Benefits of Suffering Seen in Retrospect
Posted August 16, 2017 by Amy Wang
Photo: hwongcc / 123RF Stock Photo
Why does God permit suffering? We can't just focus on one or two canned reasons to explain all kinds of suffering, as if all suffering were to punish us or to build character. God may have different reasons for allowing suffering in different circumstances. That is why God was displeased with the friends of a righteous man named Job. They assumed Job's suffering was the consequence of his wrongdoing. Wrong! God's real purpose in permitting Job's suffering was to prove that Job would be faithful to God for better or for worse.
Indeed, suffering can lead people to the truth in so many different ways. While some may seek God after they see how faith in God gives hope to a cancer patient, others may seek God after they see the sincerity of a missionary who endures suffering for the truth. There are even people who turn to God after they see the horror of a world turned away from God. Ultimately, God wishes for people to be saved and to know Him. And God knows whereas some people will seek Him if they see a miracle, others will seek Him only when crisis hits. Thus, whether God chooses to prevent suffering or allow it, both instances may have an underlying reason. God's ways are sometimes past our understanding. Perhaps that is why God's answer to Job was simply to show Job that God is in control and can be trusted.
1. Suffering to Save Lives
Joseph: My favorite story in the Old Testament Bible is the account of Joseph, one of the 12 sons of Jacob, who was sold into slavery by his jealous half-brothers. Although Joseph's brothers intended this for evil, God intended it for good, to save many lives (Genesis 50:20). God used this betrayal to bring Joseph to power in Egypt, so Joseph could save the world during famine.
Jesus: Joseph's life points us forward to Jesus Christ. Just as God allowed Joseph to suffer for the salvation of many lives, God also allowed His only son Jesus to suffer on behalf of those who would repent and believe. Because Jesus suffered on the Cross, we can all have the opportunity to be saved from punishment in hell for our wrongdoing. What men like Herod, Pontius Pilate, and the people, gathered against Jesus to do was all predetermined by God for good, for the salvation of many lives (Acts 4:27-29).
Besides the examples of Joseph and Jesus, here are some other Christians who suffered to save lives:
- The Apostle Paul suffered on missionary journeys to bring others to God.
- Many apostles were martyred, which today is strong evidence that their eyewitness testimonies were not lies.
- God used Corrie TenBoom's experience in a concentration camp to bring Jews who had never heard of Jesus to saving faith.
2. Suffering as a Temporary, Lesser Evil for an Eternal, Greater Good
Paul: God may permit suffering as a temporary, lesser evil for an eternal and greater good(2Corinthians 4:17). The Apostle Paul who proposed this idea was himself no stranger to suffering. He suffered many trials as a missionary, including imprisonment, beatings, lashes, stoning, shipwreck, hunger, thirst, sleepless nights, and so forth (2Corinthians 11:23-28, Acts 9:16). Yet, he must have considered that any finite period of suffering endured for God's sake would be dwarfed by an eternity in heaven enjoyed with God and fellow brothers and sisters in Christ (Ephesians 1:18).
Benefits Seen in Retrospect: Peter Kreeft provides the useful metaphor of saving an animal from a trap. To rescue an animal from a trap, you may have to push it further into the trap to release the tension in the spring (Strobel, 31-32). The animal may not trust the good intent of his rescuer until after he is rescued. Similarly, we may not understand why we suffer now, but if we endure suffering patiently and draw near to God in faith, we will see in retrospect the good intentions of God, who works all things for good for those who love Him (Romans 8:28).
3. No Pain, No Gain: Suffering for Sanctification or Discipline
If you cut a cocoon to relieve the worm inside of its struggle, it will remain a sickly worm. However, if you let it struggle, it can become a butterfly. For similar reasons, God may allow us to suffer because without suffering, we might not develop character traits like patience, character, and hope (Romans 5:3-4, James 1:2-4). Without the suffering that comes with God's pruning us as branches in the vine, we might not bear as much fruit (John 15:2) and without the refiner's fire, we might not be purified like gold (1Peter 1:6-7). Many Christians say they wouldn't trade their past suffering for anything else, having seen what God accomplished through it.
Sometimes suffering is also for discipline. God's discipline can be compared to good parents who discipline their children out of love (Hebrews 12:6). Although unpleasant for a time, it results in the peaceable fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).
4. Suffering to Show God's Power
There are many examples where God permits suffering so that He can do a miracle. These miracles then help people to come to saving faith. For example, before healing a blind man, Jesus explained that he was born blind, not because of his own sins or his parents' sins but so that the works of God could be revealed in him (John 9:1-3). Similarly, although Jesus could have prevented Lazarus's death by healing him of his illness, Lazarus was allowed to die so that Jesus could demonstrate His power in raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45). On one of Paul's missionary journeys, there was a great storm, which also could have been avoided if the centurion had heeded Paul's advice. However, God used this storm as an opportunity to prove that Paul's advice had been correct and as an opportunity for Paul to share his faith with the men on the ship. Paul reassured them with the angel's message that they would all survive the storm (Acts 27).
5. Suffering as a Megaphone to Warn Us of the Horrors of Rebellion
Pain can also warn us of impending evil that requires our attention. For example, our ability to feel pain when we touch a hot stove prompts us to jerk our hands away to safety. Warning symptoms also alert us to disease, so we can take steps to prevent or treat it. People can die unexpectedly if the warning symptoms of their disease fail to appear. Geisler provides the example of leprosy. Since lepers cannot feel pain, they may harm themselves unknowingly.
Just as alarms and smoke detectors alert us of potential danger and thus save lives, our suffering may likewise awaken us to the horrors that result when people rebel, so we can seek the doctor to cure us from the disease of sin (Matthew 9:12). C.S. Lewis wrote,
“God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest president of the United States, said that it was the bodies at Gettysburg that finally moved him to believe in Jesus.
“When I left Springfield I asked the people to pray for me. I was not a Christian. When I buried my son, the severest trial of my life, I was not a Christian. But when I went to Gettysburg and saw the graves of thousands of our soldiers, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ. Yes, I do love Jesus” (Johnson, 173).
6. Suffering as a Proof of our Loyalty to God for Better or Worse
The Bible has an account of a righteous man named Job whom God put to the test because Satan challenged that Job did what was right only for God's blessing. Indeed, Satan brings up a good question-- are we fair-weather friends who are loyal to God only when things are good? Have we been planted on rocky soil that receives the word with joy but falls away in times of trial (Luke 8:13)? The blameless man, Job, proved he was really committed to God "for better or worse, richer or poorer." After proving himself, God rewarded Job with more than he had before his suffering. Yes, we may suffer in this life in spite of our faithfulness to God, but our hope is that He will more than compensate us for these sufferings in the future kingdom of God. Keeping our faith even in the midst of trial brings glory to God (1Peter 1:7).
7. Suffering that Drives People to God
In the Bible's book of Judges, we see the cycle of sin followed by redemption and then sin again. Each time the Israelites disobeyed God, it was suffering that drove them to cry out to God for a deliverer. Truly, many people will seek God only when they hit a crisis. Some unbelievers will pray to God only when they are suffering.
8. Suffering the Evil of Unrighteous Men Because Without Patience, No One Would Be Saved
In my garden, I have discovered that my roses did better when they were surrounded by weeds, because the deer did not eat them as a result. The weeds may also prevent soil erosion and maintain moisture and structure in the soil. Although the unrighteous around us may cause us much pain, their presence may have advantages we would never have expected. God may use the pain they inflict to drive us to seek God as our deliverer or grow our character. Their wickedness may also serve as warning to us, so that we will repent of our own evil and avoid the greater danger of hell.
According to the parable of the wheat and weeds in Matthew 13, God allows both the wheat and weeds to grow together until the harvest, because pulling out the weeds too early would uproot some of the wheat. Although sometimes we wish God would judge the unrighteous around us, we, too, were all at one point unrighteous and deserved judgment, too. Therefore, we should be patient when God delays judgment on others because that is the only way anyone could possibly have the space to repent (2Peter 3:9).
9. Suffering that Spurs Us to Comfort and Help Others
When we are comforted in our suffering, God may want to use us to also comfort others who experience similar trials (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). For example, many people start charitable organizations to help people suffering what their loved ones or they themselves once suffered.
10. Suffering to Fellowship in Christ's Suffering
Suffering can also bring us closer to God. Hudson Taylor discovered that God drew very close to Him when he suffered the loss of loved ones.
Finally, suffering for God can be a great privilege (Philippians 1:29). Paul was willing to suffer to join God in the fellowship of His suffering (Philippians 3:8-11). His hope was that just as we suffer with him, we will also reign with him (2Timothy 2:12). Just as we suffer with Jesus, we will also be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17).
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