Article by Mark Talbot
In introducing a new translation of Athanasius’s Incarnation of the Word of God, C.S. Lewis observed that “every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” One of the most pervasive mistakes of our age is that we in the West think that, simply because we are Christians, God will keep us from much suffering.
Scripture, however, is chock-full with the suffering of God’s saints. Its red thread winds through the Bible from very near its beginning to very near its end, making clear that God often works in and through his saints’ suffering, rather than sparing them from it.
Yet even when we realize this, we often still think of suffering as something bad that is merely to be tolerated rather than something good that is to be welcomed. So, these words may startle us: “You have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him” (Philippians 1:29 NLT). We easily can agree that faith — “trusting in Christ” — is a privilege and a gift, but it’s much harder for us to agree that suffering also could be.
How can this be? Answering this question requires us to know what suffering is and how it affects us.
We suffer whenever we experience anything that is unpleasant or harmful enough that we want it to end. The more unpleasant or harmful an experience is, the more we suffer. Being sneered at because you are a Christian is a way of suffering for Christ, even if it is pretty mild suffering; losing your job because of your faith is greater suffering; and being tortured for being a faithful witness to God’s truth — like Jeremiah was — is even worse.
The same scale applies to physical woes. If you have a mild headache and you wish you didn’t, then you’re suffering mildly. If you have a migraine that has left you moaning on your stomach in bed, then you’re suffering more. And if you have a splitting headache that you know is being caused by an inoperable brain tumor that will likely kill you, then you’re probably suffering quite profoundly.
What shocks us is that the Bible tells us we should actually rejoice in our suffering. Two passages stand out. James 1:2–4 declares,
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Similarly, Paul in Romans 5:3–5 claims,
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.
These passages emphasize that our experiencing various kinds of hardships can produce important changes in us.
First, they encourage the development of steadfastness or endurance in the face of difficulties. James urges us to let steadfastness “have its full effect” so that we “may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” while Paul spells out a couple more changes that remaining steadfast or enduring suffering can bring.
Second, steadfastness produces character. Character results from having our personalities probed and tested in various ways. Enduring suffering matures us so that we begin seeing life differently. We assess the meaning and worth of the events that befall us in new and deeper ways.
For instance, one psalmist declares that his suffering led him to start seeing and loving God’s word for what it actually is:
You have dealt well with your servant,
O Lord, according to your word. . . .
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I keep your word.
You are good and do good. . . .
It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes.
The law of your mouth is better to me
than thousands of gold and silver pieces. . . .
I know, O Lord, . . . that in faithfulness you have afflicted me. (Psalm 119:65, 67–68, 71–72, 75)
In another instance, Paul praises God as the “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” Paul realized that the troubles he and Timothy had experienced in Asia, which had led them to despair of life itself, had taught them to rely only on God. It also prepared them to help others patiently endure their own suffering (2 Corinthians 1:3–11). Experiences like this taught Paul that absolutely nothing can separate Christians from Christ’s love (Romans 8:31–39).
Third, these character-developing hardships, Paul tells us, produce hope. And hope, Paul writes, “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.” Paul had learned that God’s steadfast love for us actually becomes clearer to us through suffering.
Yet there is even more here. It is the unpleasantness and harmfulness of suffering that prompts us not to settle for life’s minor satisfactions. It encourages us to long for what only God’s return at the end of history will bring.
This is highlighted in Hebrews 11. For instance, Abraham obeyed when God told him to leave his homeland and head for a place he would receive as an inheritance, even though, as he stepped out, he didn’t know where he was going. And while God promised that Abraham would inherit this place, he, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob lived their whole lives without receiving it. They “died in faith,” we are told, “not having received the things promised,” but only “having seen them and greeted them from afar,” while always living as “strangers and exiles on the earth.” This led them to seek a homeland that was yet to come, to “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one,” to look forward to the city that at the end of time will descend from heaven — a city “that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8–16; see Revelation 21:2, 10).
They learned that “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14). Their homeless wandering kept them from building their lives on sand. Instead, they built on the Rock of Christ, on the One who was to come (Matthew 7:24–27; 1 Corinthians 10:4).
When I suffered a paralyzing accident at 17 by falling about fifty feet off a Tarzan-like rope swing, all sorts of trivial pleasures that had been distracting me fell away, driving me to concentrate on my relationship with God. And to this day, my paralysis focuses me, driving distractions away.
Although my body is broken, my spirit has been healed through the gift of my suffering. My accident and all the other suffering I have known have given me a ministry and, thus, the privilege of a life abundant in depth and meaning. Your suffering can do the same for you.Mark Talbot (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, where he has taught since 1992. His areas of academic expertise include philosophical theology, philosophical psychology, David Hume, Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards. He is also the author of When the Stars Disappear: Help and Hope from Stories of Suffering in Scripture. Mark and his wife, Cindy, have one daughter and three grandchildren.