God has used the sufferings in my life, as the crucible in which a strong theology of suffering was birthed and continues to mature. While my pain and your pain are different and come in a unique vortex of circumstances, God has some common and clear things to teach us nonetheless.
Scripture has much to say about suffering and our response to it. For instance, all suffering, my personal experiences included, is directly related to The Fall and all the terrible after-effects of The Curse (Gen 3). Suffering is not a surprise to God & is one of the primary means by which he conforms me to the image of his Son (Isa 46:9-10, Rom 8:29). Suffering should not be a surprise to us! It is promised (John 16:33, Acts 14:22, 2 Tim 3:12)! I am to view all suffering and hardship as discipline from the hand of a loving Father. Not because I’ve done something wrong per se, but because he is working a harvest of righteousness and peace that can come no other way (Heb 12). Suffering is temporary and does not compare to the eternal weight of glory being stored up for me (2 Cor 4:16-18). In the midst of suffering, God provides comfort that I am to extend to others who suffer (2 Cor 1:3-4). Suffering reveals where my true hope rests (in the Giver of all good gifts, or the gifts themselves?). Suffering is a privilege in that it helps me to know the fellowship of Christ’s suffering just a tad more clearly (Phil 3:10-11). A Savior who intensely suffered, walks through my times of trial with me so that I am never alone. He is my mediator and High Priest, that has been made like me and understands my weaknesses (Heb 4:14-16). God’s strength is more clearly seen through my physical weaknesses. When I am weak, he is strong. His grace is sufficient (2 Cor 12:8-10). Endurance of suffering is directly related to hope and the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (John 10:27-29). Nothing can separate me from the love of God, to include my infirmities & trials (Rom 8:38-39). My time on earth is the only time in which I can offer up praises in the midst of pain, because all suffering will come to a glorious and complete end (Rev 21:4)!
While I ache to flesh out more details about some of what I’ve said above, I will narrow it down to three things that I would like to share as an encouragement to you as a fellow sufferer…
First, suffering is a gift. God is the giver of all good gifts and does all things well (Matt 7:11, James 1:17). He withholds nothing good from his children (Rom 8:32, Ps 34:10; 84:11). This means that I am called to train myself to view my suffering as his good and kind gift to me. He did not err in his gift. He is not withholding anything good from me. He supplies all of our needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19). This means that if I needed my health to glorify him he would have given it to me abundantly.
Think back to a time when you were really excited to give a gift to a loved one or friend. Your gift was an expression of your love for that person wasn’t it? More than likely you studied your loved one intently and listened for clues as to what would give him or her the most joy. Your gift was designed to bring delight to the heart of your recipient wasn’t it? Our suffering is a gift from God himself. He knows what will ultimately give us the most joy and has designed the circumstances with that purpose in mind. He was and is motivated by love in the sovereign way your suffering has come to pass. While most of us would never choose the gift of suffering God granted us, we can know that it is a gift nonetheless.
Second, suffering is meant to be a stewardship. What types of things come to mind when I say the word stewardship? Perhaps issues of ownership and management come to mind. A steward has been entrusted with the care of something that is not her own for which she will give an account to her master. Do you remember the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30? God, the master in the parable, entrusted his servants with money with the expectation that they would faithfully steward and increase what they were given while he was away. In our suffering, we are like these stewards in the parable. God has entrusted some form of suffering to all of us. God is the Master and owner of all things. The time we have to faithfully steward and grow from what we’ve been given is temporary. Our Master will return. God will hold us accountable for how we grow and learn from what he’s allotted to us. When we face our Master in heaven, will we hear the commendation, “Well done good and faithful servant” in regards to how we “spent” the suffering entrusted to us?
Third, suffering is given for the edification of not just the individual, but for the entire community of faith. The Apostle Paul suffered tremendously for the sake of the gospel (2 Cor 11:23-29). Several times he wrote that God intended his personal suffering to impact the body of Christ in intense ways. For instance, in Philippians 1 Paul stated that his chains helped other believers become confident in the Lord & proclaim the gospel without fear. In 2 Corinthians Paul wrote that he was personally distressed so that the Corinthian believers would ultimately experience comfort and salvation (2 Cor 1:3-7). In the same text we learn that in the midst of our sufferings, God comforts us so that we in turn can share these same comforts with others who suffer. Later in the same chapter Paul talks about how he was in hard circumstances far beyond his ability to endure, but that in the midst of this suffering, fellow believers walked with him faithfully in prayer. As a result, when he was delivered, more glory went to God as countless others celebrated God’s gracious favor. (2 Cor 1:8-11) Sisters, our suffering is not our own! Our suffering is a means by which our local body can grow in faith, prayer, love, encouragement, boldness in the gospel, deeper reliance on Christ and so much more.
But there is another facet to this suffering in the midst of community. When we suffer, we enter into the fellowship of our Savior’s suffering in deeper and more profound ways. We have been called not only to believe in Christ, but to suffer for Christ (Phil 1:29). In order to know Christ we must participate in his suffering and become like him in his death (Phil 3:10-11). Our Savior came as a suffering servant and we are being conformed into his image (Isa 53, Rom 8:29). Our sanctification necessarily involves suffering, but never does it involve suffering alone! Our Savior Jesus suffered and died cut off from the Father as he bore the weight of our sins, so that we wouldn’t have to. When we suffer as believers, we can know with certainty that our Savior is with us in sweet communion, and that he has given us the gift of one another to bear the pain and sorrow of our suffering (Heb 4:15-16, Rom 8:38-39, Gal 6:2).
By God’s grace, the very things that have threatened to destroy my body and my vitality are being used by God as mighty tools of redemption and sanctification. By looking at our trials and suffering through the lens of Scripture and in this paradigm shifting way, we can be better poised to honor God in whatever hardship we face next. May we live well, suffer well and die well for the glory of God because he is worthy of such a response from his children.
Ways to reflect, change and grow in light of these truths...
Confess any ways in which you have not recognized God’s sovereign hand in your suffering or rebelled against his goodness because of your trials.
Read prayerfully and slowly about the lives of Job (Job 1-42) and Joseph (Gen 37-50). Note the details about how they suffered and why. How did God sustain them? God is the same yesterday, today and forever, therefore he will also provide for you no matter how dark or deep your valley (Heb 13:8, Ps 23). Meditate on his goodness reflected in these situations and allow this to encourage you in your trials.
If you are in the midst of suffering, or the suffering of your past still consumes your present, please reach out to a sister in the Lord who will go to the Word and encourage you with love and truth. Please don’t continue to suffer alone.
Consider reading “Trusting God: Even When Life Hurts” by Jerry Bridges and “Be Still My Soul: Embracing God’s Purpose & Provision in Suffering” by Nancy Guthrie. Both of these books will help you to begin to build a scripturally sound and strong theology of suffering.