Patiently Enduring Suffering – 6
God uses trials to produce Christlike character in us. There are other great passages like Romans 5:3-5 and James 1:2-4 that also demonstrate this. But suffering does not guarantee holiness. If we respond to suffering and hardship in defiance and anger, pushing God away and rejecting his love and compassion, we thereby choose not to allow God to work in our lives. We thus reject his discipline. So how do we respond rightly to suffering?
We need to recognize the relational nature of suffering. Suffering always affects our relationships—with God, with others and even with ourselves. That’s why we so often jump to the conclusion that God doesn’t love us or that he’s angry at us when we suffer. Since suffering is a deeply relational issue, we must turn to God in a deeply relational way.
Moses reminded the Israelites:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years, humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands. Yes, he humbled you by letting you go hungry and then feeding you with manna, a food previously unknown to you and your ancestors. He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. For all these forty years your clothes didn’t wear out, and your feet didn’t blister or swell. Think about it: Just as a parent disciplines a child, the Lord your God disciplines you for your own good.” (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 NLT)
Moses urged his people to remember—remember who God is and what he has done. When we experience suffering and trials, we too need to remember who God is and what he has done in our lives. I have often observed in my own life and that of other followers of Christ that when we really get hit hard with trials and suffering, we doubt God’s love and care for us. We are so fickle. We are like the child plucking petals off a daisy chanting, “He loves me; he loves me not. He loves me; he loves me not.”
Peter, who knew first hand what suffering and severe persecution was, urged his readers, “So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19) We need to trust God with our lives and keep doing what we know is right. This is what Jesus did when he suffered so horribly and unjustly—a suffering beyond what we’ll ever experience. When Jesus suffered, “He entrusted himself” to the Father. (1 Peter 2:23)
We already saw how Hebrews encourages us to receive and “endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons.” (Hebrews 12:7) He goes on to explain—and we’ve all experienced this—“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.” (Hebrews 12:11) It’s only later that we fully recognize how God was using that trial or suffering to make us more Christlike.
The writer of Hebrews then concludes, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet.’” I believe he’s addressing our propensity to whine, complain and play the victim when we’re suffering. But what I’ve discovered is that a victim never wins! A victim cannot win, because he/she is always a victim. Victims squirm under the merciless weight of their uncontrollable circumstances. They are stuck.
This passage in Hebrews firmly challenges us to stop playing the victim. “Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.” Be strong in the Lord! “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” (2 Peter 1:3) “Make level paths for your feet.” Picture an alcoholic who says he desperately wants to quit drinking. But he is sitting at a table staring with longing at an open bottle of whiskey. No! That approach is not making level paths for your feet! Abandon and flee from whatever is causing you to stumble and set your feet on a path that will lead you to righteousness.
When writing to the church in Thessalonica, Paul commended them for welcoming the message of the Gospel “in spite of severe suffering.” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) Later he instructs this suffering church, “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) In this passage, Paul gives us three responses to suffering that are not only proper and God’s will, but they work for us.
“Be joyful always.” If our joy is inseparably tied to our circumstances, we’re doomed! Our experience of joy will be fitful and shallow at best. But if our joy is inseparably tied to Jesus Christ and his glory, our joy will be continuous and as deep as Christ’s love for us and as high as his glory reaches!
“Pray continually.” Remember I said that suffering is always a relational issue? Prayer is communication with God. Tell him how you feel. Ask him for strength and encouragement. Invite him to expose any lurking sin. Ask others to pray with you and pray for them. Let God comfort you. “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (2 Corinthians 1:5)
“Give thanks in all circumstances.” God is not asking us to do the unthinkable—thank him for evil and calamity. But he is asking us to see what we have to be thankful for even in the face of evil and calamity, and then to thank him for it.
Between our second and third child, my wife and I lost a baby. Our loss was painful and real—more so than I would have previously anticipated. God did not ask us or expect us to thank him for our baby’s death. Don’t get that wrong! Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus and seeing the pain of grief in Lazarus’ sisters and friends.
When our baby died, our heavenly Father wrapped his loving arms around us and wept with us. He comforted us and encouraged us. He gave us another reason to long for Jesus’ coming and to be done with this world. We were able to thank him for his tender mercies and care for us in the midst of our grief and suffering. We worshiped him, praised him and thanked him—not for the loss of our baby—but because he is our heavenly Father.
© 2009 Rob Fischer