Whenever we encounter a crisis, the first question asked is often the simple two word question, “Why me?” This question implies that the suffering or trial we are going through is somehow out of place and unjustified. Other people may go through suffering, but haven’t I been good enough, smart enough or deserving of avoiding this trial? The reality is that the Bible teaches that there are many good reasons that God allows us to experience pain and struggle in our lives. Just as a soldier cannot excel without rigorous training or the artist or musician improve without practice, suffering performs a necessary function. We tend to view trials as an aberration or something gone wrong, when Scripture teaches that trials are a very normal part of every life.
Suffering as Discipline
Whenever we encounter trials, it is important to immediately check to see if there is some reason that God may be exercising discipline in my life. Hebrews 12 compares God’s discipline to that of a loving parent who will not allow their child to continue down a dangerous path without correction.
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. – Hebrews 12:5-7, 11
God’s discipline is always done out of love for us and is designed to protect us from the path we have chosen. This kind of suffering should never be rejected or rebelled against, lest we suffer even greater consequences of our choices later. Instead, we should embrace it and resolve change our direction with gratitude at having been stopped from making horrible mistakes further down the road.
Suffering as Character Development
Just as gold is refined by fire, character is often developed in the crucible of pain and suffering. As I look back on my life, there are many painful experiences that I would never want to repeat, but that have nevertheless shaped me into the person I am today. Could God have taught me what I needed to know through some other means? I doubt it. No academic class in compassion for the poor could ever teach what growing up poor with a single mom in the inner city taught me. James admonishes us to consider it joy when we encounter trials, which seems ludicrous on its face, but when we see what God is developing through those trials, it makes perfect sense.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. – James 1:2-4
Character to face all that life will bring is forged in those painful moments when we learn to trust God, seek refuge in Him and gain strength beyond our own capabilities from Him. God never wastes a painful experience in developing our character. It is we who resist the pain an refuse to allow God to develop us into the men and women He wants us to be.
Suffering as Protection from Pride
In every man there is a temptation to take credit for the God given abilities and God-forged character we possess and truly believe we can do things in our strength alone. The apostle Paul acknowledged this in his second letter to the church at Corinth:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10
We don’t know for sure what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was, but we know its purpose. Because of his weakness, Paul was forced to depend on God and not his own strength. Notice how he not only endures weakness and hardship, but actually embraces it as God’s opportunity to show His power in the face of Paul’s weakness. God may be using your health, disability, shortcoming or other weakness to remind you that He alone can really make us strong.
Suffering In the Midst of the Battle
The Bible clearly teaches and experience has taught us that there is an epic battle going on all around us in the battle between good and evil. In the Psalms we frequently see the writer confused by the seeming success of evil in the world and the hard path of the good. Job also had to wonder why he was experiencing such devastating testing. The reality is that often God allows evil to progress that His own power may be shown even stronger. Paul is no doubt thinking of this battle when he says:
Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. – Ephesians 6:11-13
This is a realm that we cannot see or fully understand, but God has promised to be with us through the battle. He never, however, promises to spare us from the battle.
Suffering In a Fallen World
When sin entered the world in the Garden of Eden, so did sickness, pain and death. They are constant reminders of the cost of defying God. Consider the curse of Adam and Eve after their sin against God:
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground – Genesis 3:16-19
Notice the role of pain, sweat and toil in these verses. They are all the indirect consequence of the fall of man in his disobedience to God. The bottom line is that God does not owe us a pain free life and if we could truly see the fruit of our struggles we probably wouldn’t want to bypass the hardships. In light of this newfound perspective, we should no longer seek to avoid the hard things, but instead, embrace the crisis! God is at work!