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What does it look like to suffer well?

It’s easy to answer this question in theory, but much harder when suffering crashes into our experience. As I’ve struggled with chronic physical pain, sleeping through the night, and general weariness of body, mind, and soul, I’ve wondered if it’s okay to be angry, when it’s right to ask God for deliverance from trials, and how it’s possible to be joyful despite perplexing circumstances.

The apostle Paul knew and addressed the hardships of earthly life:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. (2 Cor. 5:1–6)

Paul reminds us that it’s possible to be of good courage in suffering—to be full of hope, peace, and joy—as we cling to the gospel. Here are the four reasons he gives.

1. Be of good courage because heaven is coming.

Paul reminds us that our human bodies are temporary shelters broken down by the elements. We live a tent-like physical existence since sin has stained our perfection, separating body and soul through inescapable death.

One day, however, we will behold the return of Jesus on clouds of glory and the restoration of all things. On that day, our earthly tents will be transformed into indestructible buildings from God. Our souls will also be wholly restored as we’re freed from sin’s grip and our glorification is made complete.

But how does this future reality make us of good courage right now? It motivates us to place our ultimate hope in the last day and beyond, not in our present circumstances. Even if we’re never granted release from our current afflictions, we have gain in Christ because of our future home with him, purchased through redemption by his blood.

2. Be of good courage because of freedom in prayer.

I love the rawness of Paul’s words: “For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.” Our groaning, when rooted in our ultimate hope of eternity with Christ, manifests itself in confident prayer to a Father who knows our needs, hears our requests, and delights to give us what’s best. 

Sometimes I wonder, Is God pleased when I accept my afflictions, or when I cry out to him for help and deliverance? It seems from this passage the answer is “both.” Our groaning in prayer pleases God because:

  • In humbling ourselves before our Father we draw nearest to him. Suffering often breaks us of self-will and self-sufficiency and points us to his will and his sufficiency. It reveals our sin and our need for a Redeemer.
  • It proclaims we have freedom as God’s children to ask him for our requests, even deliverance from trouble. We can approach his throne of grace with confidence because of the blood of Jesus, believing God’s will is perfect.
  • It expresses that we ultimately long to be covered by the righteousness of Jesus and made increasingly like him, not to be granted temporary comforts or escape from trouble. 

Because of God’s grace in Christ, we can groan openly and long passionately for both temporary deliverance and ultimate restoration.

3. Be of good courage because God uses suffering as preparation for glory.

Because we’re God’s beloved children, all things are working together for our benefit and his exaltation (Rom. 8:28). Though we may never fully understand God’s wisdom in our suffering, we choose to cling to his love, demonstrated chiefly through the sending of Christ.

The reason we’re able to be of good courage amid pain is a firm belief in God’s love for us, expressed in the gospel, and a confidence that our “slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). For how much better, how much more beautiful and excellent, will heaven with Christ be after we’ve groaned in our earthly tents for a time? 

4. Be of good courage because of the Holy Spirit’s presence and promise.

Paul reminds us that our Father “has given us the Spirit as a guarantee” of our house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. The Holy Spirit is our good deposit that our future heavenly home has been secured and that the life of Christ dwells in us now, amid our sufferings. His presence and promise strengthen us to endure, mature, and hope.

The Spirit calls to mind the true words of God; helps us in our weakness; convicts us of sin and righteousness; illumines our inner being to the knowledge of God; and pours the love of Christ into our hearts. What a ministry! And the Spirit enables us to respond to suffering as Jesus did, with prayer and dependence and trust in God’s unseen plan.

Suffering well is no easy task, but the pursuit of good courage in affliction is worth the fight:

So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (2 Cor. 5:9–10)

Someday, you and I will stand before Jesus, justified in his sight by grace through faith. And we will delight to hear, because of good courage in suffering: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” 

Editors’ note: For more on this topic, join us next month for our 2016 National Women’s Conference, “Resurrection Life in a World of Suffering,” June 16 to 18 in Indianapolis. Also be sure to mark your calender for our 2017 National Conference, April 3 to 5 in Indianapolis, where Kristen Wetherell will be speaking, along with Sarah Walton, on “The Gift of Suffering: Why Pain May Not Be What It Seems.”