by Colleen Chao
Years ago, God gave me a simple mental image that helped me persevere through long years of singleness. I pictured a treasure chest where my tears were stored and turned into eternal reward. By imagining each tear of anguish counting for eternity (see Psalm 126:5), I was able to push on to trust God through another day of deferred longings.
These tears, I told myself, will count for something infinitely great…
My suffering in singleness was an invitation to find my treasure in Christ. My suffering was valuable, not as an end, but as a means to usher me into a deeper love relationship with my Lord. Suffering, both then and now, reminds me that this life is not where my ultimate happiness and purpose are found.
But sometimes I get things all backwards.
It’s easy to start viewing my sufferings as if they were my badge of honor, my validation, even my very identity. My temptation is to worship at the altar of my pain instead of offering it up as a sacrifice of praise to the Only One worthy of my worship. In fact, sometimes I want your validation and empathy more than “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
But when I exalt my hardships, I necessarily have to diminish the hardships of everyone else around me. I need your suffering to pale in comparison to mine.
Haven’t we all done this, especially on our darkest days?
For example, the 30-something single girl may look at the 20-something barren wife and think, “Well, at least she has a husband and has the potential to get pregnant! I’d be happy just to get a date!” Or the married mother of young children may look at the single girl and think, “Look at her carefree life! What I wouldn’t give to dress up cute, meet friends for coffee, and sleep in once in awhile!”
Suffering can lead to a hard heart that looks bitterly at everyone else’s better, easier life… or it can soften our hearts and give us great compassion for others’ sufferings, no matter how they compare to ours. This is the heart of 2 Corinthians 1:3-4:
“The God of all comfort…comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
No one else will suffer quite like you do, or I do, but that’s beside the point. God’s comfort is for those who are in any affliction. For me to compare my suffering against yours robs me of doing the very thing I was made for:
“God has so composed the body. . .that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” 1 Corinthians 12:24-26
Our mutual suffering, although very different in shape and size, is designed to bind us together, not divide us. It’s not that we should avoid talking about our hardships with each other; it’s that we should talk about them in light of who God is and what He has done for us (Philippians 3:8; 2 Corinthians 11). This builds up the Body, all of whose members experience trials beyond compare.
I don’t want to make much of my suffering; I want to make much of my God in suffering. Long years of singleness, my ongoing struggle with depression and panic attacks, and debilitating health issues have given me more opportunities to minister to others and boast in Christ than all of my successes and talents combined. Even my fight for sexual purity as a single woman opened up surprising doors for me to talk about Jesus with believers and unbelievers alike.
Suffering really is not the point. God is.
He takes our sorrows and invites us into deeper fellowship with Himself. He takes our tears and turns them into eternal joy as we come to know and love Him more and then comfort those who are suffering around us.
As Joylane Bartron wrote, “Suffering is not a competitive sport.” Let’s stop comparing our plights with each other and exalting our hardships. Instead, let’s run together into the God of all comfort who promises,
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Colleen Elisabeth Chao makes her home in Redlands, California, with her long-awaited husband Eddie and a wee little man named Jeremy.