In this world today, I see a phenomena, a human behavior I will call “the competition of suffering.” In the competition of suffering, sufferers with this mindset behave like they must compete with other sufferers to win a prize for having suffered the most. They fight each other for resources viewed as limited, that sometimes truly are scarce in the world–resources like compassion, caring, and help of all sorts. Competitive sufferers dismiss and minimize other sufferers’ pain while seeking more sympathy, comfort, etc. for themselves.
Indeed, some competitive sufferers will go so far as to claim someone else’s suffering is not only inferior to theirs and less worthy of compassion, etc. than theirs, but that the other person is not truly a sufferer at all, they are a lucky or blessed person who needs to be grateful and stop complaining.
Such sad attitudes are to be expected among those without the love of Christ in their lives. Let those of us who know better patiently, gently correct such painfully distorted views of suffering. Including the idea that being grateful is an instant, total cure for pain and that we can’t both be both hurting over a loss and grateful for what we do have at the same time.
Now, let’s be honest. Those of us who do know the Lord can also fall into such thinking, myself included. I pray those of who know and love the Lord would watch ourselves, lest we enter into the world’s competitive suffering rather than entering into the fellowship of suffering.
That phrase comes from this text:
Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that . . . I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings. Phil 3:8a,10a (see full context)
In the fellowship of suffering, there is no room for competition, as we all crown our Lord Jesus Christ the victor. He carried the whole sins of the world, all of the Church’s pain and suffering, on that cross. Christ has compassion on each and all of us, fairly and equally, and the Lord has more than enough help available to give to us all. Christ went to the cross to save us all from our sufferings, Christ’s spirit is in us all, and he is suffering along with all of us, and we are all simply fellow partakers in Christ’s passion, and after this temporary life’s pains, we will all partake in eternal joy with him in the Kingdom.
The Fellowship of Suffering is like a group of marathon runners, all on the same team, who each run hard, cheer each other on, and there is no prize for being the fastest or the person who endured the worst. Instead, we all run to receive our “finisher” (overcomer) prize at eternity’s finish line.
In this life, we get to be the Lord’s hands and feet. When the Lord has strengthened us and lifted us up, we get to strengthen and lift up our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ as freely as we have received it ourselves. We get to leave the ninety-nine to care for the one, if that’s what God calls us to. We each get to give of what we have been blessed with abundantly to those who have need of it.
Sadly, the Fellowship of suffering itself can be as divided as the whole church often is racially. I’ve seen an elderly widow who has also lost a son and an infertile woman who lost her mom and both of her grandmothers walk in the Fellowship of Suffering together. But in the absence of other similar or complementary forms of grief binding God’s people, how much “Fellowship of Suffering” do we see between, say, women under forty with primary infertility and moms the same age with secondary infertility or who have lost a child before or after the child’s birth?
Now let’s take all harried, working Moms with too few hours in the day and infertile women who’d planned to start families right away and homeschool who are having to decide how to spend the time not going to our children as we’d planned. How often is the woman with too little time to herself and the woman with too much of it all “sisters in suffering!” toward each other?
For an example not involving death or infertility, how much fellowship of suffering do we see practiced between those of us who are struggling to get down to a healthy weight and our brothers and sisters who are struggling to get up to a healthy weight?
In Christ, the Church should be able to bring all of these together, as well as the never-married woman who can’t find a husband, the single mom whose husband has left her, the happily married infertile woman, and the refugee woman whose faith in Christ has cost her everything but her life.
How often do we reach out to anyone suffering so differently than us?
Let’s each search our own hearts, gentle reader, asking the Lord:
Have I been participating any in the competition of suffering? Arguing over who has suffered most, dismissing or minimizing another’s undeserved pain? Has my heart seen compassion, etc. as scarce resources I fear I don’t deserve or fear there won’t be enough of for everyone? Have I seen someone who has something good that I lack and greatly desire, someone who’s suffered due to that good something? Have I been tempted to dismiss their suffering, saying enviously, “at least they have . . .” ?
If so, Christ is holding out his nail-scarred hand to us. He calls gently, inviting us to leave the competition, and join the fellowship.