The question is a human question. It’s what we ask when we face suffering. When we watch our loved ones get sick. When a marriage falls apart. Why?
Perhaps we ask the question because we sense that if we could only know more—the logic, the explanation, the ultimate payoff for this current suffering—then we might be able to endure our circumstances better, with grace, maybe even joy.
When I climb a mountain with my husband, I know how high the mountain is that we climb. The burning in our lungs and legs, the mental tax of the long ascent is mediated with hope and assurance of our path, with the confidence that the top will be beautiful, that we know the way, and that our bodies will take us there safely. I know the why for the suffering on the way to the top, and it carries me through.
This week, I found comfort in remembering that Jesus asked why, too. On the cross, his final words were, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matt 27:46). Jesus asked why. He knew the bigger answer to his question, just like we do. He knew that through his death and resurrection he would bring many sons to glory (Heb 12:2). He knew that he suffered for the joy set before him in setting all humanity free from the power and penalty of sin and death (Col 2:15). He knew that His Father would not forsake Him forever. And yet, he still asked.
As Christians, we know the biblical answer to our question. We know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope (Rom 5:3-4), that suffering will make us steadfast and firm in our faith (1 Pet 5:10), that our sufferings today are but a light and momentary affliction compared with the glory that will come (1 Cor 4:17), that we can rejoice in suffering because we are participating in Christ (Col 1:24), that we are being perfected through our suffering (Heb 2:10).
We know the bigger answer to why God allows us to suffer, that we live in a broken world in which suffering still exists. We know these things and yet we still ask because we know deep down that this is not the way it is supposed to be.
Today, ask why? Bring your suffering to the Suffering Savior who asked the question long before you did. Bring it before him knowing that he didn’t receive an answer right away either. But bring it before him with the joy and confidence that his question was answered three days later when he rose from the dead.
We can ask why today, knowing that God ultimately works all things for good for those who love him (Rom 8:28). We can ask knowing that Jesus suffers with his beloved and that the ashes of today will grow into the beauty of tomorrow. Ask why today knowing that when we weep we have a God who weeps beside us. Ask why, knowing that Jesus’ question was answered when he rose from the dead and, one day, when he sets all things right again, we won’t ever have to ask why again.
An upsetting thing has happened to me since becoming a mother almost three years ago; an awakening of sorts. Where I once went about my days mostly concerned about my own well-being and the health and safety of those closest to me, I now find myself regularly undone when I see or hear of suffering in another’s life.
It started small, crying during Little Women when Meg said she felt alone, tearing up seeing Facebook posts about kids who were sick, trembling at the thought of something happening to my girls; hearing about suffering caused a surge of gut-wrenching compassion that alarmed me.
As a kid, I confusedly watched my own mother cringe at headlines or say something like, “I just can’t watch that,” when we were choosing movies. What I had once attributed to weakness, some foreign power that made my very strong mother very emotional, was now my reality. At first, I marveled at what felt like a newly torn hole, a whirlpool of compassion that drew in anything that came near, but soon realized that this sensation was here to stay, locked firmly in my life scooping up any passing grief with unrestrained emotion.
When it was said in response to the murder of George Floyd, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd cried out for his momma,” I cried as the puzzle pieces snapped into place. Every mother was summoned because every mother has been awakened to a new depth of mercy coursing through her heart. The sad privilege and sin of only caring for oneself dies when a woman becomes a mother, her life and body now permanently put on guard, ready to go into battle for another, ready to hold and hug and listen and be called into action.
The problem of course is that suffering is everywhere. Suffering from the pandemic and racial injustice, suffering for refugees and persecuted Christians, suffering for my family and friends and yours. I find myself overwhelmed by a compassion I did not necessarily choose or cultivate but was rather thrust upon me like my own twin daughters on my chest when they were born at 3 AM. But what I have largely processed as being burden uncovered by motherhood, newfound compassion is not a loss, it is a gain.
Upon entering motherhood we are swept into a greater mission that goes beyond merely caring for and protecting those who are close to us. We become mothers, allies, and protectors of other’s children young and old, of other mothers, of any who might stir compassion in our widened hearts. Though motherhood is not the only vehicle for growing in compassion—Jesus was never a father and yet is our exemplar of mercy—motherhood takes us out of ourselves in a literal way, asking us to care for another no matter how weak or weary we may be. This ability and depth is terrifying, but it is also a gift.
But embracing this change has not been clean or simple. In my fear of this new mercy, I find myself trying to hide or simply look away in a sad effort to feel less. I want to evade the swell of pity and sorrow that rises, desperately trying to unbear this burden or allowing it to drive me away from compassion into worry and anxiety. A fire of mercy had been stoked, but I am only and desperately trying to extinguish it. To feel compassion unrestricted is to feel too much. For many, motherhood may not be the primary place that the Lord chooses to widen your heart in compassion, but if you find yourself undone like me, take heart. We can and must learn to wield and embrace mercy as part of our identity rather than hide from it.
Compassion as discipleship
Compassion is a gift that is designed to reshape our lives and bodies to care not merely for our children whom we love, but for all children of God. It is a gift from a merciful savior who is committed to transforming us into His likeness and His likeness is deeply merciful. He is “the Father of all mercies and God of all comfort who comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction (2 Cor 1:3-4). It is His will for us to care for the widow and the orphan (Jas 1:27), to give generously of ourselves and our time in the exact same way that He did.
Mercy, therefore, becomes one of the most important paths of discipleship that we can tread because it takes us into the heart of Christ and out of our concern solely for ourselves. We must be willing to shake off the temptations to hide from compassion or look away so that we might learn what our God has ordained for us in motherhood: a heart that is rich in mercy and willing to comfort those who suffer.
A fire of mercy had been stoked, but I am only and desperately trying to extinguish it. To feel compassion unrestricted is to feel too much.
A mothering God
Growing in compassion through motherhood is no accident or hormonal adjustment, it is woven into God’s perfect design, written into our hearts before we knew it was there so that we might one day more deeply understand the height and depth and breadth of God’s love and compassion for us. In grief over his lost children, Jesus said, Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matt 23:37). Merciful Jesus longed to care for his people like a mother hen, drawing His people to Himself to provide for and protect them as a mother does.
But the power of a mother’s mercy is not only found in the tenderness of Christ, we see it in the enduring compassion of the Father when he too expresses his love for his children by saying, Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (Is 49:15). And Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river…and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem (Is 66:12-13). In our Father’s steadfastness, he compares himself to a mother who nurtures her children, carrying them close, feeding and comforting them.
God chooses to talk of the depth of his compassion in terms of motherhood because motherhood is uniquely powerful. In His perfect and inspired Word, our God holds motherhood in such high regard that He expresses His own commitment and devotion to His people in terms of it. If our Father chooses to widen our hearts through motherhood it is so that we more fully understand His—one that longs for His children’s flourishing and would do anything to see make them know His love.
The courage to follow
Growing in mercy will grow us in godliness because Jesus is mercy at His core, breathing and bleeding compassion, bearing the weight of a broken world to the point of death so that we don’t have to hide in fear from it. We must be brave and humble, willing to feel the pain of our brothers and sisters, to bear the burdens of others, to weep with those who weep, and follow merciful Jesus to the end. The Jesus who touched our sores and wiped our tears bore it all not so I could hide from a compassion like His but so that I could receive it myself, coming alongside Him in his work as one willing to face suffering with the hope of knowing that the worst we encounter here will be redeemed to the fullest one day.
Christ the merciful and compassionate showed me mercy so that my heart might break like his, not to protect me from feeling broken. I may fight the swell of compassion because it feels like weakness, but in Christ, our mercy is our greatest strength. He plants compassion in our hearts to rehumanize and reawaken us to His Kingdom coming. The choice we make is not whether to feel, it is whether to hope that the resurrection is true and real and tangible today, putting in its place our suffering as a light and momentary affliction, a signpost that we are not yet home, but we are growing as we walk this path of motherhood.
Have you ever heard something good that happened to a friend but rather than being excited and celebrating with her, you compare your success or want what she has? It seems pretty common, and unfortunately, it was my mindset this week. It is an ugly place to be. Not much love for a sister. Not much willingness to be for her. Not much thinking about anyone but myself.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Christian friendships should be marked by the fullness of life — climbing into the pit of despair with one another and delighting together when there is good news. These relationships are for-each-other relationships. When my sister hurts, I hurt. When she rejoices, my heart is gladdened. Christian friendships bear the beauty mark of other-centeredness, and this other-centeredness is always the result of finding an identity that isn’t in what you have, accomplish, or do.
Following Jesus when he calls us to different things
At some point, most of us have looked at someone else and thought, why does their life seem so much easier than mine? Whether they have more money or their kids are super-achievers or they love their job, we tend to glance side-to-side and wonder, why did God give them that and not give it to me? But underneath this seemingly innocuous question is the basic belief that God is supposed to give us all some measure of fairness; we all have our own blessings and struggles, but God should ultimately distribute suffering, success, happiness, and trials evenly.
My mom used to say, “Life isn’t fair,” but perhaps it is God who isn’t fair. God isn’t in the business of democracy, doling out equal portions of joy and suffering to his creation. He is always just—never letting evil overcome good, but when it comes to his children, He does not apportion us the same lots in life. And unless we address this tough reality, our expectations for God and how our life should look will continue to be marked by disappointment.
In the final chapter of John, Jesus calls Peter to found his Church and warns him that he will suffer the same fate as his savior: death by crucifixion. I think most of us would respond to Jesus in the same way that Peter did—he asks, but what about John? Is he going to be crucified too?! Why do I have to be crucified!? Peter’s immediate reaction to his master calling him to a life of ministry, sacrifice, and ultimately dying for the glory of God is to look at the guy next to him and ask about what God has planned for him.
Because we all have this tendency inside of us, we must hear what Jesus has to say about it. Jesus tells Peter,If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me (Jn 21:22).Jesus doesn’t entertain this kind of comparative thinking, but challenges Peter by telling him that it doesn’t matter what his plans are for John, whether he live until Christ’s second coming or not doesn’t change the call he has placed on Peter’s life—“You follow me.”
Just like Peter, God calls us to certain works and specific suffering. He allows exactly what we need for both our flourishing and refinement, whispering, “Follow me” as he permits enough friction to keep striving after him and enough comfort to delight in his perfect provision. We must learn from Peter and John how to stop questioning his will for our lives and embrace the lot he has given us for our good and his glory.
Following Jesus in our work; a call to cultivatewhat we have been given
Through Peter and John, we see how God assigns unique work within a larger calling. All humans have two callings; a primary calling and a secondary calling. Primary calling is the same for everyone: to glorify God and enjoy him forever (Westminster Catechism). But our secondary callings are unique and localized to our lives: it is the place that we live out our primary calling.
But God does not appoint us all to the same work, he gives us a lot, a patch of ground, and says this is where I want you to work. Cultivate your love for me and bring me glory through what you do here. In Psalm 16, David declares, “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.” Your lot might be as a stay-at-home mom, a fitness instructor, or lawyer, but whatever it is, God calls us to work out our primary calling to glorify and enjoy him in the context of that everyday work, creatively pursuing him in what he has given us.
Both Peter and John were disciples, but the callings Jesus placed on their lives were different. Peter would preach sermons, establish churches, and travel through the Ancient Near East as a missionary to the Jews. John too would work in the local church, but from the cross, Jesus asked John to take care of his widowed mother since he would not be there to do it (Jn 19:27). John’s calling took him into exile and to continue in ministry while Peter and Paul were crucified.
Peter and John’s secondary callings were to work out how to love and glorify God in these places, grappling with how to glorify God when they were isolated in exile, sharing the gospel with people who didn’t want to hear it, when they were caring for an elderly widow. These men fought the same doubts as us wondering, why did God call me here, to this lot?
I find myself asking, why did God give me twins?Why did he call me to marry a pastor and be in ministry?Why did God call me to this life and not theirs? When I find myself thinking these things, I must remember Jesus’ words, what is their calling to you? You follow me! We need to stop asking why this lot and start asking how do I follow Jesus here, cultivating the lot he has given me for his glory?
Following Jesus in suffering; the call to submit
Every Christian is called to suffer as a fundamental part of following Jesus. If we love him, we start doing the kinds of things he did—like putting other’s needs ahead of our own, giving up our rights for them, bearing their burdens, and submitting willingly to the will of the Father that sometimes leads us into places we would rather not go.
But suffering is never a waste. Not only does suffering provide an opportunity to know our weakness and draw from the infinite well of God’s strength (2 Cor 12:10), suffering is the currency of our sanctification, refining us so we might grow in humility, patience, perseverance, and joy in spite of our circumstances. When God calls us to suffer, he is accomplishing his purposes of transforming us into the likeness of Christ.
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). For Peter, following Jesus would literally lead him to the cross. Though we will likely never face crucifixion, our response to suffering is the same as Peter’s as we cry, unfair! We believe suffering is a hindrance in our lives to be avoided. And like Peter, when we compare the suffering in our lives to others, we walk ourselves into a place of anger and entitlement before the Lord; we don’t deserve to suffer. This kind of thinking, however, is unbiblical and unrealistic. Suffering is a friend, not a foe, and we must learn to submit to the suffering God has for us in the same way that Jesus did. This too is part of following him.
Jesus suffered the cross out of love for his Father and joy in knowing that his submission would glorify his Father. But more than that, he submitted to the suffering he was called to so that we too might follow him, submitting to his will for us. This is what Jesus calls Peter into—submitting to his will out of love. Peter had just told Jesus three times that he loved him. The only reason Peter would continue to follow Jesus after hearing of his fate is because he loved Jesus and believed that Jesus was worth dying for, that Jesus truly was Lord. And this is the exact same reason why we follow him today through our own suffering; because he is our suffering, good, faithful King, and we love him. And as we do God strengthens, confirms, and establishes us in our suffering (1 Pt 5:10), we experience the power of the resurrection (Phil 3:10), we are glorified with Christ (Rom 8:17), and we learn contentment in our weakness and dependence on Christ (2 Cor 12:10). When we submit to the suffering that God calls us to, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who also submitted to the suffering that the father called him to out of love for the Father.
How we follow
Willingly. “Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you” (Ps 32:9). When comparison, jealousy, or suffering arrive, we must choose to stay near Jesus. Unlike an untamed animal who requires restraints, submitting to Jesus means we choose to stay near him in all circumstances. With our eyes fixed on Him. “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb 12:2). The best way to keep us from looking at others and growing angry with the Lord is to keep our eyes fixed on Him. He is our mark, our measure, our King, and the one whom we serve. Fix your eyes on him.