Suffering is an expected part of the Christian life. Jesus told His followers, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). That truth about overcoming sustains Christians when suffering threatens to overwhelm. Christians suffer for a variety of reasons, including many of the same reasons non-Christians suffer—life on this broken planet can be difficult. Christians may also suffer for some of the same reasons Jesus did (John 15:18–19). Believers represent an uncompromising truth that the world doesn’t want to hear, that Jesus Christ is the only path to God (John 14:6).
Suffering of any kind was not part of God’s original creation. Everything He created was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Sin corrupted the world at Adam’s disobedience, and sin continues to corrupt the world as we each add our own poor decisions, rebellion, and selfishness (Romans 3:23; 6:23; 8:19–23). Sin has ripple effects, as well; our sin harms others, and their sin harms us, even when we’ve done nothing wrong. Becoming a Christian does not insulate us from the ugliness in our world, nor does it protect us from the natural, temporal consequences of sin.
The book of 1 Peter addresses Christians who were suffering (1 Peter 1:6). Peter encourages them in their trials, reminding them that their suffering had a purpose: “So that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7). In other words, God uses temporary suffering to refine the character of His own children. James tells us to “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4). Suffering, no matter its cause, can be used by God to complete us in Him (Romans 8:28–30).
There are several possible reasons for Christian suffering that are distinct from the reasons for the general suffering experienced by everyone:
1. Suffering may be a form of discipline. God is a good Father, and when one of His children goes astray, He may use suffering to bring him or her back. Hebrews 12:5–11 says that God disciplines those He loves. Verse 7 says, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” For example, when a man who spends all his time and passion at work instead of with his family or with God loses his job, it may be that God is toppling his idols in order to help him readjust his priorities. Financial stress may feel like suffering, but it could be intended to produce godly character in a person who has placed too much importance on money. Even if hardship has no link to a specific sin struggle in our lives, God can use it to train us. Parents, for example, often assign their children chores, not to punish them but to help them learn various skills and build a solid work ethic. Those chores may feel like suffering to the child, but they are being used to build something in the child that will serve him or her well throughout the rest of life.
2. Suffering enables Christians to identify with and encourage other sufferers. Second Corinthians 1:3–4 says, “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 receive from God.” Those who have experienced the grace of God in their trouble are better equipped to help others find the same grace in their trouble. Joni Eareckson Tada is a good example. A diving accident when she was 17 years old left her a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. She deals daily with pain and lack of mobility but has allowed God to grow her and develop His character in her. For several decades she and her husband Ken have overseen ministries that serve the disabled. From summer camps for the mentally challenged to Wheels for the World, a project that provides wheelchairs to impoverished handicapped people, Joni has used her own suffering to benefit thousands. By allowing Joni to suffer for a while in this life, God is providing her a unique opportunity to store up bountiful treasures for eternity (Matthew 6:19–21).
3. Suffering helps us draw closer to the Lord. We often seem to grow most when we go through difficult times. Suffering strips us of artificial or temporal securities and forces us to dig more deeply into the Word to find peace and purpose. It has been said that “when Christ is all you have, you find that Christ is all you need.”
4. Suffering reminds us that this world is not our home. Christians who live in more affluent parts of the world may find it harder to long for heaven than their impoverished brothers and sisters. When life is comfortable, eternity is only a glimmer far in the future. But when Christians suffer persecution, poverty, and privation, eternity starts to become the brightest light in their lives. Often, Christians who suffer have an advantage in keeping their priorities straight.
Some teach that those who have enough faith will never have to suffer. But this doctrine is contradicted on every page of the New Testament. From John the Baptist being beheaded in prison (Matthew 14:1–12) to John the apostle being banished to Patmos (Revelation 1:9), the New Testament is a record of the terrible suffering that dominated the first-century church (Acts 8:1–3). The men and women listed in Hebrews 11 were commended for their faith. Many on the list, including Abel, Noah, and Abraham, endured suffering. Hebrews 11:16 tells us how they did it: “They were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” We read of faithful Moses who “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:25–26). Moses’ faith did not shield him from suffering, and in fact contributed to his choosing of it to gain something greater.
The author of Hebrews also speaks of unnamed faithful “who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground” (Hebrews 11:35–38). Living by faith in a fallen world invites suffering and requires an acceptance of a deferral of reward: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39–40).
Our ultimate hope is not in this world or in gaining earthly comfort; our hope is in God and in His greater plan. It requires faith to please God (Hebrews 11:6), and the faithful know that a lack of suffering is not a reliable indication of His pleasure. Neither is the experience of suffering proof of His displeasure.
The same hope exemplified by the people mentioned in Hebrews 11 is ours, too, when we suffer for doing right (1 Peter 3:14). Even when we suffer as a direct result of our own poor choices, our suffering is never wasted. God promises to use even our most heartbreaking pain for good if we will trust Him with it (Romans 8:28–30). Paul, who suffered more than most, wrote, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17–18). That knowledge strengthens Christians when they are called to suffer.