Christian Suffering

“We are immortal till our work is done.” – George Whitefield

God has a purpose for suffering.  The following are at least ten ways that God uses suffering in the lives of His people:

  1. Suffering is part and parcel of living in a fallen world that is under the sentence of death (Gen 3:15-24; Rom 5:12-21; 8:18-20). The wrath of God is death and condemnation. We must remember that death signifies God’s judgment.  D.A. Carson helps us remember this fact when we think we are all entitled to seventy years on this planet.  He writes, “For the believer, the time of death becomes far less daunting a factor when seen in the light of eternity…although death remains an enemy, an outrage, a sign of judgment, a reminder of sin, and a formidable opponent, it is, from another perspective, the portal through which we pass to consummated life.”[1]

It’s important to remember, that as Christians, we have hope even in death because Christ has already conquered Satan, death and hell, and those who are alive in Jesus Christ will never see death but will pass from this life seamlessly into the next (1 Thess 4:15). Death is therefore a defeated enemy that we will face in the confidence that Christ already has the victory (Jn 11:25-26; 1 Cor 11:25-26; 2 Cor 5:8; Rev 1:5, 18). For the Christian, death is an entrance into glory.

  2.  God uses suffering to separate His people from the false contentment of the world (Dt 8:3; Mt 10:34-37; 13:21). God uses suffering to sever our allegiance and bondage to the world. In order to keep His saints from finding their way in the world, or the world from finding its way in the saint, God employs various trials enabling us to keep our eye on the prize.  C.S. Lewis observes, “Prosperity knits a man to the world. He feels that he is finding his place in it, while really it is finding its place in him.” [2]

The point is: God doesn’t want His saints to grow too comfortable in this world and so He will employ suffering to release our grip on it.  For, God has said in His Word, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn 2:15). God desires His people to turn away from the world and look to Him for everything, and He will employ suffering to bring it about.  John Piper writes, “For us there is the need, not only to have our obedience tested and proven but also to be purified from all remnants of self-reliance and entanglements with the world.”[3]  When we suffer trials, God allows us to see how odious sin is and how miserable we are without Him.

Describing this further, Richard Sibbes writes: These depths are left to us, to make us more desirous of heaven; else great men, that are compassed about with earthly comforts, alas, with what zeal they could pray, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ etc.? No; with Peter they would rather say, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here,’ Mk 9:5; and therefore, it is God’s usual dealing with great men, to suffer them to fall into spiritual desertions, to smoke them out of the world, whether they will or not.

3. God employs suffering as a means of disciplining us so that we will avoid future opportunities to sin. (Ps 107:17; 119:67, 71; Pro 3:11-12; Heb 12:5-11; Rev 2:9-10). God scourges every son He receives (Heb 12:6). God creates staying power in us so we may endure His chastening love and the world’s hate.    John Currid rightly sees the suffering associated with God’s discipline as preparation.  He writes, It is like a vaccination for smallpox or some other disease.  The inoculation itself is unpleasant, and the side effects are uncomfortable, and the reality is that one is given a minor dose of the disease. However, when confronted with the disease itself, one’s immune system is able to fight it because of growing immunity.  Thus, one’s system is trained and prepared.  That is like the Christian life. [5]

God brings temporal judgments upon Christians so that we will not be condemned along with the world (1 Cor 11:32, cf. Rev 2:22).  Christ corrects us as He is our Lord.  And this correction shows that we are His legitimate children (Heb 12:11).

4. God ordains suffering so we will rely more on Him and not ourselves (2 Cor 1:9; 12:9; 1 Pet 5:6-7). This is one of the many ways God proves our faith. Afflictions shatter the myth of our self-sufficiency. We clearly see our weaknesses when we suffer.  In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, the apostle Paul tells us, the reason why God appoints sufferings is so that we would not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead.

Likewise, John Currid writes, “By means of adversity, God then restores believers to proper creaturely dependence upon Himself.  This is to say that God frequently afflicts Christians that they would again realize their hope, joy, and sufficiency lies in Him alone.  God is thus being gracious in adversity, and uprooting the Christian from the world.”[6]

5. God uses suffering to forge Christ’s character in us (Ps 119:66-67, 71; Pro 27:17; Rom 5:1-5; Heb 2:10; 5:8). God’s refining process is so that His Son will be more clearly displayed in us. Suffering teaches us that the greatest good of the Christian life is not absence of pain but Christ-likeness.  Suffering is one of the means God uses to sanctify us.  God’s refining process is an expression of his love, never His wrath.  His judgment begins with his own people, and then consumes unbelievers (1 Pet 4:17).  And only the man who can endure the refining fire of God’s holy presence can remain in God’s house forever (Jn 8:35).

God, as it were, pours Christ’s character into us, forming iron in our souls, and works the rough edges out on His anvil of the world (Is 54:16).  Thomas Watson insightfully writes, God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively upon us. It is good that there should be symmetry between the Head and the members. Would we be parts of Christ’s mystical body, and not be like Him? His life, as Calvin says, was a series of sufferings, ‘a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Is 53:3). He wept and bled. Was His head crowned with thorns, and do we think to be crowned with roses? It is good to be like Christ, though it be true He drank the poison in the cup (the wrath of God), yet there is some wormwood in the cup left, which the saints must drink: only here is the difference between Christ’s sufferings and ours; He were satisfactory (that is, to pay the price for sins), ours are castigatory (that is, in order to amend and correct).[7]

6. God uses suffering to create in us staying power to faithfully endure persecution (Jam 1:2-8). God prepares His saints for trouble by causing them to experience suffering. However, this is not just for sufferings sake, but because God’s wisdom is as manifold as it is infinite, He causes us to grow in grace, mirroring Christ’s image, thereby creating staying power in us, while He prunes us of our sinful proclivities (Jn 15:1-8).  The point is: the Christian’s continuing (covenant) loyalty to Christ despite trouble serves to define our character and produces staying power.  When I say staying power I refer to what the Bible calls patient-endurance.

Patient-endurance can only be acquired through testing, and suffering definitely tests our faith.  For example, the apostle Paul tells us in Rom 5:3-4, “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.”   What character is the apostle Paul talking about? The very character of Christ, Who Himself is forming Himself within us.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that we have only a hope of future joys, we can be full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles.

Taken in the right spirit these very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character.  A character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us because if we are born again, already we have some experience of the love of God flooding through our hearts by the Holy Spirit given to us.  Sufferings temper Christians and is part of God’s discipline.

7. Suffering is the result of a Christian’s battle against the three enemies of the kingdom of God – our sin nature, the unbelieving world, and Satan. When we mortify our flesh, crucify our sin nature, and say no to the desires of the flesh, we carry around in our body the suffering and death of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor 4:11-12). When we take a stand for Christ we will suffer demonic attack and incur the world’s enmity, not to mention the fact that our sin nature will hate it, but this will result in the glory of God (1 Pet 4:14).

8. Suffering affords Christians the opportunity to witness the saving power of Christ (2 Cor 4:10-11; Col 1:24-29; 1 Pet 2:19-20). Suffering furnishes on opportunity for Christians to testify of the saving power of Christ’s Cross, and thereby suffer for His sake, for which there will be two ends: a hardening obstinacy for some, and a means of grace for others. God uses Christian suffering to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings (Col 1:24).

Rather than being bitter or upset when justice doesn’t come swiftly, we can say along with John Bunyan, “Therefore, I bind these lies and slanderous accusations to my person as an ornament; it belongs to my Christian profession to be vilified, slandered, reproached and reviled, and since all this is nothing but that, as God and my conscience testify, I rejoice in being reproached for Christ’s sake.”[8]

9. Suffering affords God the opportunity to manifest His grace. Tribulation arises on account of the worship of God, the gospel message, and holy living (Rev 12:11). It’s important for us to remember that when Job was afflicted he didn’t say, the Lord has given and Satan has taken away, no; he said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). And the Bible, ascribing Job’s response as correct says, “In all this Job did not sin nor charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22, emphasis added).  Job was not suffering for his sins. He suffered so that God might demonstrate that Job would retain his integrity in spite of all of his afflictions.  Hence, “The greater the trouble, the greater the deliverance.”[9]

10. Suffering is the price for winning the lost for Christ – to fulfill the Great Commission (Mt 24:9-14). As we have said, Jesus gives us the express purpose of evangelism – to be a witness to all nations (Mt 24:14). The goal of evangelism is for “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” to hear the glorious saving power of Christ’s cross; and suffering is the cost of fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus said, “They will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.” This is the cost for the completion of the Great Commission (Mt 24:9).

Likewise, “He who endures to the end shall be saved,” is the confidence which a perfect atonement secures (Mt 24:13; Rom 8:28-39).   As Christians, we are enabled to do this because we have been crucified with Christ, Who now dwells in our hearts by faith. Christ, Who has rooted and grounded Himself to us in love, compels us to minister the gospel to see the lost saved (2 Cor 5:14; Phil 1:8).

Like Joseph, we may suffer at the hands of even our own family members, but God, working graciously behind the scenes, can bring about a great deliverance out of a great tragedy (Mt 10:34-39).  Joseph was a type of Christ; when he suffered, it wasn’t because he was a sinner, it was because God was going to use his life to save His people. God takes ordinary people like you and I, and through us accomplishes extraordinary things. God orchestrated events so that the young lad Joseph would end up delivering a nation from certain destruction; Joseph’s suffering was the price of it all.
The Bible tells us that Joseph spent roughly thirteen years as either a slave or a prisoner (Gen 37:1; 41:46) but all this was preparing him for extraordinary tasks. And as Joseph’s suffering brought about deliverance for others, so does Christian sufferings for the gospel.
It’s important to note that, not all suffering seems to fit neatly into one of the above categories we have made.  On the Lord’s Day, February 6, 1870, the reverend George Mueller’s wife Mary died of rheumatic fever. They had been married 39 years. The Lord gave him the strength to preach at her memorial service.  He said, “I miss her in numberless ways, and shall miss her yet more and more.  But as a child of God, and as a servant of the Lord Jesus, I bow, I am satisfied with the will of my Heavenly Father, I seek by perfect submission to His holy will to glorify Him, and I kiss continually the hand that has thus afflicted me.”
Suffering doesn’t always make sense, but as Christians we have a hope that’s beyond death.  Our hope is in the One Who has conquered death and lives forever; Who always lives to intercede for us, is preparing a place for us, and will take us to our heavenly home (Heb 7:25). My friend, repent of your sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and so be saved!

[1] D.A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? : Reflections on Suffering and Evil, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 133.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (New York: Harper One, 1982), 155.
[3] John Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2010), 108.
[4] Richard Sibbes, Complete Works, VI, 162.
[5] John Currid, Why Do I Suffer? : Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2014), 73.
[6] Currid, Why Do I Suffer? , 66.
[7] Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2009), 28-29.
[8] John Bunyan, The Complete Works, Part IV (London: Bradley, Garretson & Co, 1873), 69.
[9] Sibbes, Complete Works, VI, 162.