My semi-annual cancer checkup was this month. Although my surgery was three years ago, I still experience a twinge of dread each time I walk into the doors of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital. I flashback to the emotions I felt when the words “unfortunately, Mr. Clark” came out of my doctor’s mouth in 2009.
Though we resist it, suffering is both the means of making disciples and the qualifier of disciplers. Remember what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:6?
“If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation: if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.”
The kingdom of God advances through our sufferings. This began with Jesus himself and continues through us.
By evening on the day I had received my cancer diagnosis I was exhausted. I told my friends I just wanted to be alone with the Lord, but later in the evening I received a phone call from a distraught young man whom I had been discipling, Lloyd. Lloyd’s parents had just told him they were separating and he asked if I could come pick him up from work. The last thing I wanted to was drive in city traffic and pick up Lloyd. Lord, of all nights! I thought. You know I love Lloyd but I have enough trouble of my own right now.
After some tug-of-war with God, I left and picked up Lloyd. As we rode down Lake Shore Drive together, I listened to his fears and anguish. Rather than resenting Lloyd’s intrusion into my sorrow, I found myself listening to him with a new empathy because of my own heartbreak that day. Looking back I see that evening as spiritually defining moment in Lloyd’s life, as well as in our friendship. And it was the first of many lessons that I would learn through a season of personal suffering. The Lord, in his wisdom, knew exactly when and how to mesh my pain with Lloyd’s (What are the odds that I would be diagnosed with cancer the same day that Lloyd’s parents would separate?).
Suffering and love are inseparable. There are depths of love in my relationship with God and others that I cannot know apart from suffering. I must have the time and then the willingness to make myself available to enter into my disciple’s suffering. Not only does this accessibility serve as a gateway to a loving friendship between us, it also allows him to experience the love of God that is an overflow from my own suffering into his life.