Living with suffering is hard work; it’s easy to lose your focus. Once your focus is disoriented it becomes difficult to hold self-pity at bay. Suffering can come in many forms; not all of them physical. Our mind struggles with harsh and critical statements that seem unjustified. Our emotions vacillate between confusion, anger and grief when circumstances in our life seem to contradict the hand of loving God.
When the apostle Peter heard Jesus speak of suffering that was needful for him to endure, he tried to protect Jesus. He said, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). Jesus’ answer was quick and to the point: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).
Jesus focused on a specific aspect of the character of God—his wisdom. God thinks differently than man thinks. The wisdom of man is short-sighted and pragmatic (1 Cor. 2:8, 13). God’ wisdom is eternal and directed purposefully. The ability to focus on the character of God (not the wisdom of the man) is a quality Jesus develops (Heb. 5:8). He exercises this ability most fully in the garden of Gethsemane.
When confronted with the suffering (separation from God) he will experience on the cross Jesus asked if there might be another way. Mark recounts it this way: “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14:36).
Abba is a family term. It might be best rendered in the language of our day as “Daddy.” When my kids want the quickest access to my heart this is how they address me. It’s the term that every dad knows—like they’re saying, “Dad, I know you love me. . .” Jesus is clinging to this aspect of his Father’s character: his love. Then he adds, “. . . all things are possible for you.” He is acknowledging that the Father has the power to act if he would so choose.
Both with Peter and with his Father Jesus embraces suffering without questioning the character of God. In fact, it’s fair to say that he affirms and focuses on the character of God in the midst of his suffering. This is the means through which we avoid self-pity when times are hard. We trust the character of God not the wisdom of man.
One of my seminary professors who left a profound impact on my life was Dr. Fred Barshaw. Prior to becoming a pastor, Fred served as a public school teacher. Gifted in understanding the learning process, he received the esteemed “Teacher of the Year” award for the state of California. Fred’s strength was his application of the Word to real life situations, and I was drawn to the unique ways he found to communicate. During my final year of seminary, Fred began his battle with cancer. I graduated and headed into ministry on the other side continent. Several years later, I was developing material for a class, when I realized my lay out and presentation looked strikingly familiar. I went to my filing cabinet, pulled out my notes from one of Fred’s classes, placed them next to my own and immediately recognized the similarity. Having not intended to so, I realized I was teaching just like my teacher. I picked up the phone and called Fred, wanting to communicate my deep sense of gratitude for his investment in my life. Cancer had taken its toll. He was short of breath, and spoke with a hoarse whisper. Because he was so weak I expressed my appreciation quickly. Then I asked him how I could pray for him. There was a long pause, and then the words: pray that I would be faithful to the end. I did. Thirty days later, Fred Barshaw met Jesus.
Our response to suffering will take one of two roads. We can focus on the character of God and pray for faithfulness; or focus on the difficulty of our circumstances and indulge self-pity. Your focus will determine your ultimate outcome.