Suffering: God’s Tool of Refinement
Think about the last time you gave into a vice that you had been trying to avoid. Maybe it was sexual sin, drunkenness, gluttony, or binging on entertainment. While there are many complex reasons for turning to our sins of choice, the most common one involves some kind of suffering that we are trying to escape or numb.
The men in our biblical support groups at Harvest USA have voiced the most common scenarios that precipitate running to sexual sin:
- An argument with a spouse or some other relational turmoil
- Struggling to fall asleep
- Stress or anxiety related to work or school performance
- General feelings of dissatisfaction in life
All of these situations involve some form of suffering. And how do we respond to suffering? We want to mitigate it in some way—quickly. Our first responses will often involve trying to change, fix, or resolve whatever situation is causing us suffering. If our efforts work, great! The suffering is relieved. But what if your spouse is still angry with you? What if you can’t fall asleep and it’s four o’clock in the morning? What if you get fired from your job for losing the sale? What if your efforts to form relationships continue to fall flat? What if the suffering doesn’t go away?
This is a crucial fork-in-the road moment! You can’t remove the suffering, so now what? How you respond in this scenario determines whether you will see growth in Christian maturity or whether you will remain in patterns of unbelief and sin.
We all know the classic cartoon when the character is presented with two paths. One path is sunny, with birds chirping, flowers blooming, and hope just over the horizon. The other is dark and stormy, with crows squawking and danger lurking. It’s obvious which path is more appealing.
Spiritually speaking, in times of suffering, sin often masquerades as the safe, enticing, bliss-filled answer to our suffering, while following Jesus looks like the path of despair. Of course, it’s only a matter of time before sin’s charade falls apart. Our enemy is more than happy to give us a moment of reprieve from our pain if, in the long run, he can add to our suffering through our sinful responses to it.
So, while sexual pleasure, alcohol, or double chocolate mousse cake may give a hit of dopamine that brings temporary relief, our sin is never the answer to our suffering.
But here’s the problem: Anyone struggling with habitual sin knows that truth, and yet it doesn’t stop them from going back to it anyway. Why is that? Simply put, we struggle to walk by faith, not by sight. Walking by faith is often painful, while walking by sight is quick and easy in the moment of suffering.
There is a simple yet difficult gospel truth that you must embrace in order to mature in faith: Suffering is how we grow. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself what Scripture has to say (Romans 5:3–5, James 1:2–4, 1 Peter 1:6–7, John 15:2). Suffering is always part of God’s means to conform us more into the image of our Savior, who was known during his earthly ministry as the suffering servant. Jesus himself “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8) because a savior who never suffered could not save us. While Jesus suffered under the Father’s wrath so that we would never have to, he didn’t suffer on earth so that we could avoid all earthly suffering. In fact, the opposite is true. Being united to Jesus means that suffering is a marker of our lives on this earth as we “fill up what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).
That is a really difficult pill for all of us to swallow. How can we possibly accept that truth? What makes that pill go down is the reality that God uses our suffering, in love, to conform us into the image of our Savior (which is the deepest reality of Romans 8:28–29).
But how does this work? How does God use suffering to shape us?
My favorite hymn is probably William Cowper’s “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Take some time to slowly meditate on these three stanzas. If you know the music, sing them!
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding ev’ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flow’r.¹
What is Cowper saying here? He’s saying that God has good for you in your suffering. He has loving purposes behind it all. The most immediate purpose, the most obvious good that God intends in your pain, is that your suffering would draw you into humble, dependent relationship with him.
One of the greatest tragedies of turning to sin in our suffering is that we rob ourselves of the comfort that God is offering. In what context does Paul call the Father the God of all comfort? It’s in the context of affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4). God has a special comfort reserved specifically for your moments of suffering. There is nothing sweeter than his comfort in the midst of bitter affliction.
But here’s the rub: That comfort is not something we can control or demand in our timing or liking. God often calls us to wait upon him. That comfort may be come on the far side many tears, great anguish, desperation, and even feeling abandoned by God at times. This comfort is laid hold of by faith, not by sight, but it is a comfort that God has purchased for you and guarantees for all of his children in Christ who will look to and wait upon him.
Vaneetha Risner proposes a great way to think about suffering. She observes that we often ask the question, “If God loves me, why is this happening to me?” But a better, faith-filled question asks, “Because God loves me, why is this happening to me?”² This does not mean that all suffering has easy answers if we just trust God—some suffering may never make sense this side of eternity—but your heart’s posture in trusting the Lord’s loving purposes is what matters.
While we’re not called to enjoy or invite suffering into our lives, see it as an opportunity when it comes and listen for your sympathetic High Priest’s loving invitation to come to him as your refuge, your strength, your high tower. As you come to him, he promises to use the fire of affliction not to destroy you, but to refine you.
As you trust God and turn to him in your suffering, you will find that your faith grows. At every turn, his promises remain true and become even more meaningful and significant as God lovingly forces you to cling to them for your life. A faith that is never practiced, never relied upon, never needed is a very weak faith. God wants to strengthen your faith in him; he wants you to experience how strong he really is. And there’s no better way to know God’s strength than in our weakness