Scott Williquette and Steve Thomas
Christianity promises no immunity from adversity. Believers experience pain and suffering like anyone else. The Bible is filled with suffering saints. Hardship takes many forms: physical, financial, social, emotional. The question that naturally arises in such circumstances is, “Why am I hurting and suffering?” The larger question is “Why does God allow and send suffering into the world?” The Bible answer to this question is multifaceted.
Why Is There Suffering?
Non-Christians and Christians alike suffer because we all live in a sin-cursed world, and sin always has consequences. Toil, pain, and death are the results of sin (Romans 8:22; Genesis 3). To compound the problem, non-Christians and Christians alike possess an internal desire to sin called the flesh (Romans 7:7-25). That desire breeds sin which inevitably produces earthly and, for the unsaved, eternal suffering (James 1:14-15). Faith itself adds yet another dimension to suffering, since Christians suffer because they are identified with Christ and are thus hated by Satan and by the world (John 15:18-19; 1 Peter 5:8; Colossians 1:24). Similarly, Christians may suffer because they are identified with others in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:26). Finally, Christians suffer because suffering engenders trust in God and encourages Christian growth and Christlikeness (John 13:33, 36–37, 14:1; Psalm 119:67,71; James 2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–7).
Not All Suffering Is Alike
The general reasons for suffering noted above are rarely satisfying to the believer who is being crushed in the crucible of personal tragedy. When faced with personal pain, the believer longs to know why specific circumstances have been brought into his life. The Bible provides answers concerning the specific reasons God might allow and/or initiate trials in the Christian’s life. Suffering in the life of a believer falls into two categories: disciplinary and non-disciplinary.
“Discipline” can be used broadly to denote “instruction,” “teaching,” or “training.” In that sense, all suffering is certainly disciplinary. Here, however, the term is employed in its narrower sense of “chastisement.” Sometimes God finds it necessary to discipline (chasten) His child because of sin (1 Corinthians 11:28–34; Hebrews 12:4–11). What is the believer’s responsibility when faced with disciplinary suffering? First, when you think you may be experiencing disciplinary suffering, examine your life in order to make a Biblical determination. Take a spiritual inventory to determine whether or not there is unchecked or unconfessed sin in your life: sinful habits, sinful relationships, sinful priorities?
The sowing-and-reaping principle delineates an inviolable cause-and-effect relationship between sin and its consequences. All sin produces consequences (Galatians 6:7–8), and these consequences are part of God’s chastisement. Even when sin is confessed and corrected there will often be negative and sometimes far-reaching consequences. Moreover, the greater the sin, the greater the chastisement may be. The longer you allow sin to go unchecked, the more severely God will deal with you in order to correct you (1 Corinthians 11:29–30; 1 John 5:16). God may use a variety of instruments to bring about His correction, including the authority of government, home, school, church, or workplace (1 Peter 3:17; 4:18; Ephesians 6:1–4; 1 Corinthians 5:1–8). In disciplinary suffering, repentance is the key to relief. God requires repentance from the errant believer (James 5:15–16; 1 John 1:9). The pain of discipline, whether physical or mental, cannot be dealt with properly until sin is confessed and forsaken (Psalm 32:1, 5).
Even though God does not continue to chasten you for sins that you have dealt with Biblically (1 John 1:9), the consequences triggered by some sins may continue to produce suffering long after you have asked the Lord’s forgiveness. That has more to do with the nature of sin than with the nature of God. But always remember that God disciplines because He loves you. God’s disciplinary dealings flow out of, not in spite of, the love of God. God is not a bully who delights in making your life miserable. On the contrary, His discipline is an expression of His fatherly love toward you (Hebrews 12:5–6). Divine discipline always has a divine purpose. When God applies the rod of discipline, He desires to make you holy (Hebrews 12:10), obedient (Hebrews 12:9), and righteous (Hebrews 12:11). If your goals are the same as God’s goals—and they should be—then disciplinary suffering will ultimately be a blessing (Psalm 119:67, 71).
The Bible, however, makes it clear that not all suffering is disciplinary, nor is it necessarily the direct consequence of personal sin. The Bible presents a variety of reasons God allows suffering in the life of a believer. These may be divided into three distinct categories.
First, sometimes God sends or allows suffering as a means of personal development. Suffering plays a role in developing spiritual maturity, patience and endurance (James 1:2–4), wisdom (James 1:5–8) and humility (James 1:10–11). Suffering opens opportunities for rewards (James 1:12), to prove the genuineness of your faith (1 Peter 1:6–8), and to cultivate contentment (Philippians 4:11). Suffering can produce a fresh desire to obey the will of God (Hebrews 5:8). Suffering can produce a desire to know and obey God’s Word (Psalm 119:67, 71).
Second, sometimes God sends or allows suffering as a means of public influence. In addition to your own personal development, God desires to influence others through your response to suffering. Suffering can demonstrate spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22–23; 2 Corinthians 4:8–11), create unique opportunities to witness for Christ (1 Peter 3:14–15; Philippians 1:12), open opportunities to help others who suffer (2 Corinthians 1:3–4), and even rebuke believers who are guilty of pride and spiritual cowardice (1 Corinthians 4:9–16).
Third, sometimes God sends or allows suffering so that He can be glorified in a very specific fashion. There is a sense in which all of the factors above serve to bring glory to God. Yet there are times when God allows suffering exclusively for the uplifting of His name. Suffering can demonstrate God’s might (John 9:1–3; 11:1–44), vindicate God’s character (Job 1:6–12), and highlight God’s holiness (Job 42:5–6).
How To Suffer
Not only do we face suffering throughout life; people all around us are suffering trials and hardships as well. We are called upon as believers to minister to others who suffer and to attempt to meet their needs and point them to Christ. What are some practical steps that will enable us to handle, and help others handle, suffering in a God-honoring fashion? Scripture offers some specific guidance.
Do not assume that God is obligated to remove suffering just because you ask Him to. Paul prayed three times that his physical affliction might be removed, but suffering was the will of God for his life (2 Corinthians 12:7–8). God does not promise escape from suffering, but escape through suffering (1 Corinthians 10:13). You may think that God’s great love for you obligates Him to minimize suffering in your life. The very opposite is true. God’s great love for you, coupled with the spiritually beneficial effects of suffering, obligate God to allow and send suffering, not minimize it.
Do not mistake pain as something alien to the Christian life (1 Peter 4:12). Our culture has wrongly influenced many Christians to believe that freedom from pain is the greatest good. It is not. The greatest good is the development of Christlikeness, and God often uses pain to drive us to it. Because pain drives us to Christ and to personal holiness, it is a good and necessary part of every believer’s life.
Seek God’s grace to cultivate Christ’s attitude toward suffering (1 Peter 4:1; Phil. 2:5–8). Christ accepted His suffering as the purposeful will of God (Matthew 26:39), and He displayed forgiveness to those who caused His suffering (Luke 23:34). You and I should do likewise when we are suffering. This is part of God’s purpose in conforming us to the image of Christ.
Train yourself to think Biblically (1 Peter 4:7). The command to be “sober” indicates that you must cultivate a clear-minded evaluation of your experiences and your trials in the light of God’s truth. We must train ourselves to think Biblically and righteously when we face suffering.
Utilize the privilege of prayer (1 Peter 4:7). Verse 7 presents sober thinking as the foundation of prayer in times of suffering. Prayer is not designed to entice God to change our circumstances nor to beg God unendingly for relief from our suffering. Prayer should frankly communicate to God not only our desires but our acceptance of His will and our willingness to submit to the outworking of His purposes in our lives.
Demonstrate love to others in the midst of suffering (1 Peter 4:8). Biblical love is non-reciprocating self-sacrifice for the benefit of another. Focusing on meeting the needs of others prevents one from indulging in the sins of selfabsorption (such as self-pity or bitterness).
Practice hospitality toward others in the midst of trials (1 Peter 4:9). Hospitality is an evidence of love at work. In times of suffering, we tend to become preoccupied with self. Instead, we should become more involved with others. Likewise, exercise your abilities for the Lord’s work (1 Peter 4:10–11). When you focus on the work of the Lord, it is exciting to see how often He visibly turns your afflictions into opportunities.
Simply put by the Holy Spirit, rejoice (1 Peter 4:12–13). Suffering is not an intrusion into your life; it is God’s gracious design to accomplish His purposes. Rejoice, therefore, in what He is doing. Rejoicing is not an emotional high that is happy with suffering, but a state of mind that focuses on God and is pleased that He is working. With this focus, sorrow and joy are compatible. Only sin can disturb that harmony.
As developed above, attempt to determine if your suffering is the result of sin (1 Peter 4:15–16). Suffering should elicit from the believer a time of serious reflection in which he asks himself, “Is there sin in my life? Do I deserve the trials I am facing because of my own wickedness?”
Seek to glorify God (1 Peter 4:16). God is glorified when His perfections and attributes are recognized by those around you. Do you complain in suffering or do you acknowledge the Lord’s goodness because of His work in your life? Trials are opportunities for the believer to “sing God’s praises.”
Entrust your life to God for safekeeping (1 Peter 4:19). God promises to watch over you and keep you during trials. You must bank on that promise.
Finally, avail yourself of the shepherding ministry of the local church (1 Peter 5:1–3). Peter assumed that the suffering saints to whom he was writing were under the care of a local church. It is the responsibility of pastors to care for their flock and to teach the Word in a way that prepares them for future adversity. If you consistently place yourself under the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word, you will be able to handle life’s hardships in a God-honoring fashion.
No one is exempt from trials and suffering. Sometimes God sends or allows suffering to discipline us so that we repent of sin and grow in personal holiness. Other times God sends or allows suffering so that we will grow in our Christian maturity, influence others for Christ, or simply bring glory to His name. The bottom line for us as God’s children is simply this: we need to take our eyes off ourselves and focus our attention on the Lord. When we suffer we need to remember that there are good reasons for it. Suffering is a tool God uses for our growth and His glory. Only when we adopt God’s viewpoint will we be able to “consider it all joy” (James 1:2) when we face suffering.
Scott Williquette is pastor of First Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois.
Steve Thomas is pastor of Huron Baptist Church in Flat Rock, Michigan.
(Originally published in FrontLine • January/February 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)