The Bitter Cup

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Recently, I was captivated with To the Golden Shore, a biography of Adoniram Judson, one of the first American missionaries. His story is rife with suffering and yet his life is still having an impact centuries later. Adoniram had already experienced the death of his first wife and three children by the time he penned a letter to fellow missionary, Sarah Boardman, after the loss of her husband. Years later, this woman would become his second wife and the two would grieve the deaths of three of their eight children. He wrote:

“You are now drinking the bitter cup whose dregs I am somewhat acquainted with. And though, for some time, you have been aware of its approach, I venture to say that it is far bitterer than you expected…I can assure you that months and months of heart-rending anguish are before you… Yet take the bitter cup with both hands, and sit down to your repast. You will soon learn a secret, that there is sweetness at the bottom…”

The bitter cup of suffering.

Sweetness at the bottom.

How can we possibly find sweetness when drinking the bitter cup of suffering? Adoniram Judson had learned the secret that so many writers of Scripture have divulged. Suffering unites us with Christ. He is the sweetness at the bottom.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul wrote that he had suffered the loss of all things and counted them as rubbish in order that he might gain Christ. “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Our suffering is a means through which we identify with Christ. We become more acutely aware of what Christ endured for our sake when we suffer. This awareness propels our love for him deeper still.

Paul goes on to say that we can rejoice in our sufferings, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). This is echoed in James, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). We learn endurance and perseverance of faith through the difficult trials and pains of life. Suffering fortifies our character and serves as a means of conforming us into the image of Christ. When we lean into Christ through our sufferings, he proves himself faithful, and our faith is strengthened by what it has endured.

As we drink the bitter cup of suffering, we drink knowing that Christ is ever-present. We do not suffer alone. Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” We can cry out to the One who is a refuge for our soul (Psalm 57:1), knowing that nothing, not even the depths of despair, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). His presence in the midst of our suffering provides a sweet peace for our souls in spite of our circumstances.

For the believer, suffering drives us to Christ. We find ourselves digging into the Word in desperation. The Scriptures become a well-spring of life, giving us hope in great affliction. We find his precious and great promises and we are reminded that our sufferings in this life pale in comparison to the glory that is to be revealed (Romans 8:18). We learn of saints who have suffered greatly, yet experienced God’s faithfulness and blessing. His unchanging character and faithfulness throughout generations assure us that he will be present in our deepest despair. In the psalms of David, we find a blueprint for walking through the deepest valleys: Cry out to the Lord, praise our Savior even in profound anguish, because it is in the praise that our souls find repose. Suffering has a way of driving us to the Scriptures, increasing our knowledge of Christ through His Word. Thus, as we walk through the bitterness of great suffering, we are able to declare, “It was good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71).

It is in the suffering that we find Christ, that we become more acquainted with him. May our hearts echo the words of Charles Spurgeon: “I have learned to kiss the waves that throw me up against the Rock of Ages.” When suffering comes upon us, may we sit down to drink the bitter cup, rejoicing that there is sweetness at the bottom.

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