This week I spoke to Bill Day, a preacher friend, whose sister died in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Seeing him brought back the day of that tragedy, but as I thought about it I realized that there are people who suffer private tragedies every bit as painful each day. That bombing was a surprise, it was a crime, it took many lives at once and caused much suffering. But each day there are people who are surprised by the evil of disease, the sudden loss of a loved one, the destruction of a marriage and, because of these, suffer just as great a pain. I'm not trying to minimize the suffering of the people involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, I'd just like to point out that suffering is generic and it hurts the same whether you do it in public or you do it in private. Whether it's public or private; the result of someone else's evil or part of the normal life cycle, suffering is inevitable for everyone...and few people see any good that comes with the experience.
Because suffering is a universal experience, I'd like to explore some of the things that the Bible says we can all do to suffer successfully and find some positives through the suffering that will come into everyone's life eventually.
Some may think that the term "successful suffering" is a contradiction or a cruel joke. It is neither. Successful suffering is when you go through a period of suffering, and even though you may lose something or experience pain, the final result shows that despite a loss of some kind, you have gained something as well. It may not be the person or things you lost. It may not be a better situation. But if you suffer successfully it means that you come out of your suffering with something you didn't have before, something that only suffering could produce, something that changes you into a person better able to deal with life and suffering in the future.
The Bible talks a lot about suffering, and most of the people it talks about experience suffering in one way or another:
- Jacob's favorite son is kidnapped
- Job experiences the loss of everyone and everything in his life
- Jeremiah is rejected and imprisoned
- Joseph loses the opportunity to marry his virgin bride
- Jesus is betrayed, abandoned, and crucified
- Mary is left a widow and sees her son tortured and killed publicly
- John is exiled to die on the island of Patmos
This short list demonstrates that the servants of God, even the Son of God, were no strangers to suffering, but they all suffered successfully for the following reasons:
They Knew Suffering was in God's Plan
Unbelievers think that suffering is part of bad luck or fate or someone else's fault. Believers with a shaky faith think that suffering happens because God loses control of a situation or that He doesn't care or is not watching. Jesus said that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Him as the Son of God (Matthew 28:18). This means that nothing happens unless God permits it to happen. Sometimes God actively does good things to bless people (we need to pray for this). Sometimes He allows us to choose to do good things for ourselves. Sometimes God punishes His people with plagues or destruction (Pharaoh, or Ananias and Sapphira who lied to the Apostles and were struck dead). Sometimes God simply allows bad things to happen (tornadoes, the bombing, or a shooting spree).
The point is that whether He Himself causes it to happen (good or bad); or He simply allows it to happen (good or bad); God is always in charge. Nothing ever happens unless He permits it. It is easy to understand why He causes or permits good, but we have problems with understanding why He permits evil to happen (He doesn't cause evil, He permits some to exist but limits it). But why?
Suffering Produces Patience
knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
- James 1:3-4
Some things can only be produced one way. Patience and endurance for example, are only produced in the fires of trial and suffering. Our purpose on earth is not to get rich, have fun or see the world. Our purpose on earth is to become godly and eventually live in and enjoy the presence of God forever. One of these godly qualities is patience, and suffering is the only way a human being can cultivate patience. Once we begin to experience the virtue of patience, we see that it is worth the price we paid to obtain it. James tells us that patience is one of the jewels in the crown of eternal life we will receive when Jesus returns.
Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
- James 1:12
Suffering Produces Righteousness
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.
- Hebrews 12:7-11
For unbelievers suffering is meaningless and useless, producing only negative results. For believers suffering is not an end, it's a means to achieve something beyond pain and inconvenience. The writer here names some of these:
- Suffering brings us closer to God as His children. When in pain we draw closer to God in prayer and devotion.
- Suffering is used by God to purify our lives of evil at times; especially when the reason for our suffering can be traced to our own personal sins and offenses. Suffering makes us quit sin.
- Suffering is a way that God will use to get our attention because we're out of control, we can't make it stop.
- He may not send the suffering but He allows you to experience it in order to get your serious attention about spiritual matters.
- We should never be too proud to allow suffering to bring us humbly before God, because this is a primary way God uses it.
He permits suffering because...
No Suffering is Wasted
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
- Romans 8:28
I've mentioned two reasons why God allows us to suffer (patience, purified character) but these are not the only reasons. In Romans 8 Paul summarizes the issue for the Roman Christians who were suffering great persecution (land seizure, imprisonment, ridicule, plus the suffering associated with living in the first century). He tells them that God can cause everything (good and bad) to work out for good. This means that He has His purposes, which we may or may not understand but the Bible assures us that it is not mindless chaos. God will cause everything to work for good. We may not see it, it may not be in our lifetime - but God will cause all of our suffering to work for good.
Joseph, the son of Jacob, was wickedly sold into Egyptian slavery and wrongly imprisoned over a period of thirteen years. Eventually he learned that all this happened for a purpose (to save his family).
We believe the resurrection because the Bible says that it happened. The same Bible tells us that none of our suffering is wasted, so we must have confidence that God will work for good (ours or someone else's) whatever suffering we experience.
So the first reason why the early saints suffered successfully was because they knew that suffering was in God's plan. Another reason the people in the Bible suffered successfully...
They knew There Would be an End
The scary thing about hell is not the pain, it's the fact that the pain will never end.
and if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than having two eyes, to be cast into hell, where the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.
- Mark 9:47-48
Thinking that there is no end/no relief is depressing and discouraging; it kills our hope and robs us of the will to go on. God's servants suffered some pretty terrible things. In Hebrews 11:32-39 the writer mentions that some were tortured to death; mocked, whipped and imprisoned; stoned, sawed in two, killed with swords; left to wander without food or shelter. Their suffering was different but the one common thread they shared was that their faith enabled them to see that their suffering would one day end. Job suffered the great personal loss of his family, wealth, health and friends and yet his faith sustained his hope, and in the end he was renewed to good health and prosperity. Jesus suffered injustice, torture and finally death but His faith supported His hope and He was resurrected from the dead never to suffer again.
Regardless of our suffering we know that some day there will be relief - either in renewal or resurrection - God has promised that He will give us one or the other. We need to remember to pray for these.
I think all are aware of the fact that suffering is inevitable and equally painful for everyone. We also need to understand that our suffering doesn't have to be a totally negative experience. Our suffering can be profitable if we remember what the Bible teaches us about successful suffering:
Successful suffering requires that you accept your suffering as part of God's plan.
Many people work hard at accepting or resigning themselves to the suffering itself. This is called stoicism. You can't do anything about it so you might as well accept it, make the best of it, even learn a few things about it, etc. The goal here is not to lose yourself in the suffering, hang on to who you are, your sanity.
Successful suffering has a different goal. You try to accept that suffering is part of God's plan for your life. The objective is to accept the suffering as God's will without losing your faith, hope and love. People tend to think suffering is a license to curse God, give up hope, and permission to be unkind and uncaring. Successful sufferers will acknowledge in humility that what is happening to them is not a curse, or bad luck, or stupidity but an opportunity for God to develop His plan using their suffering in some way. Successful sufferers get through their experience without losing their grip on the spiritual dimensions of their lives.
Successful suffering requires that you seek God's will, not just the end of your suffering.
Most people think the greatest blessing is when they get well, or when the pain of losing someone goes away. During our suffering our prayers should be for three things:
- Strength to bear patiently with what causes our grief.
- Relief and an end to the suffering.
- Insight into God's purpose and plan for our suffering.
By only praying for relief we may miss out on the true benefits associated with the suffering we experience.
Successful suffering requires that we give our entire lives to God.
Regardless of how broken, ill, used up or sinful our lives might be - God wants us to give Him our lives.
Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
- Matthew 11:28
We should never be too proud or far gone to offer God what's left of our lives. Only those who belong to God can suffer successfully - all others just suffer. I pray that if you are suffering, these things will help you find meaning and profit from the pain and difficulties you are encountering.