convents. Exasperated that she nearly drowned while on a mission for God, Teresa cried out, “O my Lord, when will You cease scattering obstacles in our path?” She claimed that God responded, “Do not complain, daughter; this is how I treat all my friends.” Teresa wryly countered, “Ah Lord, it is also on that account that you have so few.”
The logical question follows: What is the point? Why do disciples suffer and what is produced in them as an omnipotent God allows it? Suffering, trials, pain, adversity—they are all a part of the world we live in. This world is both broken and hostile. We have no one to blame but ourselves for a world plagued by distress and desolation. Our selfishness and self-dependence have ruined God’s order; He loves and respects us too much as those made in His image to excuse us from the consequences. Those disciples, who have declared their need for the Lord and their faith that His way is the only way, face a world resistant to their perspective. If you run your hand against the grain of a wood board, you will likely get splinters. When disciples swim upstream against the current of a culture indifferent to or dead set against the Truth of God’s Word, they will be ignored, insulted or persecuted. Disciples then respond with the opposite spirit of gentleness and love.
Is there any silver lining to the inevitable suffering that a disciple of Jesus can expect? One of the most valuable character qualities in really short supply these days is perseverance. So few people stick it out when the going gets tough. The Apostle Paul told the Roman church that suffering produces perseverance. (Romans 5:3) Disciples are dependable people under pressure—and that makes them attractive people to fellow sufferers. The Kingdom of God advances when disciples remain faithful to Jesus during Peter’s “fiery ordeal” rather than running away. As Peter pointed out, this experience tests us, but not as some divine exam in which God wants to see if we will pass or fail. Rather, suffering removes the impurities from our lives in the same way that fire burns away dross on the surface of precious metals. A holy God can see His image more clearly in a disciple who has suffered just as a smith can see his reflection in gold refined by intense heat.
The simplest lesson of pain and suffering is the reminder that we need the Lord and we are dependent on Him. We can’t make it in this world on our own. And if we want the Lord to increase our trust in Him, it cannot be done without suffering. Our faith and the muscles of our physical bodies are both gifts from God. Neither will grow and get stronger unless they are exercised in the face of resistance. Suffering is a spiritual “bench press.” God is our spotter for life and He will shoulder the weight if we falter. But there is no alternative to adversity for any disciple who wants to reach maturity.
Heavenly Father, You know that we hate pain, trials and the discouragement that comes with them. But, if we are honest in our reading of the Bible, You have promised us nothing less than this in our earthly lives. Help us to be disciples who exhibit faith and trust during the fiery ordeal, not doubt and bitterness. Produce in us the fruit of suffering: perseverance, compassion and maturity. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.