I’ve been noticing a trend. When we as Christians encounter suffering, be it physical or situational, we comfort ourselves with lies. And sometimes these lies sound good and truthful, promising us comfort or a reason for our suffering. But they are just that, lies. And by telling ourselves these lies we distract from seizing the opportunities that suffering brings.
1. The devil is picking on me
Assuming that our suffering is the result of demonic attack is short-sighted. On the one hand, it can discount personal responsibility. Maybe you lost your job because you were slovenly and showed up late every day. Maybe you were injured from a car accident that resulted from reckless driving. Before pushing the blame on evil, step back and check the situation for your own fault.
On the other hand, it discounts God’s sovereignty. God is far above the devil in authority and power. Remember Job? The guy in the Old Testament who had everything go wrong for him? The devil had to ask permission from God before he could inflict damage on Job’s person and property. Even then, God held sovereignty over how far the devil could hurt and He could have stopped it at any time. Why didn’t He? Because it proved Job’s loyalty to Him. Every time something happened against Job, Job remained loyal to God, refusing to curse Him for the trouble he encountered. He trusted God’s plan and recognized the Lord’s sovereignty over his own life and situation. Even under tremendous suffering, Job was loyal to God, and that brought glory to Him. Maybe our suffering is like that of Job’s. Instead of throwing up our hands and crying, “The devil is picking on me”, we can instead recognize God’s sovereignty in our own life and welcome the opportunity to prove our loyalty and love for God by continuing to uplift His name and cry out to Him even in the midst of our suffering.
God may just be steering us into the direction He wants us to go. Sometimes Christians expect to hear the voice of God or have some obvious sign from Him to know where they should go. But God often works by simply closing some doors and opening others. Maybe God designed for you to lose one job so He could bring you to a different one. Maybe God allowed your child to be sick, so you could get involved in patient advocacy, or so you’d be able to empathize with other parents of sick children who don’t have the hope in God that you have. Maybe God is just steering, maybe He’s training, maybe His only purpose is your spiritual growth. Whatever His purpose is, you can be assured that God has a purpose and you’re not just suffering from the whims of the devil.
2. God must have something great planned for me!
Where in the Bible does God promise that suffering is a sign of a grand destiny? Of all the promises God laid out in the Bible, I don’t recall one stating “because you have been unemployed for a long time, I will make you a CEO.” I can’t tell you how many times I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed and come across multiple statuses declaring with all cheeriness, “Gee, life sure is rough right now. But that’s okay! God must be planning on something great for me!” As if the presence of suffering, or more oftentimes mere inconvenience, guarantees one a bright and glorious destiny, or extra pleasurable blessings on earth.
And what does this say of Christians in third world countries? What of a devout follower of God who was born blind in a remote village? Does he think, “Gee, since I was born blind, God must be planning something great for me!” Does he sit out in a field waiting for a helicopter to drop in and take him to a bustling city where he can lead an entire missionary society? No! Why would he expect that?
Why is it that when we encounter suffering we decide that it somehow marks us as being better than other Christians? Thousands of Christians the world over have suffered tremendously more than we have. A martyr is great because he is a martyr, one who suffered for his faith and ultimately gave his life for it. A persecuted christian is great because of the sufferings he endures, and not because he may someday become a world-famous preacher.
Suffering is a part of this life. It came in with the fall after sin entered this world. Although it is far from meaningless, suffering does not function as a sign for a great destiny. Instead, suffering such as illness, job loss, or grief are designed by God to bring Him glory. The trouble with expecting suffering to be an intermediary between us and our blessing is that we view suffering as a temporary trial after which we receive a grand reward. What if the suffering is our blessing? What if we should say alongside Paul, “therefore I will the more gladly boast in my infirmities, for when I am weak, then I am strong”. Not only does suffering bring benefits of spiritual growth with it, but it provides us with an opportunity to glorify God. Shall we discount the opportunity God has given us to be a light for Him and instead look ahead for the imagined self-glory that is sure to come?
Paul wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians of one of his experiences of suffering. He describes what they faced and revealed God’s purpose in it.
2 Corinthians 1:8-11 [NIV]
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,[a] about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10 He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.
When faced with suffering, let us view it as Paul did, as a blessing in disguise, as an opportunity to glorify God and reap the spiritual benefits that suffering brings. And should our storm pass, let us not eagerly look about for a prize, but instead recognize that the opportunity to suffer for God’s glory was our prize.
I fought Lyme disease for eight years. I have finally been set free from this diseade–and I’m super excited about it. But I’m not expecting that just because I dealt with agonizing symptoms at a young age, I’m going to become the next big name in Christendom. I don’t expect to be a CEO or to lead in a prominent political office. And if I do get a good job or become famous, I won’t think it’s because I had Lyme disease. If I stub my toe in the morning and find a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk in the afternoon, I’m not going to think the twenty is a gift because I stubbed my toe. God doesn’t give gifts to make up for suffering. He designed the suffering for our sanctification and His glory.
3. This is so unfair.
Saying something is ‘unfair’ assumes that you deserve better. When you lose your job and say, ‘that’s unfair’, you’re saying, “I deserve that job.” When you come down with a debilitating illness and say that’s ‘unfair’, you’re saying “I haven’t done anything to earn this. I deserve better.”
There’s a number of problems with this statement. First, God designed every day, remember? So when you shake your fist and cry, “unfair!” You’re really shaking your fist at God. You’re accusing God of messing up. Woah, woah! Accuse God of messing up? That’s so not what you meant. Think about it. God is sovereign overall, He plans everything out. So when you say, “this is unfair”, you’re making a statement that God made a mistake in His sovereignty. Instead of dishing out the blessings that you deserve, He accidentally gave you suffering instead. You’re saying, “God, you made a mistake. I was supposed to get the Olympian body, not the chronically ill one. You were supposed to promote me, not sack me. Take this suffering back, God. You made a mistake.”
God doesn’t make mistakes. He has a purpose and design in everything. Instead of shaking your fist and accusing God, take time to pray and ask Him to help you see His hand in your suffering. Instead of looking on it in a negative light, think of it as a blessing in disguise.
4. This is the worst day ever.
No, it’s probably not. You’ll probably face worse, if you haven’t already in the past. But more importantly, when we mark a day as being bad or filled with awfulness, we’re imputing a bad perception on something God designed. In Psalm 139, David declares that every day of his life was designed before he was even born. Every day. Including the day Saul threw a spear at his head. Including all the days he ran around the wilderness trying not to be killed by Saul. Including the day his child died. Every day of David’s life was designed by God, just as every day of our lives have been designed. His mercies are new every morning. God is faithful and will never leave us nor forsake us.
I can remember quite a few days I labeled as being the ‘worst day ever’. But in retrospect, I can see that those days weren’t inherently bad. More than once as a teenager, I received the news of a friend dying suddenly. And it was awful. A young person is not used to dealing with grief, and I felt the full weight of sorrow and despair as I mourned the loss of my friends. On those days I thought, “this is the worst day ever.” And it seemed like it was. But I remember the time of prayer that followed these announcements, the crying out to God, the tears. And I know that those experiences, those ‘bad days’ brought me closer to God. It helped me to think of the future, to think of eternity, to think how fragile my life is. And in some cases, it brought those of us left closer together, recognizing the uncertainty of life and causing us to value each other more.
The day you’re laid off, the day you’re diagnosed with an incurable disease, the day your child falls ill with a mysterious illness, all were designed by God for your benefit and for His glory.
The only ‘worst day ever’ to have happened in the history of the world is the day that Christ was beaten, whipped, mocked, impaled, and hung naked on a cross to suffocate to death. And He volunteered. Even that worst day had a purpose, opening the door for any sinner to come and receive salvation from their sins.
In light of Christ’s sufferings, ours pales in comparison. What is grief? What is disease? What is unemployment when compared to the agony of Christ? If He could bear the weight of His sufferings and glorify God the Father in His design for that day, surely we, who have divine help from God, can bear our bad days and glorify God for His design in them.
5. I can’t do it.
This is actually only a half-lie. It’s true that you can’t do it. You can’t bear the grief of a dying loved one. You can’t handle the desperation of bankruptcy. You can’t endure the searing pain and agonizing symptoms of illness. You can’t do it. Alone. What we fail to see when we look around at our problems and dire situations is that God is with us to help us.
More than once I’ve blurted out “I can’t go on. I can’t do it. I can’t do this anymore.” And in the space that follows such an outburst, I am reminded by verses such as “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “ask and you shall receive.” etc. etc. I’m still here, and it’s not because I’m particularly stronger than anybody else. It’s not because I managed to keep away from the self-defeating attitude of “I can’t”, because I have embraced that attitude more times than I can count. On the contrary, I am still here, fighting through my storms, because God has helped me every step of the way. And when I said, “I can’t”, God stepped in to say, “Now youre starting to understandt.” I can’t, but God can, which means I can. And the same goes for you. You can’t, but because God can, you can do it with His help.
6. Why me?!
Why not you? This question implies that you’re good enough that you shouldn’t have received the suffering given you. “I’ve done a pretty good job of reading my Bible lately, so I just don’t understand why this happened.” This question implies that the suffering you face is some kind of punishment. You must not be doing enough for God, and that’s why you have this disease. WRONG.
The apostle Paul underwent severe physical suffering. In 1 Corinthians 11, he provides us with a list of the sufferings he faced:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Was he beaten because he didn’t do enough on his missions trips? Was he stoned because he did not articulate the Gospel clearly enough? No. He underwent suffering for God’s glory, and he recognized that. Later in the same letter, he wrote:
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 of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 1 Corinthians 12:9-10
Paul recognized the opportunity suffering afforded him to be filled with God’s strength. But his suffering was a result of persecution. He was suffering for his faith, so of course we know it wasn’t a punishment. True. What of Epaphroditus?
I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, 26 for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. 27 Indeed he was ill, near to death.. . Philippians 2:25-27b
We don’t know what illness he had, but it was bad enough that he nearly died. But he is not regarded in a negative light, as though his illness came as a result of sin. In fact, Paul calls him his ‘fellow worker and fellow soldier’. His suffering did not come as a result of sin, and He remained faithful to God through it.
Ultimately these lies spring from the external focus of modern Christians today. Centuries ago Christians viewed intangible things as blessings; grace, peace, love, mercy, etc. were all counted as blessings. In today’s modern Christianity, we have shifted our view of blessings from being internal, intangible things to being external tangible things. Houses, televisions, cars, clothes, and all the extra things of our materialistic lives are counted as blessings. Sadly, our notion of what a blessing is has changed from a God-centered perspective to a materialistic perspective. We say a person with many things is ‘so blessed’, but what does that say of a christian in a third world country? Does not a poverty-stricken believer have access to the exceedingly abundant riches in Christ? Is not a christian beggar in India just as blessed as a rich christian in America? If we concede that God has blessed both abundantly, than we must need change our idea of what those abundant riches in Christ really are. We must see that the exceeding riches of God cannot be cashed out for Ferraris and mansions, but rather they refer to the unbound depths of God’s love, mercy, and joy. We are blessed, not because we have abundance of materials and wealth. We are blessed in our souls with the truth and power of God. Our internal blessings are eternal, and cannot be stolen away.
So if you find yourself with an empty bank account and food stamps, sitting in a doctor’s office after receiving horrible news, or wearing black at a friend’s funeral, don’t lie to yourself. Those lies won’t help you. Instead, speak the truth.
1) God has designed suffering for His glory, our sanctification, and the edification of His saints.
2) All suffering has a purpose, if not multiple purposes. This purpose may not be something tangible, bit may be an intangible hidden blessing.
3) Suffering itself, when viewed with a right perspective, is a blessing.
4) God does not give sympathy blessings to make up for suffering.
5) God is with us in the midst of our suffering to comfort and guide, providing peace and strength when we need it most.