“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.“
— 1 Peter 4:12-13 (ESV)
During the past year since I began attending college, I recognized the immense amount of suffering that takes place in the world. People’s suffering has laid heavily on me at times as many close faculty, friends, family, and church members have gone through or known people going through trying times.
Suffering comes in many forms. Hardships can include from the loss of a loved one, to a severed relationship, to a medical illness that will not go away, to a persistent sin that seems to impossible to overcome, and everything in between. The length of trials can be as brief as a couple minutes or as long as a lifetime. Regardless of length, when we’re going through tribulation, the end can seem far from sight. The intensity of pain can be dull or a roaring flame. Suffering is a complex issue that needs dealt with biblically and delicately.
Adversity can be impossible to go through at times, but take heart, countless of other Christians have gone before you and have persevered. In order to suffer better, we must understand the theology behind suffering, the actions we can take in times of suffering, and our future hope in Christ.
Why Is There Suffering?
We often try to find reasons for our suffering. We recognize that suffering is not pleasant, so we want to try and “fix” it.
I find myself and others using sin as an explanation for suffering. When we are facing trials, we try to identify if it’s the sin in our life, or if it is God’s way of working on us, or both. There are examples all throughout Scripture why sin could be the reason for our suffering..
I want to use some stories from Scripture to illustrate this point. For example, 2 Samuel 11-12 is the story of David and Bathsheba. As a result of David’s adultery (2 Samuel 11:4) and murder (2 Samuel 11:14-17), he lost the son he conceived with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12:15-23).
In the beginning of Creation, Adam and Eve’s breach of the covenant of works opened the door for suffering to enter the world. Due to their breach of the covenant of works, suffering came into the world.
“To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.“
— Genesis 3:16-19 (ESV)
However, we can go off the deep-end with this explanation. We could say that all of our pain is the direct result of sin. The Puritans were famous for this line of reasoning. Sin isn’t always the direct cause of suffering; Job is a prime example of this point.
Job was someone who was “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). Yet, Job 1:6-12 shows that God allowed Satan to test Job (with some stipulations). Job’s world came crashing down all around him; he lost his children and property (Job 1:13-22) and health (Job 2:1-10). There is one greater than Job who suffered and he was sinless.
Jesus was persecuted during his life and because he was persecuted, he promised that we would be persecuted. Since Jesus is sinless, and yet he suffered, then this proves that not all suffering is the result of sin in our life.
“Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
— John 15:20 (ESV)
Why is persecution promised? Perhaps it is God’s way to test your faith to see if you are genuine or not. Many true Christians have gone before us and spilled their blood for the sake of the gospel and many Christians still spill their blood today. It also could be that the Lord wants to see his gospel spread across the land. This is evident in Acts and church history – the gospel has not been diminished in the midst of suffering, it has flourished.
Perhaps your suffering is because God wants to slay the pride in your life. Paul is a classic example of this aspect of hardship.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 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. 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“
— 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)
Your pain may be because God wants to prevent you from becoming prideful in your abilities. In the end, we should remember these powerful words from the Lord: “My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” All hardship magnifies the glory of the Lord because “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him – not in prosperity, but in the midst of pain” (John Piper). We must be content in whatever we are going through because the reward is worth it.
Fruits of Suffering
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.“
— Romans 5:3-5 (ESV)
Trials change people. When God brings you through a valley, you will never be the same. I think Romans 5:3-5 lays out beautifully how we should be affected post-trial. Each trait in the quote provided is indirectly impacted by suffering, expect endurance. Endurance is the direct result of suffering while all other traits are indirectly impacted.
Endurance enables us to go through more pain, hardship, and suffering and persevere through immensely more than we previously could.. This is vitally important because if we cannot endure, we will never grow.
If we endure, our character can be impacted by our suffering. Endurance lets us be patient when we work on our character, knowing good fruit will come forth.
As we work on our character, we have hope because we know that “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6, ESV). We will know that everything we do or experience in this life will not be wasted on us or fail to bring God the glory.
Times of pain are God conforming us into the perfect image of his Son. Suffering is not easy. No one is standing around, thinking, “I really hope to enter a tribulation next week!” Now that we understand suffering, I want to share some pertinent advice I’ve received from wise counsel.
Lean on your Friends and Mentors
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
— Galatians 6:2 (ESV)
Seek godly counsel from mentors and friends. Going through suffering by yourself is not easy, nor are we meant to go through suffering by ourselves. Embrace the friends you have, pour your heart out to them, and listen to what they have to say. It is refreshing and helpful to hear a perspective from someone outside of your situation.
Be warned, however, to discern the counsel you receive. Job’s friends and even his own wife offered terrible counsel. Test what you’re being told with the Scriptures and prayerfully consider what your friends have to say.
Also, embrace the mentors in your life. 1 Timothy 5 makes it clear that the older people in the congregation should be training those who are younger in all aspects of life. Those who are mature in their faith need to seek out those who are younger or less mature in their faith and disciple them. In that same epistle, Paul gives instructions to elders on how to serve the people in church.
Lean on your Elders
One reason why ruling and teaching elders are ordained is so that they can care for God’s people (1 Timothy 3:5). The elders of your church should care about you.
They should visit you whenever and wherever you are in your deepest, darkest hour to comfort for you in your suffering. They will offer counsel into your situation. They will plead to the Lord for you on your behalf. They will read the Word in your presence.
Do not negate these awesome men in your life. Lean hard on them for support.
Lean on your High Priest
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
— Hebrews 4:15 (ESV)
Lastly, but most importantly, lean on your great High Priest: Jesus. He makes intercession to God on our behalf. When the Holy Spirit takes our prayers to our Intercessor, Jesus will know exactly what we need and when we need it so that our character will be conformed into his image.
Not only that, but when we do not know how to pray to God amid our adversities, we should take comfort and hope in the fact that our feeble prayers are interpreted by the Holy Spirit and presented to Jesus clearly (Romans 8:26).
When Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, he experienced the full weight of temptation. He was as weak as he possibly could be and was tempted by Satan himself, yet he was still without sin. When we experience our temptations, we are not experiencing them to the degree Jesus did, and we still sin. We should take hope that we can draw our strength from the One who experienced the full weight and yet did not sin.
Jesus knows suffering. He experienced the fullness of suffering on the cross when he experience separation from God and took on our sin. And not just for one sinner, but all the elect’s sin.
Therefore, lean on your High Priest because literally nothing that you can bring before him will surprise him. He will be able to bear the weight of your pain and provide a comfort that will be indescribable. (Also, read 2 Corinthians 1:3-11.) Oh, what a Savior!
Read Autobiographies and Biographies
Clearly, you are not alone in your pain. History testifies that countless men and women have gone before you and experienced similar situations to what what you are enduring or even worse.
For example, Charles Spurgeon suffered from depression. Even so, much can be learned from his life as a minister, how he dealt with his depression, and how he served the people in his congregation.
Another example is John Calvin. He was greatly afflicted by physical ailments, but he did not let that deter him from pastoring and teaching people wherever he found himself.
Do not look to the men and women that have gone before as perfect examples of enduring suffering because they were still imperfect humans. But you can draw great encouragement from their lives and how they dealt with suffering.
Also, don’t neglect reading the narratives of the people from Hebrews 11. I think the Reformation Heritage Bible provides great insight into these people’s lives. Here’s an excerpt:
“How could Enoch endure living in such wicked times just before the Flood (Heb. 11:5)? How can you spiritually survive in the wicked culture of our godless society? The same way Enoch did. Faith in God must be a living part of your daily walk. If God is for you, what can man do to you (Rom. 8:31)?
How could Abram leave his homeland, not knowing where the Lord was leading him (Heb. 11:8)? Is God taking you down an unfamiliar path? How can you avoid anxiety? As Abram did: by faith in the Lord who “leads you in the way you should go” (Isa. 48:17).
How could Moses’ parents obey God rather than Pharaoh’s wicked command (Heb. 11:23)? How can we stand up against the immoral trends of our infant-killing culture and obey God rather than man? Only by faith in the Lord who is the sovereign King of kings.
How could Moses choose to “suffer affliction with God’s people” and resist the temptation of Egypt’s treasures and pleasures (Heb. 11:25)? The same way Joseph ran from a seductress. By faith in the Lord, whose name they did not forget in Egypt (Gen. 39:9). By faith they valued the “reproach of Christ” more than Egypt’s treasures and pleasures and saw “him who is invisible” (Heb. 11:27).in.”
— Enduring Affliction (Reformation Heritage Bible)
The Lord’s Day
Do not negate the Lord’s Day in times of suffering. The Scriptures and Confessions set a high importance on this one day of the week. This is a day where you can focus on the Lord and rest from all things worldly.
You can fellowship with other Christians that will help you with your burdens. Also, church is a place where, ideally, you can be yourself and be loved, supported, and comforted by Christians all around you, including the church leadership.
You can drink from the Word. If the Scripture is read during the service, it can give you refreshment and strength. A pastor’s preaching is different from teaching or lectures. His preaching can be a means God uses to breathe life into you again.
You can partake of the Lord’s Supper. There is something different about partaking of the Lord’s Supper from a normal meal. You remember the Lord’s sacrifice for you, what he endured on the Cross, his works, and who he is as a corporate body.
You can sing songs about who God is, what he did for us, and who we are in light of him. This can be humbling and it can give you strength because singing about God in a poetry with a melody can be a truly powerful thing because music has been used throughout generations to express people’s emotions in a deep way. Read through the psalms and you will feel the pain of the psalmist is some of the lament psalms.
In your times of trial, do not neglect the spiritual disciplines the Lord has given you. Get involved with whatever church you are at in any way possible outside of Sunday. Enjoy fellowship with the body while your pray, study the Word, serve each other, and serve the community.
Also, have family worship daily. Husbands, if you do not have family worship, start today. Wives, encourage your husband to start family worship today. If you are single, you can still have family worship – it could be by yourself in your room or at the park or with your roommates. In fact, if you begin today, you will be more prepared for when you are married and have children.
The world will weigh heavily on you throughout the week, and the Lord’s Day may not be enough to get you through the week, especially during a season of suffering. Although family worship is not required, it will help you get through your week much easier and lift up your soul. If time permits, I highly encourage a time of private worship, too. You will find yourself changed throughout the week as you go from Sabbath to Sabbath, following the Lord one day at a time.
In short, do not negate the reading and studying of the Word, prayer, and the singing of “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19).
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.“
— Revelation 21:4 (ESV)
In the end, take hope. Your time of suffering may seem like it will last for an eternity, but it will not. One day, all suffering for the Christian will come to an end and God will restore all things to a state better than before the fall. When the Christian leaves time to enter eternity, he or she will not have to do a thing to remove his or her pain and embrace comfort; Revelation 21:4 shows that God will remove our pain and be our comfort.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.“
— Romans 8:18 (ESV)
Your suffering may last a lifetime. Remember, eternity is longer than this life. We live an average of 80 years and after that, all things here will be left behind as we await the New Creation. Also, keep in mind the pain all unbelievers will experience for an eternity; this should serve as motivation for evangelism. If you find your pain unbearable to endure now, consider the immense pain that unbelievers will undergo for so much longer than you.
“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.“
— 1 Peter 4:19 (ESV)
This verse should provide us great comfort because we know that whatever pain we go through, it’s all part of God’s plan to conform us to the image of God’s Son.
There is an end to your pain and it’s found in the strength of Jesus. He knows what you are going through, he knows what you need, and he will deliver you from your suffering in the time that will most glorify him.
Dear Christian, take heart and embrace your suffering for the glory of God.
A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
Patience and Prayer by Pastor Luke Le Duc
God’s Servant who Suffers by Matt Waldock
Surprised by Suffering by R.C. Sproul
The Mourner’s Comforter by Charles Spurgeon
Ep. 156 Muh Feelings from The Reformed Pubcast
Family Worship by Donald S. Whitney
The Beginning of Birth Pains by Rev. Christopher Walker