Suffering is a universal phenomenon. We all suffer in various ways, and we all have questions as to why we do. Like Job of old, we may have plenty of questions about suffering, but we may not always get the answers we are looking for.
But the Bible gives us enough information about this to offer us some broad, general principles. According to Scripture, there are various reasons why the Christian suffers, but a major reason – perhaps the main reason – is that of divine discipline. As D. A. Carson puts it, “In the Bible, then, the dominant form of suffering peculiar to God’s people is discipline.”
There are numerous passages that can be cited, but only a few will be examined here. One important Old Testament passage which I just read again this morning is Deuteronomy 8:5: “Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines.”
The context (8:1-11) is how God used the wilderness wanderings to both test and educate his people, showing his care of them and his provision for their needs. Verse three is interesting in this regard: “He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
As the Bible and church history make clear, difficulties and afflictions are often seen in Scripture not as unwarranted and unwanted attacks of the enemy, but as coming from the hand of God. In this case it was hunger – not something good in itself – as a means to a good end, namely, complete dependence on God.
Thus these hardships serve an important purpose in the life of God’s people. As J. A. Thompson remarks in his commentary,
The purpose of these experiences was educational. Often in the Old Testament God is shown as sending suffering to humble and to discipline His servants so that they might learn lessons they would otherwise miss, e.g., the testing of Abraham, Job, Joseph, Jeremiah. God’s methods have not changed over the centuries. The family of God still learns lessons through suffering.
Or as Raymond Brown puts it, “God had also been good to them in the barren desert. They had learnt lessons there which prosperity could never have taught them. Through those bleak wilderness years, he had been like a compassionate father who occasionally has to discipline his children for their own good. Some lessons can only be learnt in trouble.”
The idea of discipline/testing runs throughout the OT. As Andrew Hill says of the concept of testing as found in Malachi 3, “God in his gracious providence is able to transform a given ‘trial’ and its destructive potential for biblical faith into an experience that affirms and approves biblical faith and builds godly character.”
Perhaps the classic New Testament passage on this subject is Hebrews 12:4-11:
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
This passage is fairly clear, requiring little additional comment. However, a few items can be noted. First, the discipline of the Lord is unspecified. Indeed, it seems wide open. Any number of possibilities could be included here. In Hebrews it is often external pressures.
But in other NT documents the nature of discipline is varied. The idea is that many hardships and difficulties can be seen as part of God’s hand of discipline. Commenting on this passage, Brown says these bouts of suffering and hardship should not be looked on as “pointless adversity”.
Instead, “God may well be using these perilous events as a means of necessary correction and helpful, purposeful discipline. . . . God’s sovereign hand is at work as much through life’s adversities as in its joys and pleasures.”
Second, such discipline is educational in nature. The word for discipline comes from the Greek noun paidea which means upbringing, training, instruction. Thus there is a pedagogical aspect of discipline. Says Elizabeth Elliot in her book, A Path Through Suffering: “Suffering gives us occasion to examine ourselves, adjust our priorities, reset our sights, and confess our sins.”
Another important passage is 1 Cor. 11:27-34:
Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world. So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment. And when I come I will give further directions.
It should be pointed out that for the believer such discipline is not to be seen as God’s punishment but as God’s chastisement. Punishment is a matter dealt with at Calvary. Christ has died for our sins, taking our punishment upon himself. In his 1984 volume, Beyond forgiveness: The Healing Touch of Church Discipline, Don Baker puts it this way:
Jesus cancelled all our debts on the cross and marked them ‘paid in full’ so that no child of God need fear judgment for any sin. . . . God’s children must and do experience chastisement, however. Chastisement is the necessary and inevitable child training process that, in its extreme, can take on the form of ‘scourgings’ – physical pain – or can come as gentle, mild, whispered reminders of God’s wishes to the minds of His children.
So we need to welcome such chastisement. Discipline, says Anthony Thiselton, “performs an educative role (as in Heb. 12:7). It should not give rise to doubts of salvation or be endured merely with resignation. It plays a positive role in the process of being conformed to the image of Christ in suffering as well as glory.”
As in the Hebrews passage, the educative effect of such discipline is borne out by the use of the term paideuometha, from the verb paideuo, to teach. Discipline, Paul makes clear here, is to bring about a positive outcome. “The goal of punishment is not destructive, but remedial and educative,” as C. K. Barrett puts it.
As such, it is a reflection, not a denial, of God’s love. As Dieter Furst remarks: “It is precisely in chastening that God’s love becomes visible. . . . Paul knows from his experience in carrying out his apostolic commission (2 Cor. 6:9) that chastening is not a contradiction of God’s love, but is rather to be understood on the basis of it.”
The words of C.S. Lewis, as is so often the case, especially come to mind here. As he says in The Problem of Pain:
Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness. . . . Kindness, merely as such, cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering. As Scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons, who are to carry on the family tradition, are punished. It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms: with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes. If God is Love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness.
Thank God for his loving and corrective discipline.