J. I. Packer on Suffering, Weakness and the Christian Faith

Great biblical wisdom on offer here from Packer:

The issue of suffering is a core part of Christian teaching. After all, we worship a Suffering Servant, and he invites us to share in his sufferings. And all human beings suffer in a fallen world, so the Christian faith would be woefully incomplete and inadequate if it did not clearly and consistently teach us about suffering, hardships, loss and trials, and how God intends to deal with them in our lives.

All the great Christian leaders of the past two millennia have discussed these matters. That is true of J. I. Packer as well. I have quoted him often on so many different subjects. Those who know nothing about this great man of God can find some background info here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2020/07/18/notable-christians-j-i-packer/

Here I want to look at just a few of the many things he said about suffering, weakness, and the Christian life. Throughout his writings we find much on this, but I will confine myself to just four of his volumes. As always with my articles featuring key quotes, it is hoped that they will spur you on to read these works for the first time, or to pull them off your shelves and revisit them.

Here then are some important words from Packer. I first draw upon his 1997 book A Grief Sanctified which examines how the great Puritan Richard Baxter dealt with grief and loss. As he writes in the Introduction:

Bereavement becomes a supreme test of the quality of our faith. Faith, as the divine gift of trust in the triune Creator-Redeemer, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and so as a habit implanted in the Christian heart, is meant to act as our gyroscopic compass throughout life’s voyage and our stabilizer in life’s storms; but bereavement shakes unbelievers and believers alike to the foundations of our being, and believers no less than others regularly find that the trauma of living through grief is profound and prolonged. The idea, sometimes voiced, that because Christians know death to be for believers the gate of glory, they will therefore not grieve at times of bereavement is inhuman nonsense.


Grief is the human system reacting to the pain of loss, and as such it is an inescapable reaction. Our part as Christians is not to forbid grief or to pretend it is not there, but to maintain humility and practice doxology as we live through it. Job is our model here. At the news that he had lost all his wealth and that his children were dead, he got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:21). Managing grief in this way is, however, easier to talk about than to do; we are all bad at it, and for our own times of grieving we need all the help we can get. p. 12

I next utilise his now classic work, Knowing God (IVP, 1973). In a penultimate chapter on “inward trials” he says this:

Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to Himself. How does God in grace prosecute this purpose? Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh, and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor by shielding us from trouble created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another – it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast. The reason why the Bible spends so much of its time reiterating that God is a strong rock, a firm defence, and a sure refuge and help for the weak, is that God spends so much of his time bringing home to us that we are weak, both mentally and morally, and dare not trust ourselves to find, or to follow, the right road. When we walk along a clear road feeling fine, and someone takes our arm to help us, as likely as not we shall impatiently shake him off; but when we are caught in rough country in the dark, with a storm getting up and our strength spent, and someone takes our arm to help us, we shall thankfully lean on him. And God wants us to feel that our way through life is rough and perplexing, so that we may learn thankfully to lean on him. Therefore he takes steps to drive us out of self-confidence to trust in himself – in the classical scriptural phrase for the secret of the godly man’s life, to ‘wait on the Lord’. p. 227

In his 1987 volume, Laid Back Religion (Tyndale, 1987 – released in the UK as Hot Tub Religion (IVP, 1989), he takes on some modern errors including the so-called health and wealth gospel. He says this:

‘Eudaemonism’ is an uncommon word for which I should perhaps apologize. I use it because it is the only word I know that fits. It has nothing to do with demons. It comes from the Greek for ‘happy,’ eudaimon, and Webster defines it as ‘the system of philosophy which makes human happiness the highest object.’ I use the word as a label for the view that happiness means the presence of pleasure and freedom from all this unpleasant. 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 have to live with it. This is a basic principle of hot tub religion. Unhappily, however, it is also a false principle. It loses sight of the place of pain in sanctification whereby God trains his children to share his holiness (see Heb. 12:5-11). Such oversight can be ruinous.


Happiness, in the sense defined, will be enjoyed in heaven. Revelation 7:16-17 shows us that. When glorified with Christ our condition will be one not simply of quiet contentment with the way things are (happiness at its lowest), but of conscious joy and a whole-hearted delight in everything around (happiness at its highest). There is, however, a catch. Heaven is a state of holiness, which only persons with holy tastes will appreciate, and into which only persons of holy character can enter (Rev. 21:27, 22:14f).


Holiness is not a price we pay for final salvation, but is, rather, the road by which we reach it, and sanctification is the process whereby God leads us along that road. The New Testament shows us that in the school of sanctification many modes of pain have their place – physical and mental discomfort and pressure, personal disappointment, restriction, hurt, and distress. God uses these things to activate the supernatural power that is at work in believers (2 Cor. 4:7-11); to replace self-reliance with total trust in the Lord who gives strength (1:8f., 12:9f.); and to carry on his holy work of changing us from what we naturally are into Jesus’ moral likeness ‘with ever-increasing glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18)….


So any form of the idea that since God really loves us he must intend to keep us, or immediately to deliver us, out of all the troubles that threaten – poor health, lonely isolation, family disruption, shortage of funds, hostility, cruelty, or whatever – should be dismissed as utterly wrong. Faithful Christians will experience help and deliverance in times of trouble over and over again. But our lives will not be ease, comfort, and pleasure all the way. Burrs under the saddle and thorns in our bed will abound. Woe betide the adherent of hot tub religion who overlooks this fact! pp. 54-56

And one more quote from the book:

God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away. To live with your ‘thorn’ uncomplainingly—that is, sweet, patient, and free in heart to love and help others, even though every day you feel weak—is true sanctification. It is true healing for the spirit. It is a supreme victory of grace. p. 132

Image of Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength (Trade Paperback Edition)
Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength (Trade Paperback Edition) by Packer, J. I. (Author) Amazon logo

My final volume is Weakness is the Way (Crossway, 2013). Just two quotes from this book will be offered here. First, he says this early on in the book: “The Christian way of life and service is a walk of weakness, as human strength gives out and only divine strength can sustain and enable.” p. 22

And in his chapter on hope he writes:

What is it, then, that we have to look forward to? Second Corinthians 5:1-8 sets before us in picture language that aspect of our hope which will counter, cancel, and consign to far-off memory “this light momentary affliction”—bad health, crippled limbs, bodily pains; minds, memories, relationships, personal circumstances all going downhill; insults, cruelties, and whatever else. This hope fills us with wondering joy that everything can be so good. We shall be given a new dwelling place, says Paul, new clothes, and a new home life in the company of our Lord. It sounds marvelous, and so indeed it is. It sounds, in fact, too good to be true, but that is not the case. Let us focus on it as we move toward our close. p. 107


None of this is simply theoretical of course, but fully down-to earth and practical. As but two examples: a friend and fellow culture warrior has told us of his stage 4 cancer and brain tumour. He is much younger than I. My wife also has terminal cancer and a brain tumour, so we know what he is going through. Millions of others worldwide are also going through this particular type of suffering. As I said, our Lord knows all about suffering, and is a real rock of support and comfort during these tough times.

[1741 words]

6 Replies to “J. I. Packer on Suffering, Weakness and the Christian Faith”

  1. Hi Bill,
    Thank you for introducing me to J. I. Packer some years ago, and for sharing the article above, especially as Averil and you are suffering much.
    I especially liked “…by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely. This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another – it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast”
    God has drawn me closer to Him through all the suffering allowed in my life. The same for many Christians that I know. The same for you and Averil. Praying you both be filled and surrounded with the peace and presence of God and the comfort that only He can provide.

  2. There is that Rock David calls “the Rock that is higher than I” – [Psalm 61:2]. His way is perfect [Deuteronomy 32:3,4], May God sustain you and your family through your wife’s illness. The eternal answer for when our hearts are overwhelmed and we cry out to God is found in His unshakeable, eternal, heavenly Tabernacle – a tent that outlasts all earth’s mightiest palaces and fortresses [Psalm 61:4].

    Another of the Puritans, John Owen, had a life that was touched by deep personal suffering and grief, too. Of the 11 children he had with his first wife, 10 died in infancy. The daughter who survived to adulthood married as a young woman, only to die of TB a little while later…

    God promised Judah that He would go with them THROUGH the fire and water, not around the fire and water [Isaiah 43:2]…

  3. Sorry to hear about your wife Bill, pray Gods strength and comfort for both of you

  4. I am very troubled by the idea that God causes suffering. I used to get around this by saying He “permits” or “allows” suffering, but knew that this was an intellectual slight-of-hand. Obviously, an all-powerful God could end suffering if He chose to do so, thus I’m faced with the fact that He has chosen for me to suffer, as well as chosen NOT to alleviate my suffering.

    Plenty of Christian deny this by saying that God, as love, would never choose suffering for His children, that suffering qua suffering is a consequence of the fall, not His will. He’s described as our Father, one who gives His children good gifts, not snakes or rocks. He’s a shepherd who protects us … not a shepherd who throws us to the wolves.

    This morning, during devotions, I read about Agabus, the prophet, who predicted Paul’s death in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was the case that Paul willfully disregarded the (unanimous?) opinion of those in the church who counseled him not to go, but also it could be the case that Paul had heard directly from God, was sure of His voice, and knew he had to travel to Jerusalem. Perhaps Paul knew, too, that He would die there.

    And so, assuming that Paul acted obediently not willfully, Paul submitted to God’s will and … was murdered. God could have preserved Paul’s life, but instead caused Paul to suffer. God willed his suffering and murder.

    Was God a good Father in this case? Here’s where I wobble in faith. I would never send my children to a brutal death. I can’t conceptualize how this could be consistent with divine love and goodness. I can understand (through a glass darkly) how suffering can crank us to the next level of sanctification, but I can’t grok why an omnipotent and omniscient God is unable to come up with a gentler and kinder work-around.

    I hope you don’t mind me admitting this.

  5. I found these words very comforting as my family and I are currently in and out of the hospital visiting and caring for our dad who also has a tumour in his brain, he is 89 years old, it is difficult to see a man who was once strong and capable become so dependant on others for his needs, heartbreaking really. Once again thankyou for this article!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *