My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. (James 1:2-3)
No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12: 11)
The importance and meaning of suffering in the life of a believer is usually learned gradually. There are some who teach that any suffering is out of the will of God. This is a contradiction of scripture, which consistently teaches that believers will have problems. If we mature spiritually, eventually we will recognize that suffering has been an important part of the process. One contemporary writer has envisioned it as a progression of understanding which develops something like this:
Stage 1: We start out thinking that a person living right with God will never suffer.
Stage 2: We recognize that good people sometimes do endure trials, but we assume they will always be resolved positively.
Stage 3: We realize that even though some problems are not settled the way we would like, God is able to bring good out of every situation.
Stage 4: We realize that faithful people may even be called to suffer.
Stage 5: Holy indifference. We recognize that our circumstances do not define our relationship with God. It is in our response to the difficulties of life that our relationship with Him is identified.
We may begin our spiritual lives expecting and assuming that Love will never allow us to suffer. As new believers we are highly aware of our many blessings and the freedom of forgiveness. We might easily infer that this means we are off the hook in terms of any hardship. In the cause of developing our trust in God’s love for us, He often seems to protect and deliver unusual blessings to very young believers. However, if we begin to presume that He will always keep us completely safe from difficulty, He may allow some adversity to come into our lives to test our trust. We may have to acknowledge the fact that although we love God and believe in His love for us, yet He has allowed something really hard in our lives. This precipitates an important question:
Do we continue to trust Him or not?
If we choose to continue to trust God we will be moving from the assumption that we have a right to be protected from everything hard into the insight of acknowledging that sometimes hard things do happen to believing people. However, we still may expect that our fervent prayers will always have the result of God giving us our way. We don’t expect to be given the answer, “No”. We make a naïve assumption that our understanding of rightness and justice will always prevail because God is on our side. We haven’t yet learned that sometimes God allows difficult circumstances because they are His way of moving us to a certain point of spiritual growth, or that He has some other unknown purpose in allowing difficulty. We may struggle spiritually when the pressures don’t always lift and we have to learn to adjust or compromise our expectations. How can it be that the bad guys or bad circumstances have won over all my prayers?
If we choose to continue to trust Him we begin to move into Stage 3 ~ the hope that even if things go bad in this specific instance, God will somehow find a way to bring good out of it in some form because: “All things work together for good to those who love God.” (Romans 8:28)
Sometimes there is a problem with this verse. Many people misunderstand it to mean that only good things will happen to those who love God, or that if we are faithful, God will always make sure we will eventually get a happy ending. Instead, if you read farther in that chapter, Paul goes on to list the kinds of difficulties that can and do happen to believers: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness or the sword. Nevertheless, Paul says, we are more than conquerors in all these things because nothing can separate us from the love of God. With this view, that is how all things work together for good: to be able to be sure that no matter how hard our circumstances we are always surrounded and upheld by the love of God.
He may allow many difficult things in our lives; we are surrounded by evil and it is impossible not to be touched by it along the way, whether by our own doing or by the acts of someone else or simply by the fact that evil exists in this world. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Yet, no matter how difficult our trial, God is with us in the fire, and we are never left alone to struggle in our own strength.
This moves us into Stage 4, where we realize that sometimes people of faith are allowed by God to suffer. He may use special people whom He trusts to act as beacons of faith. He may allow suffering as an impetus to move us to a deeper spiritual understanding. He can provide the spiritual grace in order to continue to live faithfully. The degree of suffering is the point where our faith may be tested. We may easily continue to trust if the hard circumstances don’t last too long, or if they are relatively uncomplicated. It is when believers continue to suffer great stress or their lives become full of extreme pain that we begin to ask “Why?”, and may begin to lose trust.
One thing we must understand: God is never the author of evil. He never inflicts us with suffering. However, He may allow us to receive the darts of the evil one, or experience the problems that are inherent in simply being human. There are many ways to suffer. We can go back to that passage in Romans 8 which tells us some of them: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, the sword. Today we are seeing increased persecution of the Church around the world and many are dying for their faith. There is chronic physical pain that wears us down; there are emotional pressures which become almost unbearable; there are separations and losses of people and resources. All these things can test our faith and bring us to our knees. He may allow specific difficult circumstances because He understands our specific nature. He may ask us to let go of things that are precious to us to test whether or not we love Him more than all of these. Sometimes He may even trust very special people with suffering so that their calm submission to His will may be a witness to others.
At some time all of us will encounter problems and stresses as trials and tests to our faith. The “what” of our burdens will differ. What is really important to God is our response. Are we prepared to submit our will to His in all things? Can we endure all things and continue to love and trust Him? This was Job’s challenge, and it may be ours also. Our response is the thing that determines whether or not we are then able to move on to the final stage: holy indifference.
Paul lived a life filled with suffering of many different kinds. He had been ridiculed and persecuted, shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned and finally killed for his faith. Yet, what does he tell the Philippians as he is waiting in prison to hear whether or not he is to die? “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness, as always, so now Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:19-21) Later on in that same letter he says, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” (4:12-13) Paul had learned the higher truth: that our earthly circumstances do not define our relationship with God; they are merely our training ground. They are designed to teach us to exalt Christ in every situation. Even death is of relatively little concern for the believer; it is merely the entry to an eternity in which we finally will see God. When death loses its sting, we no longer need to fear it, and can accept with peace whatever circumstances God allows.
There is an irony in that the stage of holy indifference actually brings us back to Stage 1: the belief that if we love God we will be shielded from all the hardships of life. This is not, as we first thought, because God will keep us safe behind a magic fence, protecting us from everything bad. Instead, we will have matured to the place in our spiritual understanding where difficult earthly circumstances no longer affect our trust in His goodness and wisdom. We will, in effect, be spiritually protected from trials because our faith is in Christ. We, like Paul, will have learned that “I can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens me.” and that “to live is Christ, and to die is gain”.