Suffering Is Not for Its Own Sake

I know I’m supposed to write a brilliant, moving post about the amazing people of Guatemala and how God is doing incredible things, and how deeply I was touched and changed by the experience. I don’t know if I can write that post. I have been changed by the experience but I know I will be processing this for a long time. But for now, here are my first thoughts. 

I went on this trip as an act of faith. I suffer from chronic pain and I knew a trip of this kind would trigger all the symptoms for me. And it did. The walking, the standing, the sitting, even the sleeping all caused intense discomfort and fatigue.

It was worth the pain. It was worth the triggering of memories from my own impoverished early years. It reminded me that we are called to suffer with Christ and with one another. It’s not an option. In A Beautiful Disaster, Marlena Graves writes about the necessity of spiritual formation and the unlikely source:

In an impoverished Guatemalan village, I drank from the most thirst-quenching cup of joy ever.

“Growing up, I begged God to take the cup of suffering from me, but mostly he didn’t. Instead, he used my pain and difficulties, my desert experiences, to transform me—which in turn alleviated my suffering. He redeems what we may deem our living hells, if we allow him. The hard truth, then, is this: everyone who follows Jesus is eventually called to the desert. God uses the desert of the soul—our suffering and difficulties—to form us, to make us beautiful souls” (italics mine).

While in Guatemala, I would fall into bed the moment we returned to our hostel at night. I prayed for healing, for relief, blinking back tears of discouragement from another difficult day. I considered staying at the hostel on Wednesday, not knowing if I could make it through the whole day. The next day we visited Life Unlimited in CaserÍo Las Flores. We walked 3.5 miles and, due to the inclines in the mountainous area, climbed the equivalent of 32 flights of stairs. I wondered how the local residents who also suffered chronic pain coped in this rural, mostly walking life.

Henri Nouwen came to Chicago over 20 years ago and a bunch of us went to see him. We were a motley crowd, and we were late entering the beautiful, solemn Catholic church. There was no room. We weren’t allowed to sit in the aisles due to fire codes. When Nouwen saw the problem, he invited us to sit on the stage with him. I literally sat at Henri Nouwen’s feet. His message was the catalyst for his last published book, Can You Drink the Cup? 

The cup Jesus is referring to is the cup of suffering. James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, were jockeying for position, and their mother was too. She asks Jesus to promise that her sons may sit at his right and his left when they enter the kingdom. “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. 

Everyone who follows Jesus is eventually called to the desert.

The men were quick to answer because they did not know what Jesus was asking. He was asking them to share the cup of his suffering, his brutal beating, his grisly crucifixion. He asks us the same question, can we drink the cup? The cup is heavy and bitter and it is full of pain. Paul got this, he comprehended what suffering with Christ truly meant. In most translations, Philippians 3:10-11 proposes sharing in his sufferings or participating with them. But there are a few translations that offer us a different angle. The NASB, KJV, and HCSB all say it like this: 

“. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” 

The fellowship of His sufferings. Fellowship doesn’t imply a one-time occurrence. It implies the cultivation of relationships, the maintaining of closeness, the commitment of stability and presence. Like The Fellowship of the Ring. It is a continuous connection, a shared suffering, a communal experience of pain.

This is what missions means to me, short-term or long-term. Drinking the cup. Sharing in all our suffering. Even if it’s for a few hours. Even with language barriers and cross-cultural lives. Being present to those who suffer, looking them in the eye, sitting in their homes, listening to them, praying over them, seeing them, is what it means to drink the cup, to know the fellowship of his suffering. We may not bring miracles, but we bring ourselves. And we bring the suffering Savior who promises to make all things new, to wipe tears from eyes, to turn mourning into dancing. My physical self may have been struggling but my heart and my spirit surged with newfound energy.

We are not just called to drink the cup. We are called to drinking the cup, not just once, but over and over, together, in communion. We are reminded of his suffering and his invitation to share in his sufferings so we may know him more deeply, more intimately. But the suffering is not for its own sake, or even just for Christ’s sake, It’s for all our sakes, local and national and global. But God is a God of redemption and rescue. His own suffering was transformed into resurrection. Nouwen writes in his last book:

“In the midst of the sorrows is consolation, in the midst of the darkness is light, in the midst of the despair is hope, in the midst of Babylon is a glimpse of Jerusalem, and in the midst of an army of demons is the consoling angel. The cup of sorrow, inconceivable as it seems, is also the cup of joy. Only when we discover this in our own life can we consider drinking it.”

Fellowship is a continuous connection, a shared suffering, a communal experience of pain.

Our team was going house-to-house, visiting with families. We come to a home with a mother and two daughters, They made us a cake with what little money they had. After some conversation with them, we ask to pray for the mom, but she responds, “Only if I can pray for you too.” During the prayer, I raise my head and catch her eye and she doesn’t look away. After the amen, she looks in my direction and says, “The Holy Spirit has given me something to say to you.” I look behind me, thinking she is referring to someone else. Everyone is looking at me with confused faces.

She takes my hands, looks into my eyes, and tears well up. She raises her voice and every statement is spoken with authority. “Your feet were chosen by God since your mother’s womb. Wherever you go the Lord is in front of you. Wherever your feet touch, the Lord has been there before you. The earth is yours. Whatever your feet touch, the Lord has given it to you. Walk in holiness.

My eyes are wide open in surprise as this beautiful woman wearing a gold cross is clutching me and praying a blessing over me. It’s being prayed twice over me, in emphatic Spanish and then beautifully-accented English. Doubly blessed. She embraces me and holds me tight, crooning over me in Spanish and swaying back and forth like she is sending me off to sleep. I hugged her again as we left and she prayed over me again, “Don’t be afraid, whatever God has called you to do he will train you for.

I’m shocked into silence as we walk to other homes. The director finds me and says, “That has never happened before.” She gave me a sacred cup. In an impoverished Guatemalan village, I drank from the most thirst-quenching cup of joy ever. I go back to her words, the Holy Spirit’s words, when I am feeling invisible, disposable, and less-than. I’m still not sure what he’s training me for, and I don’t have many options in the church or my community to exercise my gifts and calling, but I know he is going before me. I know who holds the cup. 

Tammy Perlmutter
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31 thoughts on “Suffering Is Not for Its Own Sake

  1. I’ve been longing for someone to write words like this, like yours, to remind us of this cup of suffering when so many voices seem to pretty-up our faith too much. And the blessing the woman prayed…..sacred beauty. I’m so glad I read this Tammy and thankful you risked yourself, drank from the cup so we might be filled.

    • Oh Debby, I am amazed that I am the one to write those words for you. Thank you so much for reading and engaging. It means the world.

  2. Wow, Tammy, so powerful! I was really touched by that prayer of blessing the woman prayed over you. God can meet us in places we never dreamed. I’m so glad your spirit was refreshed. Much love to you!

  3. Thank you for sharing those moments, they will stay with me as some of the most beautiful I have read. I could see you being held, I could see the beauty of two souls, wow. Wishing you some quiet time to sit with your memories and just breathe.

  4. Amen to the fellowship of suffering! It is a bitter cup, but there is so much sweetness in the relationships we build with one another and with our God. Thank you for sharing these powerful words, Tammy. Exactly what I needed to read today.

    • This is a high compliment, indeed, especially knowing your own struggle with suffering and loss. You have been a blessing to many.

  5. I loved Marlena’s book – and this post is reaching me in the aftermath of learning that two our our church’s missionaries to Jamaica have been murdered — no apparent motive. Your words remind me that God does not operate in the realm of “no apparent motive.” Our suffering in this world is not for nothing.

  6. I have no words. This is pure Truth, and pure Spirit.

  7. I just love this so much. What a privilege to share Guatemala with you! When the blessing was prayed over your feet, I felt so much excitement for you. Can’t wait to read about all the new adventures you’ll take as God leads you in the coming years. Hopefully, our paths will cross again. Hugs!

    • Thank you for sharing that experiencing with me!! It’s somehow more real that people witnessed it too. Thanks for reading.

  8. Friend, what a beautiful and heartfelt tribute to that trip, to our Lord and savior, to the testimony of what happened in that living room. It was an honor to walk alongside you for a week. I hope we meet again someday!

  9. “We are not just called to drink the cup. We are called to drinking the cup, not just once, but over and over, together, in communion.” Tammy, I am so glad you got this experience, hard as it may have been. I am praying for rest and continued renewal for you and that you’ll never lose the taste you got there – of suffering of the people, of Christ, of the sacrifice that it is and how worth it it is. Love your words and you, friend!

  10. This is truth. We drink the cup again and again and some days it doesn’t go down easy. Some days we want to spit it out and turn away. But our lips close around the suffering when we choose to taste God in all His goodness. We take the cup and are made new. This is the body broken for us, this is Jesus’ blood spilled. That we would know. Love your words here Tammy. What a beautiful reminder for the hurting days.

  11. Your blessing from the Guatemalan woman. I had a similar experience with a Dallas man named Tony in a soup kitchen in 1997. Mankind is so connected. I look forward to reading more as you process friend.

  12. Beautiful Tammy. I love stories about Christian community in the midst of different narratives. Your words remind us that we are all part of the bigger narrative-the one that connects us to the same Redeemer. I would have loved to meet Henri Nouwen.

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