How do you parent a child through tragedy, loss, and pain? Is there an answer or are we left to figure it out on our own? Join AMBrewster as he gives Christian parents hope in suffering.
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Welcome to the show.
Today we start a huge topic, Parenting Suffering Children, but — if we’re not careful — many of us are going to interact with this series the way we interact with insurance. We’re told we need it while at the same time we’re hoping we never do.
And, potentially — in those moments of pure honesty right before we drift off to sleep — we don’t really believe we’re ever going to need it.
But, I promise you, you will need this. It’s a guarantee. In John 16:33 Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation.”
I know it flies in the face of our health-and-wealth-prosperity-comfort-is-good-and-pain-is-bad Failure Theology, but suffering is a natural consequence of living in a fallen world, and it’s a natural consequence of being cared for by a loving God.
So, it’s imperative that we be able to parent our kids in their times of tribulation.
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And don’t forget that today’s episode notes are available on our blog, Taking Back the Family. You can click the link in the description or you can go to TakingBackTheFamily.com.
So, where do we start in a conversation about suffering?
As usual, I believe it’s desperately important for us to define our terms . . . and to do so biblically.
So, let’s focus our discussion today on the nature of suffering. Of course, that topic is monstrously huge, and the shoulders of this podcast aren’t broad enough to carry its full weight, so I’m obviously going to have to limit our scope.
Still, I pray it’s robust enough to help you take your first steps and even whet your desire to study this topic in more detail.
1. The Definition of Suffering
According to Merriam-Webster, suffering is “the state or experience of one that suffers,” and to suffer is “to submit to or be forced to endure.”
There are a number of Greek words we could dissect that are translated suffering, tribulation, distress, anguish, testing, trial, and the like . . . but I’m pretty sure we all have a working idea of what it means to suffer under, through, or in something.
Still, we need to remind ourselves of one important fact: suffering is subjective. There is no universal definition of how heavy or painful and long-lasting something has to be in order to be described as suffering.
I think we all accept that being crucified would fall under the category of suffering. But we’ve also all likely told our kids that they weren’t suffering simply because they hadn’t eaten in 2 hours . . . and they would completely disagree with us.
We’re all like that. We’ve all experienced circumstances that — to us — seemed unbearable in the moment, while others barely flinched when they had the same experience. Therefore, it’s important to approach this discussion with two mindsets:
This two-fold commitment will keep us from brushing off experiences in which it could be said that our children are legitimately suffering, but it will also keep us from turning the experience of the suffering into a deluded form of self-worship. We’ll talk more about this later.
The point is that there are clearly differing levels of suffering, and though it would be wise for us to be selective in our use of the term, we shouldn’t dismiss the suffering of others out of hand. We need to seek to understand them, and then help them understand the nature of their suffering.
So, suffering is simply an endurance through an uncomfortable experience, and that list is going to include a lot of things.
Even now — with a definition this broad — I’m sure you’re understanding why I said it’s inevitable that you’ll have to parent your kids though times of distress and difficulty.
But I want to explore this topic a little more.
2. The Inevitability of Suffering
As I mentioned in the introduction, suffering is going to happen. Everyone suffers. Many people suffer every single day, all day. Even Jesus suffered.
In the New American Standard Bible (my personal favorite), the word “suffer” is used 9 times in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And every single time it was used, it referenced Jesus’ suffering. Not only that, but each of those times was either an exact quote from Jesus Himself or the author was telling us that Jesus said He was going to have to suffer.
If our Lord, the God of the universe in human flesh, suffered, who are we to think we can avoid it?
I believe this is one of the most damning oversights of the prosperity Gospel. How can I think my spiritual maturity will be rewarded by comfort when Jesus — the perfect and most spiritually mature human to ever live — suffered more than I could imagine?
Not only that, but do you remember the verse I read earlier? In John 16:33 Jesus told His disciples, “In the world you have tribulation.”
All Christians need to come to terms with the fact that suffering isn’t inevitable simply because we’re human, suffering will be compounded when we’re in Christ.
In Philippians 1:27-29, Paul writes, “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents—which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God.”
So, Paul starts with a beautiful synopsis of what it looks like to be a new creature in Christ. And then he says: “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.”
And what kind of suffering was Paul experiencing? II Corinthians 1:8 tells us, “For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively, beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life.”
Living righteously in a sinful world actually invites suffering. That means that as you teach your children to trust and obey God, you’re literally preparing them to experience additional suffering in this life.
I’m sharing all of this to make it clear that we parents must be prepared to parent our children though pain. This includes physical suffering but it also includes emotional and spiritual suffering.
Here’s my point — you buckle your children into their carseats or make sure they’ve fastened their seatbelts even though it’s very likely you won’t get into an accident. Most of the time your family has climbed into the car, you haven’t been involved in an accident. Some of you have never had an accident with your family . . . and yet you take all of the precautions because it’s possible you may.
My friends, your children will suffer. It’s going to happen. What will you do when the time comes?
How can you shape your child’d theology when they get a splinter, stub their toe, or break an arm? How will you guide your children through teenage heartbreak? How do you plan to prepare your children for the death of friends or family members? Are you parenting your children in such a way that if they were ever diagnosed with cancer . . . they would understand what suffering is and how God wants to use it in their lives?
Suffering is inevitable, so we need to prepare our children to know what it is, understand God’s plan for it, and wisely endure it to His honor and glory.
And — like I’ve mentioned before — the best time to prepare your children for anything is before they have to experience it. These beginning conversations are not to be had in the midst of suffering. Sure, if you’ve neglected to prepare your kids up until now, and you’re all currently in the throws of trial, you definitely need to draw your children to the knowledge and understanding we’re unpacking in this study. But — generally speaking — your mid-tribulation conversations need to be hearkening back to and reminding your children of all the prior family discussions where you prepared them for the experience in which they now find themselves.
Now not only is the definition of suffering broad and the experience of suffering inevitable, it’s also important to teach our kids that . . .
3. Suffering is Contagious
We and our kids should understand that when someone we love is hurting, it’s natural for us to hurt too. In I Corinthians 12, Paul discusses spiritual gifts, and then he describes Christians as all part of the Body of Christ. It’s in that passage that he compares some believers to a foot and others to an eye and others to an ear. Then in verses 24-26 he says, “God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”
That’s the nature of a body. That’s the nature of love among the brethren. The suffering of one should impact all those who are connected to him.
Galatians 6:1 and 2 calls us to “bear one another’s burdens.”
James 5 commands the physically and spiritually suffering Christian to invite others into his pain (James 5:13-20).
The reality of suffering is one reason we need to teach our children Biblical empathy.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
This may seem like a masochistic way of inviting additional suffering into our lives, but I would argue that it’s going to happen anyway. Suffering is contagious. Biblical empathy merely enables us to respond as Christ responds because we aren’t shutting ourselves off to their suffering, we’re experiencing it the right way and then helping them to do the same.
It’s akin to teaching someone to tie a knot. It’s generally not good enough to try to explain knot-tying. You have to get some rope and show them. You have to experience tying the knot in order to help the other person tie the knot successfully. Suffering is often the same. It’s easier to guide someone through their suffering as you walk through it with them.
4. Christians suffer differently
Everyone suffers, but it should be said of Christians that we suffer well. That should be our personal goal, and it should be the goal for our children.
And that’s what the rest of this study is about. How do we parent our children in such a way that they suffer well?
So, let me end on a high note that sets the stage for our next episode which is called “The God of Suffering.”
In II Timothy 2:3, Paul calls Timothy to “Suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” This tells us that a good solider of Christ Jesus is going to suffer differently than bad soldiers or people who aren’t soldiers at all.
I Peter is a wonderful book for suffering saints. Let’s look at a couple verses with the remainder of our time.
First, Christians should never suffer because they’re experiencing the consequences of their sin.
I Peter 2:20 reads, “For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.”
There’s a lot of suffering in the world. We’ll suffer because we’re mortal, frail humans. If we’re Christians, we’ll suffer for our righteousness. But we should never suffer because of our sin. That’s not to say that we don’t deserve consequences for our sin. We definitely do. However, we should be trying to follow Christ and escape the temptation to sin. Therefore, we should be inviting fewer and fewer consequences into our lives.
I Peter 3:17 repeats this idea when it says, “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.”
Second, Christians suffer differently because they understand the purpose of suffering.
I’m not going to try to prove it here. I’ll save it for another episode in this series, but Christians can suffer well because they know the end of the story.
I Peter 3:14 says, “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed.”
Like I said, it’s going to take some unpacking to understand how Peter could say that suffering is a blessed experience, but — for now — take courage. Holding on to this Truth — cleaving to it with your very life — will revolutionize your pain and anguish.
I Peter 4:19 tells us, “Those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.”
The suffering that seems the most unjust, the most out of place — suffering because I did what is right — is actually good. Peter just said that I can trust God in those moments.
When we truly know understand, and believe this Truth, we’ll look crazy to the world, but our suffering won’t cause us shame.
I Peter 4:16 says, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name."
And that leads us to our last lesson for the day, but first, let’s review.
Suffering is a large concept that will inevitably crash into our lives sooner rather than later because it’s inevitable and it’s contagious.
But Christians should suffer differently.
We can suffer well because our suffering shouldn’t come as a result of our sin and because we understand the purpose of our suffering. And part of that purpose is to glorify God.
Therefore — third — Christians suffer differently because they don’t make their suffering about them.
I mentioned in the first point that we need to understand our children’s pain and commit to helping them understand their own pain. This approach will keep us from brushing off experiences in which it could be said that our children are legitimately suffering, but it will also keep us from turning the experience of the suffering into a deluded form of self-worship.
In the best of times and the worst of times humans are innately self-centered. Everything is about us. We strive under the sun to achieve some level of comfort for us, why would we not take it as a personal affront when that comfort is stripped from us?
A cliche of the elderly is that they sit around all day discussing, comparing, and complaining about their ailments.
Psychiatrists and secular parenting “authorities” will tell us to embrace our children in their suffering, not truly from the perspective of rectifying or facing anything, but to simply experience their pain with them.
This inevitably turns the experience of the pain into the purpose of the pain, but could there be an any more hopeless outlook?
We don’t suffer in order to be overwhelmed by it. We don’t suffer in order to complain about it. We don’t suffer so we can have a badge of honor or bragging rights. We definitely don’t suffer simply to suffer.
Christians can suffer well in an entirely, God-focused way that gives Him all the honor and glory and blessing and worship and love that He deserves.
Now, you may be saying, “Aaron, how can I love a God Who would cause me to suffer? How can I love a God Who would bring suffering into the life of my child?”
Those are fair questions this series desires to answer from the Scriptures.
There is hope for suffering. We can’t discuss the nature of suffering without realizing that suffering has a purpose, and that purpose is for our greatest good and God’s greatest glory.
I look forward to unpacking those ideas on our next episodes.
And I look forward to you hearing from Jay Holland. He’s the host of “Parenting on Purpose,” and he is well acquainted with grief and pain. He’s going to join us for a special two-part episode where he shares with us the journey of suffering his family has been on and is still on.
That interview will wrap up this series because I want you to be able to see the example of a man who — by the grace of God — has successfully parented his children through family turmoil, debilitating disease, and family death.
It will be quite an episode.
So, stick with us. Share this episode with your friends. Remember that help is only an email away. The TLP Counselors look forward to assisting you at Counselor@TruthLoveParent.com.
And we have to accept that if we want our children to grow up into Christ, we must parent in truth and love. That means we have parent them in the truth of suffering.
To that end, join us next time as we look at the God of suffering.
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