“Why is light given to those in misery,
and life to the bitter of soul,
to those who long for death that does not come,
who search for it more than for hidden treasure,
who are filled with gladness
and rejoice when they reach the grave?
Why is life given to a man
whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?
For sighing has become my daily food;
my groans pour out like water.
What I feared has come upon me;
what I dreaded has happened to me.
I have no peace, no quietness;
I have no rest, but only turmoil.”
If anyone has a right to despair, it’s Job. His family is dead, his house and land are burned, he is sitting on the ground in sackcloth and ashes, scraping at painful boils with a piece of broken pottery. He has suffered every conceivable physical, emotional, and mental torment. He even has the spiritual torment of believing that God is punishing him for wickedness that he did not commit. No one would blame him for sinking into a complete, debilitating nervous breakdown.
However, like prosperity and righteousness, suffering can also be a trap. Despair can consume us and overtake our thoughts, desires, and feelings until it takes God’s place inside us. It becomes an idol. You’ve probably met people with a strange, unhealthy delight in their own misfortune. They love to compare their problems with yours, (to show you how insignificant yours are), to playact the role of the silent, suffering martyr who somehow manipulates guilt from everyone they meet. All the joys around them only seem to add to their burden. It always seems like they are working extra hard for someone to come over, pat them on the back and say, “oh you poor dear! You’ve worked so hard and gotten no reward! Everyone has been so nasty and ungrateful to you! Well, you have been much, much better behaved then all of those brutes, even though you would never complain.”
I should point out that I am just as guilty of this sin as anyone else. I’m sure my wife will attest to the look of strong, silent martyrdom I give when she asks me to wipe the counter, or the barely suppressed sigh of emotional bravery when she isn’t immediately ready to sleep with me.
Our suffering can be used as a weapon, or as a mirror we use to admire ourselves. It’s a form of self-idolatry that consumes us and keeps God at an arm’s distance. There are seasons for mourning and grief, but seasons must end eventually. When Job had his whole life stripped away from him, he probably felt like his anguish was the only thing he had left. The majority of the book is Job describing the pain of his misfortune. He wishes he had never been born, he longs for death, he holds up his pain like a banner for the world to witness. It takes God entering the scene and rebuking Job for him to stop talking. I don’t know if, left to himself, Job would perseverate on his suffering forever, but suffering does tend to make us self-centered. How could it not? Have you ever had a toothache? Or poison ivy? It’s impossible to think of anything else! But even our suffering does not belong to us. We must submit it, and everything else, to God.
When our suffering turns us to God instead of ourselves, we are free from the third trap.