Imagine suffering, not as an affliction to avoid, but an experience to receive joyfully, even desire. It goes against every human instinct. Yet that’s the attitude of the apostles.
James urged believers to consider trials as “pure joy.”
Peter bid a beleaguered Christian community to rejoice that they can “participate in the sufferings of Christ.”
To another group, Paul disclosed his desire to know “the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death.”
As a lifelong Christian, the joy and fellowship of suffering was as foreign to me as quantum entanglement (even as a physicist who’s written about such things) until the day I received some unwelcome news.
It was 2001. Ten days in the hospital and a battery of diagnostic procedures left me weak and exhausted. Each movement took extreme effort. Just keeping my eyes open was an Olympian task.
Straining to focus on the physician entering the room, I watched the blurred mass of family and friends part like the Red Sea as he made his way to my bedside.
He settled into a chair near the foot of the bed, notes in hand. A crease on his forehead betrayed efforts at a smile. With eye contact broken by long moments staring at an indistinct space on the floor, he delivered the news in a halting cadence.
“Mr. Nicoll, we just received the biopsy results this evening. They indicate that you have epithelial angiosarcoma.”
All else was filler, but for the sound bites, “quality of life,” “quantity of life,” and “clinical trials.” In my clouded condition, all seemed unreal: the doctor, the crowd, the diagnosis, even me. I needed to wake up.
I bit my cheek several times. I was awake!
Disbelief turned into alarm as my thoughts ran from “What’s happening?” to “This isn’t happening!” to “Why me, Why now, WHY?”
Straight away, a voice stirred my consciousness. It wasn’t audible, but it was undeniable. It whispered, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
It was the response St. Paul received after pleading to have a “thorn” removed which, by all accounts, wasn’t and never was. Rather, he was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Recalling Paul’s reply, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me,” I was struck with a profound truth: The greatest expression of God’s love is not in removing our “thorns,” but in enabling us to endure them with peace in the midst of turmoil, hope in the face of uncertainty and joy when our hearts are breaking, all in the power of the imperishable life.
As I paused there, a wave of calm passed over my anxious spirit.
In the weeks and months that followed, my family and I were blessed with daily ministrations of Grace. The prayers, sacrifices, and love of family, friends, and untold strangers gave us a growing sense of God’s presence and working. Even friends who didn’t believe in the power of prayer were strangely motivated to intercede on our behalf (some, three times a day!), later forming a prayer group that witnessed miracle after miracle.
Each time the burden seemed unbearable, it was lifted by him who “daily bears our burdens.” But it wasn’t until I came across a passage in Clarence Enzler’s “Everyone’s Way of the Cross” that the apostolic context of suffering stirred within me:
In carrying my cross,
I carry yours with you.
And though I bear a sliver only
of your cross.
You carry all of mine, except a sliver
Those words marinated in my imagination until one evening, laying in bed after a particularly difficult day, I was overcome — not by fatigue from chemo or pain from my tumors, but by a wave of unexpected joy. I called out to Joanne.
She took her place by my side. Sensing me welling up, she leaned in.
“Oh, no, I’m ok,” I said, my voice breaking, “I just can’t believe how blessed I feel.”
Even in the dark I could tell it wasn’t what she expected. I went on to say how now I could sympathize, in some small measure, with him who sympathizes with us and with others whose sufferings I, hitherto, had difficulty relating to.
“I just don’t feel worthy of such a privilege.”
She leaned in further, and we embraced as we both tried to process this through tears.
Until then, I had not known what to make of the vertical and horizontal dimensions of Paul’s “fellowship of suffering.” Yet, that is precisely what Jesus alludes to when he tells his disciples that, in the shadow of the cross, they will realize, “I am in the Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”
In that cruciform fellowship we are joined together with the Godhead to shoulder each other’s burdens as we go about bringing God’s glory to bear in every dimension of human endeavor until what he wills done, is done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Would I have a future in that project? I did not know. That was up to him, and that was all right.
Months later, dozens of rounds of chemotherapy, countless prayers, and an eight-hour surgery worked, in some inscrutable way, to cure my incurable condition. On one occasion after declaring me in remission, my oncologist introduced me to a colleague as “Lazarus.”
A friend who was being treated by the same doctor some years later asked, “You think you’ll being able to heal me like you did Regis?”
“I didn’t heal Regis!”
Today I consider that “thorn” as one of my richest blessings. For through it, I experienced the presence of God with an intimacy that would not have been possible otherwise. And I learned an important lesson: all paths to transformation pass through death — yes, death.
Jesus entreats us to deny self and carry our cross; and goes to say, that if would save our life we must lose it. In the parable of “the kernel of wheat” he teaches that unless we “die” we will die. Embracing that lesson, Paul claimed to “die daily.”
To “die daily” is to undergo those “little deaths” that come our way day-to-day, like:
- Apologizing, asking forgiveness, admitting we’re wrong instead of trying to justify self and maintain our dignity.
- Responding with kindness when treated unkindly, instead of holding on to our offense.
- Praying for people who hurt us, instead of looking to get even.
- Setting aside our needs, wants, and desires to meet the needs of others.
- Giving witness to our faith in profession and practice.
- Countering falsehood with truth and grace.
- Devoting time each day to spend with God in word and prayer.
- Being open, honest, and transparent with trusted others about our failures, fears, and struggles.
It’s a hard lesson—one that I have trouble putting into practice, especially when I forget that in my weakness, I can’t, but in His power, I can!