When we seek to grow and seek to know God more
deeply, it is often His will to teach us through suffering.
Jonathan Edwards, that great preacher and theologian from two hundred fifty years ago, once said, "If we are not disposed meekly to bear injuries, we are not fitted to live in the world, for in it we must expect to meet injuries from men." He wrote this in a sermon on I Corinthians 13:4. "Charity suffereth long," or, as we would say today, "Love is patient." Edwards was concerned for our ability to bear patiently the injuries done to us in this life. His statement made me stop to consider the value of suffering in the life of a Christian.
Now, I am not talking about our inflicting suffering upon another for his or her good. I'm also not talking about insensitively telling others that their suffering is for their own good (though it may be). Nor am I suggesting that we invite suffering or seek suffering. I'm simply suggesting that when we seek to grow and seek to know God more deeply, it is often His will to teach us through suffering. How, then, should we view the suffering in our lives?
Suffering, first of all, is cause for a Christian's joy because it produces steadfastness (or perseverance) and maturity in us. This happens when we face our suffering in faith. James 1:2-4 says: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." Jonathan Edwards reminds us to bear injuries (which do test our faith) patiently. James points out that trials of faith produce steadfastness and that steadfastness brings us toward completeness.
Suffering is also an opportunity to share in Christ's work in the Gospel. In a puzzling verse, Paul writes: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Colossians 1:24). Paul is not suggesting that Christ's work was in any way incomplete, nor is he suggesting that our suffering adds to Christ's atoning work. Rather, we fill up what is lacking in suffering as we carry out our assigned work for the sake of the Gospel. The suffering of the Lord anticipated and included our suffering for Him. Be encouraged, then, that your suffering is indeed part of God's plan in Christ.
Suffering also brings glory to God as our suffering shows the power of faith in God to ourselves, to the world, and to God. Peter tells us that our suffering in faith reflects glory on Christ. "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (I Peter 1:6-7).
Suffering, even facing death in faith, causes us to trust God more deeply. Paul tells us of the hardship he suffered in Asia: "For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (II Corinthians 1:8-9).
Suffering puts glory in perspective. Paul tells us: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18). Suffering does not redeem us, but suffering gives us a backdrop to understand what God's grace has in store for us. What lies ahead is glorious beyond imagining. Our suffering cannot be compared.
I'm not saying that suffering is good. I'm saying that suffering is for our good in the Lord.
David O'Leary is married and has four children. He pastors a church in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He holds degrees from Tufts University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.A.R., M.Div.), and Covenant Seminary (D.Min.). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.