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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Suffering and the Spirit

By Joseph Castleberry
Sept. 8, 2013


All by itself, that question turns pain into suffering. While we feel pain as a sensation in the body, we experience suffering in the mind. We can feel pain without suffering, and suffering can seize us without physical pain. But the belief that our pain makes no sense turns pain into suffering.

Why did my mother die so young? Why did my husband leave me? Why was my brother paralyzed in an automobile accident? Why do I have chronic pain? Why can’t the doctors do anything to help me? Why me? We have all asked those kinds of questions.

If I break my arm saving my child’s life, I will feel pain. But I won’t suffer much. I will feel pride at the action that saved my child. Any scars that might result, I would wear as badges of victory, and I would bear the pain of recovery with less suffering. I would know why I broke my arm, and I would consider that sacrifice a small price to pay.

When we don’t know why we suffer, it is much harder. So many of the things that cause us pain seem to make no sense. Even if some great, cosmic reason could explain our suffering, our minds probably couldn’t grasp it — too complicated for us to understand, impossible to put into human words. Perhaps the angels might understand it. Surely God does.

But no human being has ever been able to explain why bad things happen. Simplified answers like, “It’s because of sin,” explain almost nothing and provide little comfort, if any.

Suffering is a mystery.

In Romans 8, Paul powerfully discusses our suffering. Just as we will share the glory of Christ in the life to come, we “must also share his suffering” now (v. 17, NLT). Paul considers that “what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory” [Christ] will reveal in us later (v. 18). In the meantime, all creation suffers with us, groaning as if it were in the pains of childbirth (v. 22). We also groan, longing “for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering” (v. 23).

But God does not leave us alone. In the midst of our suffering, the Holy Spirit groans too. The Spirit helps us in our weakness and suffering. Even though we do not understand and do not know how to pray, the Spirit “prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts” knows what the Spirit expresses (vv. 26,27).

Bible scholars from many Christian traditions have long recognized this ineffable prayer in the Spirit refers to praying in tongues. Whenever a person prays in tongues, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14:2, “It will all be mysterious.” People who pray that way are “strengthened personally” (v. 4) even though they don’t understand what they are saying (v. 14). In the midst of their suffering, they declare mysteries to God their minds cannot comprehend.

And so God answers the mystery of suffering with the mystery of tongues. We will never understand suffering on this side of heaven. But until we see Jesus — until the glory of His presence makes our suffering worth it all — the Spirit helps us. Praying in the Spirit soothes our own spirits. Somehow, some way, we pray past our confusion and receive God’s own consolation in heavenly language. A little bit of the conversation of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1) steals into our groaning, a conversation we long to listen in on, and will one day comprehend.

Why? We will never know fully until eternity. But through the gift of tongues, we can begin to feel the consolation of heaven in the here and now. Every Christian can experience this personal gift from God. It is available through prayer by faith, even at this moment.

JOSEPH CASTLEBERRY, president of Northwest University in Kirkland, Wash., is the author of The Kingdom Net: Learning to Network Like Jesus (Influence Resources, 2013).


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