One of the least pleasant aspects in life is suffering. It does not matter what type of suffering it may be, or how the suffering began– it is a miserable process. Lives are often defined or shattered by it. Even if our suffering involves just a bit of inconvenience, we wish that we did not have to experience it.
Suffering takes all kinds of forms: physical suffering, such as injury or illness; emotional suffering, such as grief; mental suffering; and even spiritual suffering. We may be the cause of our own suffering; sometimes others are to blame; many times no real cause can be found.
Yet why do we suffer? How can a loving God allow us to suffer? This question is compounded when we consider two explicit statements of Paul:
Confirming the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).
Yea, and all that would live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Timothy 3:12).
There is no question of “if” tribulation and persecution will come upon us– the question is “when.” If we do not experience any such difficulty, we are not on the right path (cf. Luke 6:26)!
But does this make God some kind of sadist, compelling those who follow Him to go through difficulties just for the fun of it? By no means! God does not tempt anyone (James 1:13-14), and makes sure that no one is given an unbearable burden (1 Corinthians 10:13). Many times the author of suffering is the devil, or the sin of our fellow man, or perhaps our own sin. There may even be times when suffering has no specific cause. But why must we experience such difficulties?
Malachi and Peter use a common image that we can use to help us understand why we must suffer:
But who can abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap: and he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them as gold and silver; and they shall offer unto the LORD offerings in righteousness (Malachi 3:2-3).
That the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold that perisheth though it is proved by fire, may be found unto praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7).
Refining is a common practice in metallurgy: it still remains one of the best ways to remove impurities from metals. In intense fire, impurities separate from the metal, leaving pure gold or silver and leftover slag.
We can describe the refining process spiritually to understand the reason for suffering: when we come to faith in Jesus Christ, we have many worldly impurities. Times of suffering compel us to consider ourselves and our lives. To whom will we turn when things get rough? Will we allow suffering to lead us closer to God or separate us from Him? When the fires of persecution nip at our feet, will we hold fast to our confession of Jesus, or will we deny Him for our own expediency?
The substance or quality of our faith can only be ascertained through testing*trials and persecutions. Will we be as the good soil or as the rocky soil (cf. Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23)? Will we have built on the rock, the Lord Jesus Christ, or will we have built on the sand (Matthew 7:24-27)?
The only way to know is by experiencing difficulty, and putting what is professed to the test. Anyone can say Jesus is the Christ among Christians– what will you do if you are around mockers and unbelievers? Anyone can speak of God’s goodness when things go well– what will you do when things are not going so well? Anyone can bless God when healthy–what will you do when you get sick?
Suffering is never pleasant. But suffering has its place in the life of a Christian. Suffering is to remind us that this world is not our home– we seek a better place (Philippians 3:20-21). Suffering reminds us that we are weak and lowly creatures in need of God’s grace and mercy (Titus 3:3-8). Suffering reminds us that we are not in control.
Suffering can help us find strength we never knew we had, composure that eludes us at other times, and patience and endurance without measure.
Suffering is difficult, but the positive fruit that can come from suffering is invaluable. Suffering can help us grow or break us– it gives us the opportunity to conquer or be defeated. The difference is in our perspective– how we see ourselves, how we see God, how we see our suffering. Will we grow or will we decay? Will the refiner’s fire expose gold or slag? The result is up to us and our faith. Can we handle suffering and refining?
Count it all joy, my brethren, when ye fall into manifold temptations; Knowing that the proving of your faith worketh patience. And let patience have its perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).