Purposeful Suffering

Bryn MacPhailBryn MacPhail is the Chair of The Renewal Fellowship Board of Directors and Minister of St. Giles Kingsway in Etobicoke ON.

Suffering is something every person experiences. There are no exceptions. Some, admittedly, suffer more than others, yet, the fact remains, that every human being experiences suffering.

I suspect that we would all agree that suffering is bad. If I knew of someone who actually enjoyed suffering, I would want to inquire about their mental stability.

But then you find a passage, like the one in James, where he writes, "Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2).

Is James telling us to rejoice in our trials? No, he is not. If we look closely, and if we read on, we see that the basis of our joy is in what our suffering produces. "Consider it pure joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance" (James 1:2,3).

James is telling us that when the Christian faces trials it "produces endurance." In other words, suffering has a purpose.

Our Heavenly Father, who is all-powerful, all-wise, and all-loving, has a plan when he allows his children to suffer. Yes, God allows his children to suffer — it is not as if our suffering catches God off-guard; it is not as if God lacks the ability to diminish or eliminate our suffering. When we confess that God is sovereign, we confess that he is sovereign over everything — even suffering. And this is a good thing.

Charles Spurgeon recognized this and wrote, "It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think that I have an affliction which God never sent me, that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him, nor sent to me by his arrangement of their weight and quantity."

Admittedly, God's purpose for our suffering is often difficult to see and, in some cases, we will not see his reasoning on this side of heaven. What we must nonetheless confess, however, is this: God does not waste suffering.

We know God does not waste suffering when we read in James, "the testing of [our] faith produces endurance" (James 1:3). We know God does not waste suffering when we read in Romans 8:28 that, "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love [him]." And we know God does not waste suffering when we examine the life of the apostle Paul.

Paul writes, "Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me — to keep me from exalting myself. Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me" (2 Corinthians 12:7,8).

Paul was suffering. It is uncertain what the "thorn" in Paul's flesh actually was. Some commentators say that Paul was suffering spiritually. Others say he was suffering with a physical sickness. And still, others say Paul was experiencing persecution from his enemies. Regardless of the exact nature of Paul's suffering, we can be certain that it was extremely unpleasant. So unpleasant was Paul's suffering, that he had three significant occasions where he "implored the Lord" to remove his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:8).

But Paul's prayers were not answered. Paul's prayer for the removal of his thorn was not according to God's purposes. God had a reason for allowing Paul to suffer, and so the thorn was allowed to remain.

If it seems strange to you that God would allow suffering, we must not so soon forget the nature of God. God is good. And what God does defines what is good. Though we might be tempted to say that Paul's suffering was bad, Scripture forces us to infer that what God intended to produce through Paul's suffering was of greater value than the removal of his affliction.

Those who subscribe to a health-prosperity gospel usually do so based on the logic that God wants what is best for his children. And while this is true, we must not forget who gets to define "what is best." God does — not us. Only an all-powerful, and all-wise God is in the position to judge which is of greater value — what is produced through suffering or the removal of the affliction.

In Paul's case, the affliction was not removed. What was given instead? In response to Paul's prayers, this was God's reply: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). God's reply to Paul is that his grace is both sufficient and of more value than the mere removal of his affliction. What was "best" for Paul, in this case, was not freedom from his affliction, but grace from God.

Once again, we learn that suffering has a lesson to teach us. The lesson suffering teaches us is that God is enough. And if God is not enough, where do we go? Suffering will either teach us that God is sufficient or it will crush our faith in his goodness. If suffering threatens our faith in the goodness of God, then it also threatens our ability to enjoy God. And if suffering threatens our ability to enjoy God, then it also threatens our ability to glorify God.

Because the chief end of man is to "glorify" and "enjoy" God, we must confront anything and everything that threatens this pursuit. Suffering can indeed be the enemy to Christian joy, but it doesn't have to be. It is not that suffering can be equated with joy — it can't — but suffering can lead us to greater faith and dependence on God. And when our faith and dependence on God increases, our joy increases.

This is the message found throughout Scripture. Job, who suffered more than most, said of God, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him" (Job 13:15). King David, who also suffered a great deal, said in his most famous Psalm, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me" (Psalm 23:4). In Psalm 73, the psalmist writes, "My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever… the nearness of God is my good" (Psalm 73:26, 28).

For Job, for David, and for the Psalmist — God was enough. When they were stripped bare of everything of earthly value they could still say, "the nearness of my God is my good." The clear biblical truth is that God is enough. God is all we need.

We have already said that suffering is bad. We all agree here. It's painful; it's unpleasant; it's disheartening. Yet, we have also said that there is something good about suffering. What is good is what God produces in us through suffering. And, as many Christians have recognized, what God does in us through suffering is usually more profound than what he does through prosperity.

Have you ever heard anyone say, "The most satisfying joys of my life have come in times of extended ease and earthly comfort?" Nobody says that. It isn't true.

What is true is what Samuel Rutherford said when he was put in the cellars of affliction: "The Great King keeps his wine there." What's true is what Charles Spurgeon said: "They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls."

Charles Spurgeon, a man who suffered quite extensively in his life, wrote:

I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable… We never have such close dealings with God, as when we are in tribulation…. There is no cry so good as that which comes from the bottom of the mountains; no prayer half so hearty as that which comes up from the depths of the soul, through deep trials and afflictions. Hence they bring us to God, and we are happier; for that is the way to be happy — to live near God. So that while troubles abound, they drive us to God, and then consolations abound.

Scripture demonstrates, time and time again, that God will go to great lengths in order to bring us into deeper fellowship with him. We rejoice then, not in our suffering, but in the purposes that lie behind our suffering. Our loving Heavenly Father means to draw us closer to himself and, in this, we greatly rejoice!