How can we be transformed through suffering? Surprisingly, the eighties cult film The Karate Kid offers some insights. If you're unfamiliar with The Karate Kid story, the plot is as follows: a teenage boy called Daniel moves to a new city, and quickly becomes the target of bullies at his new school. They beat him up, and so Daniel decides to learn karate so he can defend himself the next time the bullies come calling.

An elderly Japanese handyman, Mr. Miyagi, offers to teach Daniel karate, and Daniel gets really excited. He turns up to his first lesson, but to his surprise, Mr. Miyagi tells him to wax all the cars in the car park. Then after he does that, Mr. Miyagi tells him to sandpaper his wooden floor, and then to refinish his fence, and then to paint his house. For each chore, Daniel must use a specific hand motion.

Transformational Suffering: A closer look at The Karate Kid

After weeks of hard, sweaty labour, Daniel gets really mad at Mr. Miyagi and wants to quit, complaining that he's not learning anything about karate, and that Mr. Miyagi is just using him to do all his chores for him. But then Mr. Miyagi reveals that the entire time Daniel was carrying out the chores, he was actually learning karate defensive blocks through training his muscle memory and strength. Mr. Miyagi then pretends to attack Daniel, and Daniel is able to deflect every blow.

Often when we experience suffering, we wonder if God's lost the plot

I think this is a really helpful picture of how God can transform us through suffering. I don't really want to focus on the sort of epic suffering that Job encountered, although God can certainly transform us through that. I want to look at the suffering that we experience every day; maybe it's the suffering of having a difficult job, or the suffering of having loads of work to do at uni, of facing uncertainty about the future, of fancying someone who's not a Christian and knowing you can't go out with them, of not having sex with your girlfriend and wanting to, of feeling lonely or misunderstood, of trying to be godly with your money when you really want to have the kind of lifestyle other people have. We may not think that this sort of thing qualifies as suffering, but it does. I should just clarify here; I'm not talking about the suffering that results from disobeying God, or that's of your own making, like burning the candle at both ends and wondering why you're tired all the time, but rather the kind of suffering that seems to occur when we try to follow God and live godly lives.

Often when we experience suffering, we wonder if God's lost the plot. Two writers, Guelich and Hagberg [1] describe the Christian life as a journey. They talk about how when we first become Christians, it's a really exciting time. God answers our prayers in incredible ways. We thrive on being around other Christians and going to Church and knowing God more and learning how we can develop and use our gifts. But then things seem to go a bit pear-shaped. Life gets really difficult. We start to count the cost of following Jesus, and wonder if it's even worth it. Maybe we've made a terrible mistake. Life gets tough for whatever reason, and we start to wonder what God's up to. Think back to The Karate Kid film; first of all Daniel was really keen about learning karate, and he was thrilled to find out that Mr. Miyagi was a karate expert. He really trusted that Mr. Miyagi would be able to help him. But then as Mr. Miyagi tells him to do all those back-breaking chores, Daniel starts doubting if Mr. Miyagi really knows what he's doing. Why is Mr. Miyagi putting him through all this? Does Mr. Miyagi not care about him? Is it even worth obeying? Guelich and Hagberg observe that:

(we start to) discover painfully that God is not who we had thought God was. God is very different.... we come to see that we had placed God in a box – a box of our own making, perhaps constructed in our childhood. We had prescribed who God was for ourselves and for others. Now God breaks out of the box.[2]

Often when we are suffering we can start to ask the same sort of questions that Daniel asks in the film. We start to doubt God. We are uncertain. We start to question. Things can seem hopeless. This Christian life isn't all it's cracked up to be. God isn't coming through for us. We want to quit.[3]

It is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love, but for less.”

C.S. Lewis

I want to reassure you that it's normal. We should expect suffering; it's a stage of the journey that God takes us on. Jesus told his disciples to expect trouble in this world (John 16:33, NIV). Peter writes, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12, NIV). In other words, don't start freaking out when bad stuff happens. Being a Christian does not exempt us from suffering. Now, we don't have time to go into massive depth about the origins of suffering; suffice to say, “The human family suffers because we are fallen creatures living on this side of Eden”.[4] It doesn't mean that God has it in for you, or that He's stopped loving you, or that He's abandoned you.

You may be thinking, “if God loves us so much, why is he allowing all this bad stuff to happen? Why doesn't God just remove my suffering?” I think that God doesn't get rid of the suffering sometimes because He loves us too much. In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi could have gone and used his own karate skills to beat up the bullies and make them leave Daniel alone for good. But he doesn't do this; instead he makes Daniel train in karate. When Daniel spends time with Mr. Miyagi learning karate, his whole life becomes transformed. He gains self-worth and a new sense of identity that permeates every aspect of his life. By the end of the film he's a completely different person. Now I realise that this is just a Hollywood film, so we shouldn't take this analogy too far. But do you see what I'm saying? C.S. Lewis put it like this: “It is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more love, but for less.”[5]

What if God loves us too much to simply remove the suffering? What if He can use the suffering to transform us? McClaren notes that sometimes when we start out as Christians, we treat God as our “personal assistant or fixer or genii... (we want God to) adjust and remake the universe for our convenience and benefit”.[6] McClaren calls this an “immature faith”, and he says that “God is not interested in helping me to stay immature forever”.[7] He goes on to say, “Immature petition asks God to give us an easier world with fewer annoying jerks to contend with, and mature petition asks God to help us become stronger, kinder people – and less annoying to our neighbours”.[8] Mulholland refers to this period of doubting and uncertainty as “purgation”, and says it's all about bringing our behaviour and attitudes in line with Christ.[9] He notes that God is dealing with our “trust structures, especially those deep inner postures of our being that do not rely on God but on self for our well-being”.[10]

Okay, so God is transforming us through our sufferings, but into what? In The Karate Kid, Daniel gets transformed into a really good karate fighter. What are we being transformed into? The wholeness of the likeness of Christ.[11] If you're thinking, well that doesn't sound very cool, I'd rather be transformed into a karate black belt, let's look into this statement a bit more. What does becoming like Jesus mean? Paul gives an example:

But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely. (Galatians 5:22-23, The Message)

Note that Paul says 'we'; it's not just that God transforms me as an individual, but that it happens in community, for the sake of the community, so that God can be glorified more fully.

So during this transforming process, how should we act? God doesn't want us to be stoics, to 'man up' and deal with it by ourselves. We shouldn't grit our teeth and endure it, or put our lives on hold until the suffering is over. Rather, “we suspend judgement, knowing, analysing, or reverting to the tried and true – the good old way. It means taking a risk and really listening to God in new ways.”[12]. It's a good idea to read books that encourage searching and raising questions. Reflective activities such as art, journalling, music can help us to “ask the deep questions, that quiet us down and ask us to ponder”.[13]

Remember that we're not in this alone. God has promised never to let us down or leave us (Deuteronomy 31:6 The Message). We need to be continually asking God for help:

When we cry out for help, we reach out for resources and capacities we don't yet have. We dare to desire strength sufficient to meet life's challenges, instead of wishing for the challenges to shrink to our current levels of capacity. By crying help, we choose expansion rather than contraction, advance rather than retreat.[14]

sometimes it is only afterwards that we can look back and see how God was transforming us through those particular sufferings. Sometimes we never get to know why.

Mulholland notes that in Philippians 4:6, “Paul calls us to be constantly tuned to God as the source of our sufficiency in every circumstance”.[15] Only then can we experience God's peace, his shalom, in which “we find the true fulfillment of our being, true identity and value”.[16] One way of remaining constantly tuned to God is through developing the spiritual disciplines, for example using Lectio Divina, solitude, or the prayer of Examen (for more on this, check out Ruth Haley Barton's book Sacred Rhythms [17]).

The key question is this: will we let God transform us through our suffering? Guelich and Hagberg call it “a surrendering to God, letting God do whatever is right for us”.[18] Mulholland writes that “the old, anxious, egocentric self is called to increasing mortification so that the new-peace filled, God-centered self may come more and more into being”.[19] But it doesn't just happen automatically. Just because we are suffering doesn't mean we automatically get transformed. God doesn't suddenly zap us into being Christ-like. Yes, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that transforms us – but only if we let Him. So when we're having a really bad time for whatever reason, we have the choice – to either get mad at God, to try and go it alone. Or we can choose to make ourselves available to God, to listen to Him, to surrender ourselves to Him, and in this way allow Him to transform us.

In The Karate Kid, Daniel didn't know the reason behind his sufferings; it was only afterwards that Mr. Miyagi explained to him why he had been making him do all those chores. Likewise with us – sometimes it is only afterwards that we can look back and see how God was transforming us through those particular sufferings. Sometimes we never get to know why. But we can be assured of this: that God is good, and that He has good plans for us (Jeremiah 29:11). Also, He gets it. There's no need to try and hide stuff from him about how we really feel. In writing about Jesus, Hebrews tells us that “We don't have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He's been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let's walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help” (Hebrews 4:14-16, The Message). And see the transformation!

References

[1] R. Guelich and J. Hagberg (2005) The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, Salem, Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing Company, p.93.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] B. Demarest (2009) Seasons of the soul: Stages of spiritual development, Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, p.41.
[5] C.S. Lewis (1940) The Problem of Pain, London: The Centenary Press, p.35.
[6] B. McLaren (2011) Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, New York: HarperOne, p.128.
[7] Ibid., p.129.
[8] Ibid., p.130.
[9] M. Mulholland (1993) Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, p.82.
[10] Ibid., p.85.
[11] Ibid., p.23.
[12] Guelich and Hagberg The Critical Journey, p.122.
[13] Ibid.
[14] McLaren Naked Spirituality, p.134.
[15] Mulholland Invitation to a Journey, p.91.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ruth Haley Barton (2006) Sacred Rhythms, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
[18] Guelich and Hagberg The Critical Journey, p.120.
[19] Mulholland Invitation to a Journey, p.94.

Bibliography

A. Andrews (2010) The Kingdom Life: A Practical Theology of discipleship and Spiritual Formation, Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress.
B. Demarest (2009) Seasons of the soul: Stages of spiritual development, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.
R. Foster (1992) Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, Sevenoaks, Kent: Hodder and Stoughton.
P. Grieg (2007) God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer, Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications.
R. Guelich and J. Hagberg (2005) The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, Salem, Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing Company.
C.S. Lewis (1940) The Problem of Pain, London: The Centenary Press.
B. McLaren (2011) Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, New York: HarperOne.
M. Mulholland (1993) Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

© 2012 Naomi Wilson
This article is the text of a talk given by the author. It is published here with her permission.