Coaching and the Suffering Christian

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I have spent my life being coached or coaching. I’ve played most of the major sports and some of the more unusual ones as well. I’ve learned that coaches face one major perennial challenge. It is the difficulty of motivating your athletes when pain and fatigue are urging them to quit.

I’ve found that there are three basic coaching styles that seek to answer this challenge.

The first coaching style asserts that true athletes don’t feel pain. It simply doesn’t exist; it is a figment of the imagination. This is the mind-over-matter rationale. Pain isn’t a challenge; or, it isn’t even to be considered. To feel pain is to be weak, these athletes are told.

Nonsense. Everyone feels pain.

The second coaching style asserts that true athletes love pain. They eat pain for breakfast. They seek pain out. They smile when their fast-twitch muscle fibers are on fire. They love to receive and deliver concussive hits, they are taught.

Nonsense. No one loves pain.

The third coaching style asserts that true athletes, successful athletes, find pain to be a necessary experience in the sport they love. Pain is the friction of growth toward accomplished goals and skill development. These athletes are taught to expect pain, respect pain, and listen to pain as a sign they are progressing. Coaches who adopt this coaching style toward pain tend to produce the healthiest athletes.

Christianity has a point of contact with these coaching styles and the presence of pain and suffering in the life of every Christian. Despite the vain thoughts of the early convert, the life of faith in Christ is not an ascent to heavenly bliss on a pillow of protection and prosperity. The way up is often the way down, a cross before a crown. Whether you are that early convert or a saint seasoned in trials, you will experience pain and suffering in the Christian life with a deep tension—a spiritual, emotional, cognitive, theological, and eschatological tension.

The psalmist in Psalm 44 leads us into just such a tension.

In the first eight verses, he asserts the give-and-take of redemption and growth. God has saved His people. And He has grown His people through that redemption into a trusting and grateful bunch who continually boast in the Lord.

But by the ninth verse, the shadow falls and boasting mouths become stilled with confusion. The psalmist provides us with words most of us would be too embarrassed to pray. Verses 9 through 22 chronicle the bewildered poet’s struggle with suffering. Despite their receptive and grateful response to redemption, the people of God are now suffering—intensely suffering. Where is the Lord? Verse 22 summarizes the plaintive pleading of the psalmist: “Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

The psalm ends with a soul-stirring cry to God for help. Suffering has come. The stillness and clarity that the psalmist once knew is now turbulent and cloudy. How could this be happening?

Has God’s grace now run out? It is a simple question. “Lord, if you have loved us, redeemed us, and covenanted yourself to us—well, then, why this suffering?” The Bible not only asserts the truthfulness of Christian doctrine but also affirms the experience of Christian confusion. The Lord has ordained suffering for just such a purpose, to draw His people to Him with a “Why?” on their lips, but to draw them toward Him nonetheless.

And that is why it is fascinating to see the Apostle Paul quote Psalm 44:22 in the eighth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Rome. The citation seems out of place considering the context. In the verses immediately preceding the quotation of Psalm 44:22, Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Who shall separate us from the love Christ?” He then follows the quotation of our psalm with the statement, “We are more than conquers through him who loved us.” We are forced to ask the question, “Why was Psalm 44:22 on the lips of Paul when such amazing promises are being made?” Wouldn’t Romans 8 be so much more encouraging if Paul left out such a depressing quotation?

What we find is that what was confusing for the sons of Korah has been clarified by the Apostle of Christ. We have a suffering Savior. Suffering in the life of Jesus was God’s declaration that plan A was under way. As His crucifixion illustrates, Jesus felt pain. As His Gethsemane prayer illustrates, Jesus didn’t enjoy pain. Jesus’ approach to pain and suffering was one of necessity that would eventually give way to glory and joy. For the joy set before Him, He endured the cross (Heb. 12:2).

And so the Christian is invited to do the same. Pain and suffering are a normal part of the Christian’s growth toward glory. Suffering is bookended by God’s inseparable love and our status as more than conquerors. And one day, when pain and sorrow are no more, God Himself will wipe away every tear.

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