Everyone goes through periods of intense suffering, and the temptation for many is to question God about why He allows His children to suffer. Some people will even go as far as to renounce their faith in God because they can’t understand how a good God would permit such trials in their life. Periods of suffering present us with the choice to either walk away from God or to run to Him.
There are times in our lives when it seems like nearly everyone we know is going through a major difficulty. My current prayer list is so long that I told my husband one of the reasons I’m thinking of taking a break from Bible study, or at least moving to a smaller group, is because I just can’t handle any more people and their needs and problems. It’s too much! At present, a friend of mine is suffering dreadfully from metastatic colon cancer, and she re-started aggressive chemotherapy that left her vomiting all the way home from treatment. Another friend’s marriage is falling apart. Yet another friend has struggled with alcoholism for years, and she’s currently back in rehab trying to get sober again after a year fighting breast cancer. I recently learned that a good friend’s son was diagnosed with ADHD, a compulsive disorder and a tic disorder that could lead to alcoholism and depression. A woman in my Bible study group found out that her 19-year-old daughter has Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And this is just a small sampling of the many tragedies occurring in the lives of my friends and loved ones, but you get the point. Life is definitely in session!
Because I look to the Lord for help in understanding with my pea-sized brain what only He can comprehend, and because answers and comfort for life’s most difficult questions and realities are found in Scripture, you may think I’m going to talk about James. “Well”, you may say, “perhaps she’s going to refer to James and encourage us to count it all joy” (James 1:2). Excuse me, count it all what? I don’t think so! Nevertheless, Scripture has helped me change the way I look at suffering and to appreciate the great blessings it brings.
So how can we approach this topic of suffering with the goal of obtaining at least an iota of understanding or at the very least some peace, comfort and consolation about it? The best way I can answer that question, and mind you I’m no expert, is to try and view suffering from God’s perspective. For me, it’s easier to accept suffering when I remind myself that it is accomplishing some purpose, and that purpose primarily is growth in my walk with Jesus. A survey of the Scriptures informs me that suffering is useful for refining us, for allowing us to experience what Christ experienced, and for coming to truly love the Lord without expectation of return.
One comforting aspect of suffering is that is isn’t something we experience in vain. God uses our suffering to accomplish His purposes in us. A period of trial is a time of refining and purifying, a time of burning off the impurities within us and bringing us to maturity. No wonder during difficult times in my life I feel as if my feet are being held to the fire! Scripture often refers to the refining process for the purpose of purifying us:
See, I have refined you, though not as silver;
I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. (New International Version Isaiah 48:10-11b)
I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities. (Isaiah 1:25b)
While these verses may not be initially encouraging to us during our time of refining, the Lord may be praised for the end result of the refining process. Note the psalmist’s words:
Praise our God, O peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
and kept our feet from slipping.
For you, O God, tested us;
you refined us like silver. (Psalm 66:8-10b)
As the Bible explains, an important process in the technology of refining precious metals was checking for the removal of all impurities by heating metals in a crucible (Psalm 66:10 NIV note). We can liken our suffering to the process of refining as it accomplishes the same goal: God seeks to purify His people in order to make them more Christ-like. We can take comfort in the fact that our suffering is not meaningless; it results in the strengthening and development of our character.
In Romans, Paul identifies the fruitfulness that comes out of suffering: “…but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5).
As our character develops and grows, we are more able to feel compassion for others. And though we may feel like God is distant during our difficult times, He does offer us comfort in our suffering:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
A second benefit of suffering that Scripture often references is that through it we experience a small taste of what Christ encountered in this world. In this way, we draw closer to Him. As Paul the apostle writes in his letter to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
For me personally, my response to God during a period of suffering is an indication of how deep my faith and trust in God are and how strong my relationship with Him is. It’s an opportunity for me to assess the purity of my love for Him. Am I truly seeking to follow the Lord no matter what? Am I still wanting, in some cases expecting or even demanding, that God fulfill my wish list? Have I given every area of my life over to Him? Those periods of trial bring me face-to-face with those tough questions, and in answering them honestly I can pray that God will help me truly love Him without any expectation of return except for the irreplaceable joy that comes from following Him and doing His will to the best of my ability.
I’m coming out of a time of intense trial and suffering from health issues and depression, and I am still in recovery from the whole experience and feeling fragile. But the good news is that I have a better understanding of who I am relative to who He is. My hope is that the experience has made me more right-sized and humble, and that it has left me with a greater sense of selflessness and compassion.
Do I consider suffering “pure joy”? Well, I’m not there yet. But at least I recognize what God may be trying to accomplish in me, and I am honored that He is further developing me for use in His kingdom. My prayer is not that I won’t kick, scream, cry, grieve and otherwise act out in my pain, for that is what makes me human, but that the Lord Jesus would carry me and give me His power in my weakness and that somehow through this process the Father would be glorified.