Writing this article, I am sitting in front of a casket of a faithful Christian minister who passed away un-expectantly, almost pre-maturely. I am early for the funeral, and my heart is heavy for his children whom I know well. Death brings grief, and the added shock of unexpected passing of a loved one leaves a sense of abandonment, and greater loss since there was no opportunity to say farewell. Even more so if there was no time to reconcile hearts. Furthermore, my mind and prayers keep going back to friends of ours who’s four-month old baby is in ICU again after heart surgery. Things like these wear you down.
We suffer in many ways. My wife and I have a list of people we pray for daily: beautiful single friends who long for a suitable mate to share life with, who suffer through loneliness and also some couples who long for a baby of their own to fill their arms. I think of people in church who have been frustrated in the area of work, purpose and finances for quite some time – they wait, work and pray for some break-through. There is the lady who has been battling leukemia for three years. The friend who has been involved in a custody case for his son (who is in a very bad situation) for three years, but the case keeps on dragging out. And yesterday I received a text message from a friend who let me know that her nanny and “second mother” to her three children has passed away after a serious heart attack; there will be tears in their house today. No one escapes suffering. No amount of faith, no degree of devotion to God exempts us from suffering.
Over the past two decades much has been written on the detrimental effects of suffering, pain and trauma on the physical, psychological and spiritual well-being of a person. Recently however, studies have been done on what is called “post-traumatic growth” or the positive growth effects of suffering, including gaining inner strength (resilience), become more appreciative of everyday things, growth in compassion and capacity for intimacy. These findings do not surprise us since many of us can refer to some trying time in our lives as the turning point for positive personal or relational development. Suffering is indeed a good school master.
The Bible has much to say on suffering and our approach to it. Although God is not the author or origin of suffering the Bible teaches that God turns any situation for the good for his children (Romans 8:28-29) and that therefore one should approach suffering as an opportunity for God to complete a redemptive work in you or through it (see James 1:3-4; compare Hebrews 2:9-10). In this article we will look at what the Bible says we benefit or learn from suffering.
(1) Allow suffering to tests your foundation
Charles H. Spurgeon wrote that “trials teach is what we are; they dig up the soil, and let us see what we are made of.” We have all found this to be true: in trying times our character and relationships show itself for what it is; suffering is a good test of our true selves. This is what the author of Hebrews also write to a church undergoing mounting persecution: “Yet once more I will not only shake the earth, but also the heavens.” [This] signifies the removing of those things that are shaken… so that the things which cannot be shaken may remain.” (Hebrews 12:27-28) Trying times tend to differentiate between that which is firm and stable in us (beliefs and character traits), and that which is not, and also to show that which has lasting value and that which is of temporal nature.
Jesus taught two parables that relate to this: In the one he used the metaphor of two men who built houses – one on solid bedrock and another on unstable sand; when the same storm hit the two homes, one collapsed and the other stood through it. The storm simply revealed the strength of the foundations (see Matthew 7:24-25); without the storm this could not be known. A second parable is on the Sower and his seed which fell on various terrains and some germinated and sprung up. However, when the sun comes up the seedlings in the shallow soil perish because “they have no root… in a time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:13). The sun, representing a time of testing, simply reveals that these seedlings have no roots to sustain them; without the testing of the sun this could not be known. It is a redemptive time of testing.
In a similar manner Moses also wrote of the suffering as a test, summarizing the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering of the Hebrews firstly as a test, “to know what is in [their] heart” whether they will obey God or not (Deuteronomy 8:2-5). Whatever the cause of suffering, it brings with it a test of our faith, our character, and our relationships (1 Peter 4:12). Suffering, like any good tutor, helps us see ourselves for who we are, and shows us what areas we need to work on next.
(2) Suffering reminds us we need God
Apart from suffering bringing a test, Moses also stated the purpose of the forty year wilderness wandering was “to humble you.” God kept the Hebrews in the wilderness for forty years, feeding them manna daily, to teach them that although they enter a fertile, rich land, they will always be dependent on His provision. They ought to “remember the LORD… for it is he who gives you power to get wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18). Their suffering was a way to teach them that they need God daily.
The apostle Paul personally experienced suffering as a tutor in humility, testifying that “a thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan harassing [him], to keep [him] from becoming conceited [or proud]” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). Although Paul begged God to deliver him from this suffering, the Lord simply said to endure it with the strength he provides. In our suffering we learn that we are always dependent on God.
Another powerful example of this lesson from suffering is the account of the mighty emperor Nebuchadnezzar, who admired his great empire and ascribed the vast advancement of his empire to his own hand. At that moment, a voice from heaven rebuked him and his mental capacity was removed from him and he lived among the wild animals for a time, until he acknowledged the hand and provision from God in all his success; only then he was re-instated as emperor. His suffering taught him his dependence on God.
(3) Suffering helps us grow in intimacy with God (and others)
Suffering creates opportunity to know God in a depth and sincerity that we have not known before. In my twelve years of pastoral ministry I have heard countless times that people say during (and after) their most difficult times in their lives “I have grown closer to God.” Suffering allows one to re-evaluate what you believe, and also creates a desperation to get answers from God as Job did. That desperation in turn helps us cast away all pretense and diplomacy so that we can approach God in all earnestness and “rawness”. Job received a reply from God he never anticipated, and said “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). Suffering allows us to get to know God as never before, and to grown in intimacy with him.
In addition to growing in intimacy with God, suffering allows us to grow in sincerity and vulnerability with those around us as our brokenness, weakness and needs cannot be hidden behind facades. This creates the capacity and the reality for deeper, more honest and intimate relationships of those around us. Even when the tough times pass, these relationships remain deep and strong because of the shared experience of suffering.
(4) Suffering helps us grow in Godly character
Like a baby who must learn to sleep alone or to soothe himself, casting aside the pacifier, growth is often associated with discomfort and suffering. Suffering is not pleasant, but we learn from it and we are changed through it. Suffering not only shows our weaknesses and strength (as mentioned in the first point), but it creates a good opportunity to realign our values, adjust our thinking and rethink our responses to situations – allowing for behavioral changes and ultimately character growth. Suffering thus helps us to grow up, and therefore we should rejoice in it (Romans 5:3-4). Do not shy away from difficulty but allow it complete its perfect work in us (James 1:2-4) by letting us grow up in the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:29).
(5) Suffering teaches us resistance to temptation
Suffering teaches us resistance to temptations – that’s why we have public penal systems such as traffic fines and imprisonment, and why we have similar systems in schools and in our homes. Suffering in its very nature helps to builds a resistance against the seduction of sin: Peter wrote to a church undergoing severe persecution that “he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin” and no longer lives with fleshly cravings, but submitted to the will of God (1 Peter 4:1). That is the reason why we chastise our children, with the aim that the undesirable behavior will seem no longer desirable.
This metaphor of suffering as chastisement is common in Scripture. About 750 BC Isaiah the prophet wrote of the oppressive Assyrian Empire as “the rod of [God’s] anger” (Isaiah 10:5) – thus Israel’s suffering was God’s discipline to deliver the nation from the destructive, sinful habits, notably injustice to the poor and idolatry. In the same manner, about 800 years later, the author of the letter to the Hebrews referred to the Roman persecution of those congregations as God’s loving chastisement (Hebrews 12:5-7) – to deliver them from the seduction of turning from Christ as the only Mediator and Savior in the light of severe suffering.
Many of us learned our own lessons through tough times brought about by our own bad decisions.
(6) Suffering gives us eternal perspective
Paul Alexander was my instructor during my theological studies. In their book A Certain Life Paul and his wife Carol write of their darkest night when their son Jason collided with a truck and was battling death for more than a month in ICU (chapters 16-17). They write that one of the outcomes of this ordeal for them as a family is that they have a renewed perspective – they are no longer thrown by petty things nor drawn in by temporal comforts or worldly pursuits. Their brush with death have taught them that life is short and relationships are precious, and now they make each moment count for eternity. With the apostle Paul, imprisoned and faced with death after years of suffering, they can say “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Elsewhere, Paul reflected om his suffering, comparing it with eternal rewards: “this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
The English poet Samuel Johnson said “nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.” A morbid thought, but it is indeed true that suffering like the threat of death, has the ability to focus the mind on what is important, on that which has value in eternity. Because of his suffering, Paul did not fear death nor waste time; he had an eternal perspective which translated in making the most out of every opportunity (Acts 20:24). Suffering does the same for us.
(7) Suffering creates capacity for empathy and compassion
I had an exceptional mathematics lecturer during my first two years at university. Mrs Roux classes were always full due to students preferring her lectures above other more qualified professors teaching the same modules. What made her an exceptional teacher – in her own confession – was that she struggled to understand mathematics in her student days and had to wrestle with the abstract models and concepts. She admitted she was not as smart as the other lecturers who seemed to intuitively grasp these abstract concepts, but she had to work hard to really understand the work. This gave her the edge over the other teachers since she herself understood what it was to struggle in mastering the coursework, and therefore patience to help those who wrestled with the work.
Furthermore Mrs Roux had sincere compassion for her students: I recall one day receiving a phone call as I prepared for a rewrite, wondering how I was doing – she called from a hospital bed recovering from an operation. Her own struggle with mathematics made her an exceptionally supportive lecturer.
Suffering does that for us – it creates in us a capacity for empathy and even compassion, as Paul writes to the suffering church in Corinth “we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). Even Christ himself was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10-11) and therefore can sympathize with us in our weaknesses during trials (Hebrews 4:15-16). Therefore we can approach him confidently, knowing Jesus has compassion for our circumstance.
In conclusion, looking at the mourners around me who gather around their deceased spouse, father, grandfather, minister and friend, I am reminded yet again that none of us escape suffering. But suffering has the potential to be our tutor towards godliness. So allow suffering to have its perfect way in us, don’t let these opportunities go wasted on self-pity or escapism. Rather, let it reveal our true selves, remind us of our need for God, grow us into intimacy and Christ-like character, even as Jesus himself was perfected by it. Let it deliver us from our sinful natures and create in us a capacity to show compassion and have empathy with those suffering like us. Let us in our direst moments pray as our Lord did “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)