Affliction is a subject I will never stop coming back to because I’ll never stop needing to be reminded of the reality of God and the Gospel in midst of pain that threatens to pull me under. Sometimes it feels like I have barely reached the end of a season like this before another one appears on the horizon. In moments of weakness, such experiences can cause me to indulge (sinfully) in despair and bitterness.
These last few months have been hard, personally. I’ve faced a multitude of life changes, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed and disoriented by all of the emotional extremes that come to me each day – intense joy, intense anxiety, and intense sadness. I’ve dealt with a stream of health complications, financial crises, professional failures, crippling homesickness, marriage adjustments, and spiritual turmoil. On some mornings I am hit with a wave of dread at the thought of facing it all again in another new day, and it’s exhausting to see no end in sight. The sinful heart soaks it all up and looks in distrust at God. It demands answers as to why He would use His sovereignty to bring pain to the life of people He proclaims to love.
So, I get it. I get that it seems so very radical for Paul to tell us to rejoice in suffering when all we feel is the weight of our pain (Romans 5:3). When we take the most natural perspective of suffering, it clouds our vision of God’s goodness, providence, and trustworthiness. But I want to tell you – and myself – that when we look at it from the perspective of eternity and Scripture’s witness of Christ, rejoicing in the midst of suffering becomes not only a strained possibility but an absolute necessity.
Lately, the Lord has been convicting me of my sinful, worldly perspective of suffering, so I’ve been reading in Scripture and looking for sound resources and testimonies on the subject as much as possible. Out of this endeavor, I’ve singled out three main reasons why we can (and should) fight for contentment and joy in the midst of suffering.
1. Suffering is neither pointless nor insignificant.
What really drives us up the wall in seasons of suffering is the feeling that our pain is senseless, unredeemable, or unprofitable. Humanity always asks the same question in the face of tragedy: “Why?” Even Christians ask, “Why would God ordain or allow something like this?” We demand a reason, and until we get one we stand bewildered and frustrated – especially if the only answer we get is something akin to, “Trust Me.”
Perhaps our most common mistake in our questions of “Why?” is our assumption that if we can’t readily identify or comprehend a good reason (according to our own fallible standards of goodness) then there can’t possibly be one. This is because we humans have a natural (read: sinful) inclination to trust ourselves – our emotions, preferences, perceptions, conclusions, abilities, you name it – much more than we ought. We trust them more than we trust God. And of course we bristle at this accusation, but our anxieties and bitterness give the state of our heart away every time.
Sometimes it may even seem like the only thing being accomplished by suffering is the hardening of our hearts or the erosion of our strengths. Yet, there is always something good being worked in us by the Holy Spirit, even if we don’t realize it until far in the future. The apostle Paul, who was most definitely accustomed to loss and suffering, remarks on his own testimony: “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). And in Romans he proclaims the same message in different wording: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,” (Romans 5:3-5), and also, “For those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Another beautiful proclamation like this is in John’s Gospel account, though the message about suffering given by Jesus within it is much more subtle than Paul’s message. In a comparison of himself and the Church to a vine and its branches, Jesus says about the Father that “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear even more fruit” (John 15:2). If you’ve ever been around gardening for any extensive period of time, you know that there are seasons which require plants to be pruned. The gardener (whom Jesus, in John 15:1, says the Father resembles) takes out a pair of shears and clips away parts of the branches.
It may be silly, but this is always hard for me to watch or do in my own gardening endeavors. It can be hard to see a beautiful plant look so ragged and vulnerable and to trust that it will benefit as a result of the violent loss. And the results can take months to become apparent to the human eye. Yet, this is necessary for the plant – it’s how it is designed to work. As we see in Jesus’ analogy, humans are no different.
2. When it comes to our suffering, God sees, cares, and understands.
When we go through suffering, it cripples and discourages us to think we are alone or that we are depending on an impersonal or indifferent God. But this is not who God is! We cannot trust our emotions to give us a true picture of who the Lord really is, especially when our emotions are influenced by pain. The God we know is the God of Scripture. He sees, understands, and cares about our pain.
The God we know is the very same One whom Hagar called “the God who sees” in the midst of her own intense suffering (Genesis 16:13). Elsewhere in Scripture, the writers are very vocal about the posture of God during our trials and afflictions. He is concerned, involved, and present through it all. He actively invokes His power either to bring us out of suffering or sustain and grow us within it. Stop for a minute and try to wrap your head around the magnitude of His control – these seasons of pain do not extend a moment past what He has prescribed in His perfect plan.
Further, we do not know and serve a God who has prescribed what He doesn’t understand. Even before His incarnation, Isaiah 53:3-4 refers to Christ as “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” [emphases mine]. Another passage in the New Testament carries the same message: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (1 Corinthians 1:3-5).
Not only has Christ experienced a life of suffering and affliction, but His far outweighs ours. The physical pain endured within His torture and death alone are on a level we will never likely experience ourselves; the extent of humanity’s betrayal of Him throughout history is beyond what we taste in the relationships of our brief earthly existence; the list goes on and on. We will never be able to accuse God of putting a bitter cup to our lips which He has not willingly and comprehensively consumed for Himself. This, along with the knowledge of His sovereignty, provides us with comfort in the knowledge that He has kept count of our tossings and put our tears in His bottle (Psalm 56:8).
3. Our earthly life is incredibly short compared to the coming eternity with Christ.
Charles Spurgeon is known as one of the most exceptional preachers of the past several centuries. Why this stands out to me so much is because Spurgeon experienced intense physical and psychological pain throughout the duration of his life. He wrote the following advice in a lecture entitled ‘Suffering and the Servant of God’: “Immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost. Fasting gives an appetite for the banquet…The wilderness is the way to Canaan. The low valley leads to the towering mountain. Defeat prepares for victory. The raven is sent forth before the dove. The darkest hour of the night precedes the day-dawn.”
At first glance, we think of statements like, “immersion in suffering has preceded the filling of the Holy Ghost,” and, “fasting gives an appetite for the banquet” as referencing a sentiment similar to, “After you go through this season of suffering, you’ll have your breakthrough!” I don’t think this is what Spurgeon is getting at. Of course, as I said in the first point, God does use suffering to produce joy and fruitfulness within us – and these periods are often very enjoyable. But even more than this, we have an eternity to look forward to with Christ once this tumultuous life is past.
If we listen to the lies of our culture about the purpose of life, we will be totally wrecked by affliction. We will wonder hopelessly why God has given us mostly pain to endure throughout our whole existence…when in reality, this world is a tiny pinpoint on the broad spectrum that makes up our eternal life. We will wait in desperation for the happiness and comfort we feel we deserve…when in reality, God would still be just and merciful if He never gave us any joy besides the salvation of our souls in Christ. If we listen to the world – especially Western civilization, with its idolatry of comfort and personal fulfillment – we will see suffering as a worst possible outcome rather than an extension of God’s grace.
Yet this is how Scripture portrays it: “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). So what we suffer now, though it feels like it lasts forever, is but a light, momentary affliction; and when all is weighed in the balance, it isn’t even comparable to the eternal glory that will be revealed to us in Christ Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Suffering is incredibly hard, but we must stop equating “hard” with “bad.” Only then will we rejoice in affliction and experience the fullness of the grace God has for us there.
Additional Resource: “Suffering Is Not For Nothing” free video series by Elisabeth Elliot on Ligonier.