When tragedy strikes—the death of a child, hurricanes, a school shooting—we begin looking for an escape from the pain, a way out, or we clamor for answers from a panel of religious “experts” to explain the ever-present question “Why?” We want answers, and we want to believe that our suffering is not meaningless.
Our culture, unfortunately, strives to deny the reality of suffering and death, and we continually long to drink from the fountain of youth—expressed in our endless pursuit of Botox treatments, anti-aging cream, cosmetic surgeries, and hair dyes. We cloak funerals as “celebrations” and convey the empty promise that all people end up in heaven (except Hitler and Stalin perhaps). We cannot handle the harsh reality of suffering, so we hide behind the virtual walls of social media, where we pretend our hearts are safe from rejection, grief, and the evil “out there.” Yet all the while you and I know it’s there, it’s real, and it’s painful.
Maybe you’re in the throes of affliction, or maybe you’re trying to minister to someone who is. One of the great tragedies of the American church is that we’ve lost a biblical theology of suffering—one that centers on the glory, goodness, and sovereignty of God. We’ve lost an understanding of the reality of suffering as a consequence of the fall and neglected to see how God overrules evil for his greater purposes. We need to understand this so our feet land on the solid foundation of God’s Word and the God of that Word—and there find understanding and hope. All other ground is sinking sand.
If you’ve trusted in Christ as the Savior and Lord of your life, you can rest in the truth that your afflictions and sufferings come to you for your ultimate good and his ultimate glory.
But let’s look at four specific biblical reasons why God ordains suffering for his people.
1. To Kill Sin and Grow Godliness
God uses suffering to expose the sin that clings so closely to our hearts. When we suddenly bear an affliction, our pride, impatience, and unbelief will often surface. Pain has a way of cracking open the heart, laying it bare. When I’ve faced suffering, I’ve responded with anger. Though the suffering itself isn’t evil, it illuminates the evil residing within me. Sometimes it reveals my lack of faith in God’s promises. I begin questioning God: How could you let this happen?
If we’re prone to love something in this world—house, spouse, children, job—more than God, he may sometimes remove the idol. And it will hurt. In doing so, though, we are freed to refocus our primary love on him alone. King David saw a woman bathing, sent for her, slept with her, then had her husband killed. When the prophet Nathan confronted David about his sin, he responded with Psalm 51. Suffering serves as a cleanser, revealing and killing our present sin, and deterring us from greater sin.
God doesn’t just help mortify our sin, though; he also cultivates godliness whereby we’re conformed increasingly into Christ’s image. He will also use his church to spur his people on and be the context in which iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17). When affliction falls on a community of believers, they are knit together more tightly.
2. To Relinquish the Temporal for the Eternal
God also uses suffering to wean us from a love of this world and redirect our thoughts and affections toward that which is eternal: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Then, he said, you will have treasure in heaven. The young man went away sorrowful. Sometimes, God will simply remove those treasures for our greater good; it’s better to lose an eye than for your whole body to land in hell (Matt. 5:29).
As Christians, the afflictions we experience in this life should point us to the reality that we’re “sojourners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11; Heb. 11:13) here on earth, journeying toward the ultimate city. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). This world is not our home, and the afflictions we experience along the way serve as arrows directing us to release what’s fading and grasp what’s unending.
Paul declares that God “comforts us in all our afflictions,” adding: “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Cor. 1:3–5). As the Lord of true comfort, we are to see our pain as “preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17).
3. To Produce a Hypocrisy-Free Faith
God also uses suffering is to refine us, as fire refines gold by burning away the impurities (Jer. 9:7; Zech. 13:9; Mal. 3:3). Suffering will often distinguish the true believer from the hypocrite by the response of each. In our suffering, we are given the opportunity to discover the sincerity of our love, hope, and faith in God.
Are there areas of dishonesty or insincerity in your heart? A plunge into a season of affliction can reveal these. When suffering falls on a church—whether through illness or persecution—“Christ’s summer friends” flee, as the Puritan John Flavel put it. Affliction causes the believer to cling to God and the unbeliever to forsake him. In this way, it comes as a sort of revealing test to separate sheep from goats and refine his precious people through fire.
4. To Bear Witness to the World
Under the rod of affliction we’re given unique opportunity to bear witness to the gospel’s power in our lives—which effectively calls others to repent and believe. The believer’s own endurance under trial serves as a shining public witness to the truth of God’s Word.
I’ve known believers who have suffered so well that onlookers have asked about the unshakable hope and peace the sufferer enjoys. God uses the suffering of his people to display his grace in securing their salvation. Our frequent trials prove our hope and faith is not in vain, and serve as a platform to showcase gospel hope.
Our Father in heaven ordains suffering for us because he loves us (Heb. 12:6). He is weaning us from a love of this world, transforming us by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2), and will complete the good work he began in us (Phil. 1:6). May we rest in the surety of his covenant promise that, even amid suffering and trial, he will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb. 13:5).
Editors’ note: This excerpt is adapted from Brian Cosby’s new book, A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Suffering: How God Shapes Us through Pain and Tragedy (Christian Focus, 2015). For a more extensive survey of these five points, see Cosby’s book Suffering and Sovereignty: John Flavel and the Puritans on Afflictive Providence (Reformation Heritage, 2012).