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Suffering and Christian Growth

Jun 5, 2019

It goes without saying that over time Christians are meant to grow spiritually, experience progressive character development, and increasingly become more Christlike. Scripture is certainly quite clear in what it expects of believers.

God wants us to be like him, he wants us to be holy, and he wants us to become like Christ. Yes this is not instantaneous, but takes place over time. It is what we call the process of sanctification. Plenty of passages speak to this – here are just a few:

Matthew 5:48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Romans 8:29: For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Galatians 4:19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,
Ephesians 1:17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.
Ephesians 4:13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

There are many ways to help obtain such growth of course, including prayer, fellowship, Scripture reading and the like. But there is another route by which we can grow spiritually – one which many Christians shrink away from, or don’t want to acknowledge and accept. But this one is also fully biblical.

Suffering, trials and hardships are very much a part of this process of growing in Christ and maturing as a believer. This is sometimes referred to as soul-making theodicy: Why does God allow so much suffering and evil? To make us more like him.

Such an approach has had a long-standing history in the Christian church, reaching back at least as far as Irenaeus of the late second century. But it is not just theologians and church leaders who have seen the value of suffering in terms of soul-making.

Countless ordinary men and women have from their own experience testified to the unique character development that comes out of suffering. This is certainly how one recent famous sufferer, Joni Eareckson Tada, has seen it. She has been wheelchair-bound for over half a century. In her 1997 book When God Weeps, she said this:

It’s no longer a mystery now that I’ve felt the crunch of decades of paralysis. The encroachments of my limitations often feel like the cutting edge of a spade, digging up twisted vines of self-centeredness and the dirt of sin and rebellion. Uprooting rights. Clearing out the debris of habitual sins. Shoveling away pride. To believe in God in the midst of suffering is to empty myself; and to empty myself is to increase the capacity – the pond area – for God. The greatest good suffering can do for me is to increase my capacity for God. Then he, like a spring, is free to flow through me.

Incredibly I now just got the perfect physical illustration of what she was saying. We have a workman here replacing some clogged downpipes and underground pipes. I just saw one piece of pipe he had dug up seconds ago, completely full of roots, meaning the water could not flow through.

Only by some suffering can this be remedied: he, in doing a lot of hard, back-breaking work, including the spade work, and me, by painfully dishing out some hard-earned cash to make this happen. There will not be proper water flow in the pipes until this hard work is done. It may entail some suffering, but it is the only way to get things free-flowing again. So Joni’s picture is fully accurate here.

To increase our capacity for God, to become ever more Christ-like, is the real bottom line for all Christians. It is clearly God’s main goal for us. Our chief end is not to be happy or rich, but to be holy and accurately reflecting God’s image. Not all believers like these truths however.

The Health and Wealth Gospel (HWG) for example tends to assume that Christians should always be rich, healthy and happy. And suffering is seen as an obstacle to those ends. But if holiness, not happiness, is the goal, then suffering becomes intelligible.

J. I. Packer calls this “eudaemonism”. He discusses it in his 1987 volume, Hot Tub Religion: “Eudaemonism says that since happiness is the supreme value, we may confidently look to God here and now to shield us from unpleasantness at every turn, or, if unpleasantness breaks in, to deliver us from it immediately, because it is never his will that we should live with it. This is a basic principle of hot tub religion.”

Scripture however gives us a much different take on these matters. The Bible makes much of this theme of suffering as an aid to Christlikeness. So many passages come to mind here, but let me just offer a few of them. A classic text on this is James 1:2-4:

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

The words speak for themselves. The truth seems to be that one cannot develop long-suffering, for example, without suffering long. Indeed, many of the virtues depend on, or presume, certain vices. The furnace of affliction seems to be the best arena for developing those virtues. As R. Kent Hughes remarks:

James did not say, “Consider it pure joy if you face trials” but “whenever.” Such trials are a part of every believer’s life. We are to thoughtfully find joy in our own diaspora experiences — when we feel alienated, disenfranchised, unpopular, even when difficulty and tragedy come our way which have no apparent connection with our Christianity. Such joy may seem irrational, but in Christ it is perfectly rational.

Of interest is how joy is tied in with the process of affliction. C. Leslie Mitton points out the singularity of the thought expressed here: “it is strange to find joy commended as a proper accompaniment of heavy trouble. It would be easier to accept if joy was named as the mark of the end of trouble, rather than its beginning.” Advocates of the HWG certainly seem to think in those terms, in contrast to James’ understanding. Mitton continues:

But here it is not the ending of the grief which is to be hailed with joy, but the actual onset of “trial”. As we have noted, this is exactly in line with the word of Jesus in His Beatitudes (Matt. 5:11-12 and Luke 6:23), and as we find his early disciples radiantly obedient to it, as they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:41).

Another text worth briefly looking at is James 5:10-11: “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.”

Hughes argues that “our moral development – our character – is largely dependent upon the experience of suffering. Without trials we would be morally dwarfed. In fact, the study of the lives of great people reveals there is a consistent link between the crucible and true greatness. No wise person would seek to be exempt from the healthy discipline of trouble.”

Romans 5:3-4 is another classic passage in this regard: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” Of course suffering does not automatically make us better people. Our response to suffering is crucial.

As it has often been noted, suffering will make us either bitter or better. It can be a stumbling block or a stepping stone. The key is our response to God’s purposes in our lives. Why does Paul omit this vital condition in his chain of reasoning? Thomas Schreiner offers this explanation:

He leaves it out because he assumes that God will overcome in believers the tendency to wilt under pressure. The parallel with Rom. 8:28-39 is crucial here. Those who are justified will assuredly be glorified; nothing will separate believers from the love of Christ. To insert the condition at this point, then, is misleading because it implies that the logical chain can be broken. This undermines Paul’s intention, for those who are justified will certainly be glorified, and the fruits of righteousness will be manifested in them.

And this Is not just stoicism, having a stiff upper lip, and so on. As James Dunn notes concerning Paul’s conviction that suffering produces character and hope: “It is at this point that the Jewish and Christian response to suffering moves beyond that found in Greek and particularly Stoic thought.”

Mention could be made here of the many passages that speak of suffering in terms of being refined by fire, or that use similar imagery. Job 23:10 is a classic passage: “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”

“There are three noteworthy items of faith here” says Robert Alden: “(1) Job believed that God knew his situation; (2) Job believed that God was testing him; (3) Job believed that he would emerge a better man.” The point is, suffering with a purpose can be more easily endured.

If we know there is meaning and purpose behind it, we can bear with it. More importantly, if we know there is a Person behind it, allowing it, that too can make it more bearable. Job seemed to have some of this understanding, and it helped him to endure. And so too with us. As Philip Yancey says, “Faith like Job’s cannot be shaken because it is the result of having been shaken”.

Other passages could be mentioned. Just one more to close with: “These [trials] have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:7).

Of interest is how this passage immediately follows Peter’s discussion about the great salvation his readers had experienced. The refining fires of tribulation and adversity are part and parcel of the salvation experience. Says Scot McKnight: “Suffering, when properly understood and applied, is the wake following behind salvation’s boat.”

Salvation is the beginning, not the end, of the believer’s walk with God. It initiates the process whereby we become more like our saviour and more closely mirror his character. And trials are a major means whereby this occurs. The Christian life, says Alistair McGrath, “can be thought of as a process of being fashioned and reforged after the image of the suffering Christ.”

In his 1977 book Don’t Waste Your Sorrows Paul Billheimer aptly summarises these various ideas:

“Rank in heaven will be determined … by the depth and quality of our love. Earth, with its sorrow, heartbreak, disappointments and pain, is the only place, and this life is the only time, when such love can be developed. This love is the legal tender of heaven. It can be developed only in the school of suffering.”

Or as Spurgeon briefly but accurately put it, “God is chiselling you, making you into the image of Christ. None can be like the Man of Sorrow unless they have sorrows too.”

[1963 words]

15 Responses to Suffering and Christian Growth

  • Out of the Presses of Pain
    Cometh the souls best wine;
    and the eyes that have shed no rain,
    can shed but little shine

    Song of Annelein of Freiburg, who was drowned and then burned in 1529

    Thanks Bill, beautifully written and timely reminder for these days that we are living in now.

  • This makes me think of the sad case in the news recently, from Arnhem, Nederland: “A 17-year-old Dutch girl died by legal euthanasia Sunday after a years-long battle with depression and anorexia. Noa Pothoven, of Arnhem in the Netherlands, explained the choice to end her own life in a now-private Instagram post last week, saying the trauma she struggled to live with following a childhood rape had become insufferable.”

    My childhood was also marred with serious, continual sexual abuse by a number of people. When I tried to speak out I was punished and shunned. I was also unable to eat and severely depressed at age 17 and am here to say that I got well enough to still make a good go of life. What I went through was worse than I can describe, but I’m sad she did not stay and live.

    What kept me from suicide was the knowledge that we all suffer in one way or another and that only God had the right to end my life. I was suicidal and a clueless Dr was so harsh and unthinkingly gave me the medicines to end my life but I fought to resist that temptation and live knowing that I couldn’t face God’s judgement as a suicide. It was a slow process and a struggle but I am very glad I stayed alive.

    The Bible verses that speak of suffering speak of being completely alone except for God and that is how I felt and often still do.

    I was studying the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins at school and reading the book of Job at the time of the worst pain and the poem “Carrion Comfort” supported what I was reading and made me see that suffering is universal and also educational. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44392/carrion-comfort

    please keep this anonymous

  • Many thanks Anon – bless you.

  • Dear Anon, reading your story of suffering makes me cry. And yes, we all suffer some and then there’s those that are “Broken Beyond Belief”. I believe it’s the one’s like you that have survived what you did that fight the hardest to end suffering in this world. The pain of sexual abuse of young children and what you went through is beyond any pain adults feel.

    God bless you and thank you for sharing.

  • One of your best posts, Bill. It speaks so eloquently to those caught between cutting and running and trying to stay the distance.

  • Dear Anon
    Strength to you brother. If only this 17 yr old were entreated.

  • Anon, your post was really heartbreaking. A 17-year-old girl ought to be looking forward to marriage and children not finding the details of the nearest euthanasia establishment. I suppose if a society can murder innocent babies in the womb, it can murder teens outside the womb. We have in, my location, 1000s some say 10000s of teen and preteen girls who have been raped and trafficked by Muslim grooming gangs with the knowledge of the police and government. Very few of those girls have received any help and in years to come instead of those girls becoming wives and mothers, they are likely to become outraged by society’s indifference to their plight. A society that abuses tomorrows mothers (and fathers for that matter) are a very sick society indeed.

    Anon, you are the second person I know who considered taking their own life. What I find most annoying is that those on the left are quick to tell us if the 10-year-old transgender doesn’t get acceptance then they are likely to commit suicide, but those of the left couldn’t care one jot about children being sexually exploited or someone being bullied to the point of having no meaningful life.

    Society has produced not only child abusers but also the acceptance of child abusers.

    I do not know where you are in regards to how you value yourself at the moment, as that is what it comes down to ultimately. I can tell you the other person I know who considered taking her own life is not only able to live a fruitful life now but is thoroughly enjoying life, even the problems and challenges it brings. I hope and pray; you could say that, if not today, then tomorrow. When I read what you said about being or feeling completely alone, but for God, that is true only in the sense that God will never forsake you or abandon you. He is with you in your happy times and sad times too, and yes when man abandons you, God will be there for you. However, Anon it’s not good for man to be alone, you have brothers and sisters in Christ who are here to be Gods hands and ears, to this end, I hope we hear more from you. You may unburden yourself any time on here Anon, but importantly you may, given your experience help others too. You are not your depression or the results of the problem people in your past; you are a valuable child of God, every bit as valuable as the greatest from the past and those to come in the future.

  • ‘Uprooting rights’ – this resonated powerfully with me. I learned directly from the word of God that this was what I needed to do when my son told me five years ago that he believed he was a woman. After crying almost non-stop for 48 hours, the Lord took me to Philippians 2 – the majestic Christological passage where the Lord voluntarily set aside his deity. As Satan tempted him at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus could have chosen to exercise his right of deity to overcome the temptations but he willingly ‘uprooted’ and set aside that right – an essential part of his identity – to achieve a greater purpose.
    On praying about how I should apply this passage in my situation, I came to believe that God wanted me to surrender certain ‘rights’ – to uproot a significant part of my own identity, but it took more time and prayer to work this out. Maybe I am wrong, but I believe it was the right of being ‘mother’ to my son. I don’t mean in the sense of ceasing to be the mother of my son, as Jesus did not cease to be divine, but it was a ceasing to act as ‘mother’ – a voluntary yielding up of my right to call my son by the name I gave him and to ‘be’ a mother to him in the current circumstances. I have daily yielded that right to God, praying that he will be both Father and mother to my son until such time as God restores him to me, if that is His will. It is not easy – my mother’s heart cries for him most nights, but then, I ask myself are those tears for my son and his pain or for me and my pain – meaning I have not yet fully yielded over my rights as mother to God?
    Because of distance, I don’t see my son often – he doesn’t come to see me, and has been slowly withdrawing from me, to the point of no longer contacting me on Mothers Day, but when I do see him, I begin preparing weeks ahead, asking God to help me keep tugging away at those roots of self interest, so that when I am with him, I can come alongside without expecting to exercise the rights of motherhood. If I cannot uproot this, then my time with him is spent making him feel for me and my pain, rather than me coming alongside him to serve him in his. His pain is the focus of my presence with him, and it is there that I try to reach him, from the mutual stance of sinners both needing the grace and mercy of God.

  • Thanks for that name withheld. Keep standing strong.

  • I was very pleased when “anonymous” above (Jun 5, 2019 at 2:12 pm) cited Gerard Manley Hopkins. He had a beautiful way of expressing the concept of suffering:

    No worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
    More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
    Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
    Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
    My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
    Woe, wórld-sorrow; on an áge-old anvil wince and sing —
    Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked ‘No ling-
    ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief.”‘

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there. Nor does long our small
    Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
    Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
    Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

    “Hold them cheap
    May who ne’er hung there.”
    What a magnificent rebuttal to the HWG view of life.

  • Thanks Sarah. But I am a bit worried. The last we heard from you and your band of merry women was nearly 2 weeks ago. I trust you are OK. Maybe dad grounded you for something? Or worse yet, perhaps your bubble about me has burst – you found something somewhere that I said that has convinced you that I am now an arch-heretic and should be forever shunned.

    Whatever the case, we love you guys and pray for you. We miss you! Blessings,
    Bill

  • fantastic piece – Thank You for articulating truths regarding suffering with such relevance. Praising God to reach many with these truths! God bless you as you continue to share your faith with us!

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