For all the joy and wonder of the Advent season it doesn’t take long to realise that it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.

Whilst Mary was pleased to be chosen to be the mother of Christ, think about the emotional pain she must have gone through as an unmarried pregnant girl in her culture. She nearly lost her fiancée and no doubt was labelled the equivalent of a slag – or something worse. The coming of Christ was not without pain and suffering.

When Herod discovered that a new (rival) king had been born his response was to kill all the infant boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger. The coming of Christ was not without pain and suffering.

Read on in the Jesus-story and you soon discover that this beautiful baby boy later died an ugly and horrific death. That was the only way human beings like me could be made right with God. I am eternally grateful. But let’s be honest: the coming of Christ was not without pain and suffering.

Today the world is remembering the life of Nelson Mandela who died yesterday aged 95. Mandela skilfully led South Africa through major change in turbulent times and is rightly remembered as the leading statement of his day. What is amazing is that he was able to do so after having gone through such great suffering. He was imprisoned for 27 years and during so much of his life was oppressed, tortured, violated and misunderstood. Many who experience such trials end up defeated, despondent and deflated. But Mandela reacted differently. He chose to forgive and to turn pain and suffering for good.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, quoted in today’s Times newspaper says that whilst Mandela wasn’t a saint he was ‘a truly great man’ for he chose to forgive and promote reconciliation over revenge. Tutu puts it like this:
‘Some people are embittered by injustice but in a number of cases it has the opposite effect. It is almost as if the impurities are washed away in the furnace of suffering… it removes the dross and helps one see more clearly… Mercifully for us this is what happened in his case.
Mandela had something deeper than empathy for his opponents… he had compassion. He could understand how they could be made to feel, their fears that their very existence was at stake. Like the true leader that he was, he led for the sake of the led, and not for what he got out of it himself. In that, we as a people were strongly blessed.’

Nelson Mandela’s life shows us that there’s a clear link between transformation and suffering. If we want to see great things happen we must not run away from suffering but rather face it and turn it for good. The Advent stories remind us of something similar. Whilst we don’t go looking for suffering, there is no transformation without pain. If we want to see change not just in the wider world but also closer to home – in our lives, our families, our churches and communities – then we must be willing to suffer.

I thought about this as I read Romans 8:17 in the Bible this morning. After describing many of the good things about being God’s children, followers of Jesus are wisely reminded that we must ‘share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’

No pain? No glory.

Is there a painful struggle that you need to face at the moment? Will you pray for grace to not only get though it, but to become stronger, and for good to come as a result?