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Suffering: What is God's Purpose in this Suffering?

03.31.20 | Suffering

Suffering: What is God

    Knowing God’s purposes in suffering is very dangerous knowledge! Christian, remember that God’s revealed purposes for suffering are not given as a substitute for faith, but as evidence for greater faith, and encouragement for deeper trust.

    Knowing God's Purposes for Suffering Can Be Dangerous!

    God has revealed certain purposes for our suffering. Before discussing this, it’s important to note that this is a very dangerous train of thought.  If we’re not careful, we could conclude this train of thought and leave quite damaged, spiritually. 

    Danger 1: We always have a right to know God’s purposes

    This train of thought is dangerous because when it is suggested that God has revealed certain purposes for our suffering, one could easily think that one should always understand God’s purposes for their suffering.  That’s the first way this article about God’s revealed purposes in suffering could be dangerous. 

    Just think for a moment how often you’ve heard someone in a difficult predicament say something like, “I just don’t understand why God would let this happen to me.”  Sometimes that’s a cry of faith, of trusting in God’s good purposes all while being bewildered about those purposes. However, it can also be an accusation against God, suggesting that if He was the God described in the Bible, we wouldn’t be hurting like we are.  It could be an assertion that unless we can understand why, then we don’t deserve to suffer and God is wrong for making us suffer since He hasn’t explained why.

    Yet, as you’ll recall from the previous article, the main thrust of the Bible’s dealing with suffering is not a call to understand, but a call to trust.  We’re taught who God is, and on the basis of that evidence, we’re called to trust Him in the midst of these trial.

    As we struggle with the worldwide Pandemic of Corona Virus, as we come to terms with the human toll of suffering in places like Italy and elsewhere, we need to remind ourselves that God is good even when He doesn’t explain everything.

    We’re told in Isaiah 55:8-9,

    “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” 

    Our comfort is not found in the degree to which we can understand God’s purposes. Our comfort is found in the degree to which we can trust our Savior.  And, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” (Heb. 13:8).

    That’s the first way in which this article is dangerous.  We might think we have a right to understand God’s purposes for our suffering, when we do not.

    Danger 2: Full Knowledge Diminishes Faith

    But there’s a second way this article might be dangerous.  Let’s pretend for a moment that it is possible to explain God’s purposes not just in general, and not just for some of life’s challenges, but for all suffering.  Let’s say that you walked away from article on suffering with an encyclopedic knowledge of why God allows pain in your life.  What happens then?  If you had an encyclopedic knowledge of all that God was accomplishing in each moment of suffering, would you have to exercise faith in the midst of suffering?  And the answer is, no, you would not have to trust God in those moments. 

    Let’s consider the hypothetical scenario where you got fired from your job. Let assume in that moment of termination of employment you knew definitively that, “God is allowing this to happen, because in a moment, I’m going to have a conversation with Sue, who didn’t get fired. She’s going to see how little this has rattled me, and she’s going to ask me why. Then, I’m going to share the gospel. Next, she’s going to go back to her sister-in-law, who has also been sharing the gospel with her. She’s going to ask some more questions, and God’s going to use that conversation to bring her to faith even though I’ll never see Sue again until heaven.”

    And it all makes sense…  And faith has just departed from your heart. Hebrews says that, “…without faith it is impossible to please God.”

    Therefore, we need to see God’s purposes for suffering as they are revealed in His word. We do not look at these revealed purposes as a substitute for faith, but as evidence for further faith, as encouragement for greater trust.  Looking at what God says in His Word about suffering should not constitute a body of knowledge that one can use to hypothesize God’s purposes for a particular trial. God’s Word isn’t going to give us everything we need in order to deduce the reason why He let it happen. We won’t walk away knowing in order to be “OK” with it.

    However, there are a series of categories that help Christians to understand in general why God allows suffering. These help believers trust His unknown purposes for their particular suffering.

    Scripture gives Christians these purposes that they might use these purposes for suffering not as an explanation, but as evidence to help trust more deeply in God, despite not knowing. 

    Danger 3: Hurting Further Those Who Are Already Hurting!

    There’s one last danger in this article. It could encourage us who have eternal hope to inadvertently hurt those around us who are already hurting!  Normally, it’s really unhelpful to tell people why they’re suffering.  In the midst of tragedy, such as the current pandemic of Corona Virus, Christians need to be very careful before asking their neighbors, “What do you think God is teaching you in this?” Such a question might turn hearts towards the problem of their suffering as though it were a concrete solvable riddle. 

    Additionally, Christian, be very careful before saying, “I understand what you’re going through.” Of course, you do not. Every situation, even in the case of a global pandemic in which massive populations have shared experience, has its own unique complexities.  Sometimes, a simple question of how to pray for each other and a hug are the best ways to support our suffering friends… except during the current crises. When there’s a global pandemic on, it’s probably best to scratch the hug part.

    So with that in mind, let us begin by considering the astonishing claim the Bible makes that suffering is a gift, and then look at eight different purposes that God, in His wisdom, has given us for suffering.

    Suffering is a Gift!?

    Paul writes in Philippians 1:29 “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”  Understanding that Christians have been granted faith to trust in Christ (Eph. 2:8) is one thing. We understand that at one point we were dead in our sins, hostile to God and refusing to seek after Him (Eph. 2:1; Rom. 8:7, 3:11).  But granted to suffer for Him?  Why in the world would Paul consider suffering on behalf of Christ to be a gift—much less a gift on the same level as the gift of faith? 

    Key to understanding this is Jesus’ own promise that Christians would suffer.  Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” 

    For a first century audience, to take up your cross wouldn’t mean bearing up with an annoying roommate or a stubbed toe or a fussy child.  It would mean one is on their way to die.  When a Christian takes up their cross, they have come to an end of themselves, no matter how costly it might be, in order to follow Jesus.  This is the key.  Christians suffer, Christians sacrifice in order to follow Jesus

    Continue on in Luke 9: “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”  (9:24-25). 

    Christianity is not ascetic.  Believers never suffer for the sake of suffering, or sacrifice as an end to itself.  Disciples always give one thing up in order to take hold of something that is better. Christians suffer in order to take hold of something better.  That’s why suffering is a gift. 

    But what is it that Christians take hold of?  That brings us to God’s purposes in suffering.  There are eight reasons. 

    God’s Revealed Purposes

    1. To grow us in holiness.

    David writes in Psalm 119:67,

    “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.” 

    God, in His kindness, will sometimes use suffering to get one’s attention in order to wake one up to sin’s deception in their lives.  For the Christian, suffering is never God’s condemnation.  “There is now, therefore, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Romans 8:1.  Suffering can sometimes be God’s blessing to wake us up. 

    “Pain,” as C.S. Lewis describes it, “insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[1]”     

    1. To build perseverance.

    The Christian life is a race that calls for perseverance (Heb. 12:1).  Believers are responsible to, “…continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel,” (Col. 1:23a), and believers can only do that by the preserving grace of God (See Phi. 1:6; John 10:28; Rom. 8:29-30).  How does God give Christians grace to persevere?  God will never allow Christians to be tempted beyond what they can bear, (1 Cor 10:13). Have you ever considered that the normal way He does that, the normal way He gives us grace to bear up under temptation is not to send some mystical strength in the moment, but to strengthen us through prior trials?  In Romans 5:3, Paul reminds us, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance.” 

    So that temptation you’ll experience a year from now?  Maybe the difficulty you’re suffering through today is how God will preserve you through that future trial.  We need perseverance to finish the race, and trial is a main way that God grows the Christian’s perseverance.

    1. To grow us in maturity.

    When we turn to James, we find the same idea of perseverance as we did in Romans: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance” (James 1:2-3).  But perseverance isn’t an end in itself; he goes on to write, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4).

    Over time, experiencing the sufficiency of God’s preserving grace leads to hope, not in ourselves, but in God. “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character hope,” (Rom. 5:3b-4). We will, as Paul instructs, increasingly know what it means to, “…be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10).  And in His mighty power, Christians lack nothing!

    Do you want to become useful to God?  Do you want to have the strength of faith?  Do you want to be rooted and sound in your Christian walk?  These things happen only as we understand God’s word. 

    There is a difference between knowing something academically as opposed to knowing something experientially. There is a different between know the truth and living out that truth. Often, what is necessary to move the head knowledge of God’s word and fuses it into the conviction of the heart—the process that makes conviction instinctual—is adversity.  Through adversity Christians see God’s promises tested—and they see those promises prevail.  Believers experience God’s faithfulness.  Adversity is one of God’s primary tools for developing maturity. 

    1. To teach us His word.

    David writes in Psalm 119, “It was good for me to be afflicted, so that, I might learn Your decrees” (Psalm 119:71).  Isn’t that incredible!  Suffering is one way that Christians come to understand the Bible.  Why is that?  Sometimes it’s because suffering is what softens the heart so that one doesn’t just hear. Rather, the Christian listens.  As Richard Baxter put it, “Suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word hath easier entrance.[2] 

    It’s one thing to read about God’s comfort; it is quite another to experience it.  God, in His kindness, often uses difficulties in life to teach His Word.  This assumes that Christians don’t miss what he’s teaching us. It’s no surprise that James follows his amazing exhortation in James 1 to, “consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds”, with an encouragement to ask God for wisdom, “who gives generously to all without finding fault.”  And the promise that believers will receive the wisdom they ask for.  Times of trial teach us God’s word; we should ask Him for the wisdom to not miss what He is teaching.

    1. To help us encourage others.

    2 Corinthians 1:3-4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

    Isn’t that amazing?  Why does God comfort?  So that believers can comfort others.  Suffering might make a promise in Scripture come alive, which Christians can share with others (Rom. 15:4).  It might give believers a more empathetic heart.  Christians might encourage others by their own experience of suffering, reminding them that they’re not alone (1 Pet. 5:9).

    Pay particular attention to the word, “any”, in 2 Corinthians 1:4. “So that we can comfort those in any trouble.”  We shouldn’t be reluctant to comfort others from our experience even when their tragedy seems far greater than ours.

    1. To wean us off self-reliance

    2 Corinthians 1:8b-9 “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”

    Everybody needs that, don’t they?  Everyone needs to, “…not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.”  Nobody enjoys those dark nights of the soul, but God uses them to drive us out of ourselves and into the love of God. 

    John Piper writes, “I have never heard anyone say, ‘The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and comfort.’  But I have heard strong saints say, ‘Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depths of God’s love and growing deep with Him, has come through suffering.[3]’”

    Isn’t it interesting, then, what so often happens?  Suffering is uncomfortable because we’re out of control.  We want to get to the other side as fast as possible, so that we can be comfortable again.  Translation: suffering forces us to walk by faith, and that’s really uncomfortable.  Naturally, everyone wants to get to the other side as fast as possible, so they can walk by sight again.  This is much more comfortable.

    And they end up trying to flee the very thing God is doing through their suffering.  Therefore, in any trial remind yourself that this is a time to lean on God—and that is a good thing!

    1. To strengthen our assurance

    This purpose may sound odd at first since our inclination may be to think that suffering would threaten our confidence in Christ.  But think of what the writer of Hebrews says: “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons,” (Heb. 12:7-8). 

    A mark of true conversion is not that anyone has, “prayed the prayer,” or “walked the aisle.” A mark of true conversion is perseverance (Col. 1:23).  A person may profess to be a Christian because it was culturally acceptable, a way to meet new friends, or pleasing to their parents, yet that person may never have been truly converted.  Suffering tests the genuineness of faith.  It gives evidence of whether faith is real or self-serving.  1 Peter 1:6-7, “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”

    1. To glorify God

    How is God glorified in suffering?  When all the apparent ‘perks’ of following Christ are gone, and all that remains is the promise of persecution, and still the Christian chooses Christ, then He is glorified.  Believers choose God because He’s worth more than everything that may have been given up.  And that brings God glory.

    Moses understood this: “By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a short time. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward,” (Heb. 11:24-26). 

    Moses made the economically rational decision to choose the thing of bigger value.  He chose Christ, not the treasures of Egypt.  That showed how much Christ was worth.

    That’s why Peter reminds Christians that they need to, “…be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have,” (1 Pet. 3:15).  Peter was writing to readers who were suffering. Peter knew that when the world watches someone suffer yet the one suffering still has hope, there’s going to be questions!  The only answer is that the Christian’s hope is not ultimately in what this world has to offer, but in God.  He is our reward (Heb. 11:6); He is our inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3-4).  He is worth so much more than what the world values.    

    "Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever." (Psalm 73:25-26)

    Conclusion: Two Thoughts...

    Even though the Bible’s answer to suffering is primarily one of faith rather than understanding, the Bible still gives us many, many examples of how God works good through suffering.  What do we do with an article like this?  What is the purpose of knowing God’s purpose?  Two final thoughts:

    Avoid the danger of needing to know.

    First, remember that your lack of understanding is in no way a reason not to trust.  Proverbs says, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight," (Proverbs 3:5-6).  We can trust God because He has revealed who He is, not because He explains every detail of what He is doing.  Use these purposes for suffering as a reason to trust, not as a substitute for trusting.  God’s revealed purposes for suffering help Christians recognize the good He has worked through past suffering—which helps Christians to trust Him in the future.  And while we may not be able to look at present difficulty and identify God’s purposes, the sheer volume and specificity of these categories certainly help us trust that, even if we are blind to it, God is using this suffering for our good.

    Secondly, Praise God for the mercy of Revelation

    A second way to use this article: allow these truths to turn your heart to praise.  Isn’t it amazing how much God’s told us about how He uses suffering?  He understands our weakness, and He has lavished his mercy on us through His word to help us trust even when times are hard.  Isn’t his ability to turn the very worst into the very best simply amazing?  The trap of the Red Sea was turned into an eternal monument to His power.  The tragedy of Naomi was turned into the blessing of King David.  The crucifixion of the only innocent man who ever lived was turned into our eternal salvation. 

    Let the mysteries of suffering turn your heart to praise!


    [1] The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis, pg. 91

    [2] Richard Baxter, “The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith.”

    [3] Desiring God by John Piper, pg. 222