Tn 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton gathered his crew and set sail for Antarctica seeking to cross the continent on foot from west to east.
The men who joined him responded, so the story goes, to a now famous advertisement Shackleton took out in a local paper: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
The journey, recounted in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage, lived up to such perilous expectations of misery and extreme difficulty. As the expedition moved southward into the Weddell Sea in January of 1915, their ship, aptly named the Endurance, became stuck in an ice flow and was eventually sunk. At that point, Shackelton’s mission became what it would be for almost two years: survival in one of the coldest, most inhospitable places on earth.
Facing starvation and the likely destruction of his men, Shackelton left Elephant Island en route to South Georgia Island, an impossible 720-mile sea voyage across the Drake Passage in a 22-foot lifeboat. Against gale force winds and ridiculous odds, Shackelton and his men somehow reached South Georgia Island after five agonizing weeks in the deadliest water passage on earth.
Frozen, emaciated, and more than halfway to madness, Shackelton and a few men were then forced to cross the glacial South Georgia Island on foot so as to reach a whaling station. They somehow survived the 30-mile mountain climbing leg of their trek, a journey once-repeated since by expert mountaineers who said this: “I do not know how they did it, except that they had to—three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them and a carpenter’s adze.”
ENDURING IS VICTORY
Shackelton and his men never accomplished their original mission of crossing Antartica on foot, but they discovered a greater reward in the endurance of great suffering. Ernest, like his men, lived up to his family motto and left the rest of us with a story for encouragement and awe: Fortitudine vincimus, “By endurance we conquer.”
It’s the perfect motto for the Christian: “By endurance we conquer.”
Like Shackelton’s voyage, life doesn’t go the way we plan. We each face our own shipwrecks—in relationships, marriages, physical health, job statuses, and more. There are long seasons when God appoints trials to each of us that seem to have no terminus, no end, and we are tempted to lose heart. It’s not just that we face suffering, but we face it over a long period of time. We aren’t given a schedule, instruction manual, or completion date.
Marriages erupt and meltdown, leaving years of hurt, grief, and bitterness in their wake. Adulteries are real and lethal. Spouses become addicted to drugs, get addicted to pornography and abuse the kids. Children grow up and, in the prime of their youth, get badly injured in tragic accidents. Some of them die, while others go through life crippled and lame. Parents are left to wonder what could have been. Pastors and leaders in trusted positions lie, steal, and mislead us. Our children are sexually assaulted and left with a lifetime of emotional baggage.
Your child is born with down syndrome. Others are plagued by disease, chronic sickness, or autism. Your wife or child is losing her hearing. Your father has a brain tumor. It’s terminal, and after years of chemo, he dies. Your spouse’s organ transplant didn’t take. After years on a wait list you finally have an organ, but you still have a lifetime of checkups, ER visits, scares, and constant, life-altering anxieties.
Aging parents or loved ones need long-term care that is exhausting, perplexing, and physically draining. We can’t take care of them, but must. Beloved friends lose their minds and bodies to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Small businesses drain us of time, resources, and sanity. We go through long seasons of sleeplessness, worry, and the debilitating thought that each day could be the last for us, our employees, and the monumental investment of our lives could burn to the ground.
Careers take off, crash land, and then we spend years living off islands of doubt, depression, and anxiety. We work jobs we hate for employers who hate us. We get fired, rehired, and mistreated. We endure painful moves, unchosen relocations, unwelcoming neighborhoods and minefields within the church.
Chronic disease, chronic disorders, chronic suffering.
Trust me, in none of these things is there a quick, easy way out. There’s a lot of suck and it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And the greatest obstacle we face is that we not lose heart.
But how do we not lose heart? How do we fight for our hope in such a sea of doubt?
THE GIFT OF LONGSUFFERING
First, we recognize that these long-term sufferings are God’s gracious gift to us. They’re gifts from a Father who knows that his children need to learn the discipline of enduring hard things. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, necessity requires we learn obedience through suffering, just as Christ did.
“For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” (Hebrews 10:36).
Have you ever noticed how particularly well-aimed your sufferings are? God doesn’t miss His mark. When He gives us trials and discipline, He knows exactly where our idolatries lie, exactly where we need encouragement, exactly where we need to grow, and exactly what will bring us to full maturity.
What’s hard to fathom is that all this hurt—long-standing, seemingly unending, heart-breaking hurt—is gifted to us in Fatherly love, not malice. As C.S. Lewis put it, “we are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.”
“We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” C.S. Lewis
My friend Jake always reminds me of this painful, loving reality. When we catch up with each other on the comically ridiculous sufferings we’re each enduring, Jake will always say, “I can tell God loves you because of how much suffering He’s appointed in your life.”
When a particular season of suffering is over he’ll say, “You made it. You endured. Now it’s time for something harder. And better.”
Fortunately, we’re not left to ourselves. As we abide in Christ, the obedience-through-suffering Savior, we are filled with His Spirit, who produces the fruit of patient endurance in us (Galatians 5:22). The way we endure our trials is by leaning in to Christ, and they have the gracious effect of causing us to recognize our constant need of His strength, presence, and Spirit.
Interestingly enough, I think the writers of the KJV were right to translate the Spiritual fruit of patience as longsuffering. Patience is, literally, learning to suffer for a long time. It is learning a long obedience in the same direction.
LEAN INTO THE BODY
Second, we lean into the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The writer to the Hebrews gives this specific remedy right before calling us to endure. He says it this way:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
One of our greatest temptations in the face of long-suffering will be to drift away from other Christians. Maybe it’s in an instant or over time, but we push them out of our lives. We stop showing up to worship or participating in the life of the Body. We choose to see malice in every one of their bumbling attempts to comfort us. So we attack, wound, and divide the Body with our sharp-edged tongue. Our wrath toward God gets unleashed on his image bearers.
Here’s the thing: we need the encouragement of others, especially when there’s a long road of suffering ahead of us. We need to pour out our hearts and be heard.
The Greek word for encouragement in Hebrews 10 is parakaleo, which means to get up in your personal grill, to come alongside, and there, in that uncomfortable space, to bring comfort, truth, and grace. Like the Spirit, the Paraclete, we are to come alongside those who are in the midst of long trials.
So, show up to worship on your worst days. Run into the light when you feel like hiding in the dark. That’s who worship is for—those who can’t make it another day, who will probably cry through every conversation, and who can’t imagine feeling hopeful.
KNOW YOUR BIOGRAPHIES
Third, read the biographies of eminent saints who’ve conquered unbelievable adversities by faith. That’s the whole point of Hebrews 11: it’s a bibliography of the biographies that you can read for encouragement when life grinds you to dust in the mill of suffering. They grew strong through suffering, and you can, too.
When I read about Shackelton in his fifth week eating cold seal-blubber soup as he goes on his sixth day without sleep in the midst of hurricane-force seas, right after the crew runs out of water and its lips are cracked and bleeding, I think to myself, I can make it through this.
Or when I read about Marcus Luttrell’s ordeal in Afghanistan or the Navy SEALs going through 60 hours of sleepless torture during Hell Week, I think to myself, I don’t have it that bad. Like they did, I can focus on the next task and keep moving forward.
Finally, hold on, knowing that Christ is holding on to you.
“This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:19).
“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).