“It is hard to want to suffer; I presume Grace is necessary for the want,” a young Flannery O’Connor wrote in her prayer journal in 1947. But this raises the question, “Why would anyone want to suffer?”
In the years following this journal entry, O’Connor’s short stories and letters, not to mention her own life, would be filled with suffering. O’Connor came to see suffering as a disguised blessing, even a sign of God’s favor. “The friends of God suffer,” she observed in a letter.
To see suffering as a gift from God, a mark of God’s favor, even a sign of his friendship, seems far removed from the common expectations of our day. We may hear distortions of God’s promises, such as, “Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to”—a gross platitude doled out in some prosperity-gospel circles, where health and wealth, not pain and deprivation, are seen as the signs of God’s favor and friendship.
‘Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to’ is a gross platitude doled out in some prosperity-gospel circles, where health and wealth, not pain and deprivation, are seen as the signs of God’s favor and friendship.
But I’m also referring to the more widespread, often unspoken assumption that suffering is unusual—an imposition on our lives, an interruption of God’s good purposes, even a sign of his displeasure. Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? Most of us take suffering to be a rude, uninvited guest—a surprise we never wanted, not a grace disguised.
And yet the pages of the Bible, and the very life of Jesus, show us that suffering is not only inevitable for all but is, in God’s wisdom, the necessary path to the good and beautiful life. To experience the freedom and rest Jesus promises to give us (John 10:10), we must pass through the crucible of suffering.
Suffering Is Inevitable
“Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you . . . as though something strange were happening to you,” Peter writes (1 Pet. 4:12). He tells us not only to not be surprised by suffering but even to choose to rejoice in it. It’s a strange encouragement, to be sure, but one echoed by Paul (“we rejoice in our sufferings,” Rom. 5:3), by James (“Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds,” James 1:2), and by the psalmist (“It was good for me that I was afflicted,” Ps. 119:71).
We should expect tears—even seasons where we weep uncontrollably (Ps. 6:6), feel utterly overwhelmed far beyond our ability to endure (Ps. 69:1; 2 Cor. 1:8), and wonder when, if ever, this pain will cease (Ps. 13:1). The Bible tells us so. And if we don’t expect pain and tears, then when we suffer, we’ll not only suffer what we’re suffering, but we’ll add disappointment to our suffering—a sense of betrayal and bitterness that I must have messed up, that God hasn’t held up to his side of the deal, or simply the confusion that the world isn’t working the way I thought it should. As Paul Tripp puts it, “You never just suffer the thing that you’re suffering, but you always also suffer the way that you’re suffering that thing.”
Suffering Is Necessary
As a pastor, I’m sometimes asked, “But is it necessary? Must one go through a time of extreme pain, a wilderness wandering, a valley, to experience a new and better life?” Behind the word “necessary” lurks the assumption that we are in control. But we’re not. “In due time” God will lift us up (1 Pet. 5:7), but we must surrender to the reality that our times are in his hands (Ps. 31:15). As it was for Jesus, so it will be for us: God’s way to the new life always passes through crucifixion.
Jesus, the perfect image of God and the perfect human being, shows us that a fully human life must include suffering, and that we can only become the man or woman God intends us to be through suffering. Jesus, who was without sin and never did anything to deserve his Father’s displeasure, was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10). The author of Hebrews dares to say that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8), and that this is part of what makes him our compassionate high priest (Heb. 4:15), able to help us in our time of need. If Jesus, the perfect child, had to learn how to trust and obey through suffering, how much more necessary is it for you and me?
Far from being something Jesus saves us from, suffering is listed in the New Testament as the guarantee that we belong to Christ (Rom. 8:17).
If Jesus, the perfect child, had to learn how to trust and obey through suffering, how much more necessary is it for you and me?
Suffering Is Beneficial
No one enjoys suffering (Heb. 12:11). Yet our good Father allows and uses suffering to wean us, train us, and transform us.
“Like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 131:2), we have to be weaned of our idols, those counterfeit gods that can never give us the joy and security we seek from them. Suffering weans us from our incessant schemes to find our joy in anything or anyone but God (Ps. 4:7). Being pushed far beyond our ability to endure also trains us to rely not on ourselves but on God (2 Cor. 1:10). Finally, our good God uses suffering to transform us into the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28–29).
Jesus shows us that a beautiful life always entails suffering. He models for us how to go through it (1 Pet. 4:12–19), and he causes us to abound in hope in the midst of it. Because of Jesus, we can know we’re not suffering to pay for our sins—the penalty we deserved has already been paid in full. But we can also know that when we suffer, we never suffer alone. God in Christ stands beside us in solidarity, especially in times we’re too weak to stand. Jesus shows us that our suffering, in God’s hands, always has a redemptive purpose. If God can use the worst event in the history of the world to bring about the best thing that ever happened—the salvation of the world—then he can repeat that miracle again and again in our lives.
Our good Father allows and uses suffering to wean us, train us, and transform us.
I said the idea that Jesus suffered so that we don’t have to is vicious because if your theology tells you that you needn’t suffer, then when suffering does come upon you—or more wrenchingly, upon someone you love—you are left utterly alone, with only yourself to blame (your lack of faith, perhaps?) and without the consolation and comfort of the Man of Sorrows, who is well acquainted with your grief.
Suffering is not just something that happened to Jesus; suffering is integral to who he is. So, if we would come to know him, experientially, we must follow him down the path he walked (Phil. 3:10).