Life is hard right now. Constant cancellations, political division, and racial tension mark our days; all endured from behind a piece of cloth on our face that never used to be there. To one degree or another, all have been affected by the current state of the world. This is decidedly not a comfortable season, and if we are honest, we kind of thought it would be over by now.
The Bible has a word for what we are dealing with. It is an old idea, one that has gone on since Adam ate the fruit. Joseph’s brothers inflicted it, Job questioned it, Paul rejoiced in it. We are all, to one degree or another, suffering.
One thought may spring to mind for the Christian amidst personal suffering: why is God allowing this to happen to me? Although a fair question, there may be an even better and more helpful one to pose, especially when considering that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). We may instead ask, “What is God’s purpose behind my suffering?” What follows will explore three biblical purposes behind suffering, what I will call three “little why’s.” They are not “little” in the sense that they are insignificant. Instead, they all direct us to something greater. As we examine the following “little why’s” behind suffering, we begin to see the “big why”; an ultimate purpose God has in the hardships we face.
- Confirming our Faith
The act of applying for a job is not all that difficult, especially if the applicant has a resume and a cover letter script handy. It is usually as simple as making a few revisions in Microsoft Word, clicking “Yes” or “No” on some government-mandated questions, and hitting the submit button. To actually receive an offer for a job, however, is another matter entirely. Several rounds of sweaty-palmed interviews and weeks of patience tend to prove a candidate’s desire for attaining the position. If the process is rigorous enough, the ones who really want to be there will come to light.
In his first letter, the apostle Peter encourages early followers of Jesus. They were enduring suffering, and Peter reminded them that they have been born again, receiving a living hope through the death and resurrection of Christ and granted an eternal inheritance (1 Peter 1:3-5). Happy news, to be sure, but then come the sobering words. Hearers are reminded that they have been “grieved by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6). Things like sickness, death of loved ones, persecution for their beliefs, and struggles with depression likely sprung to mind. These things are not so difficult to imagine. Many of us can intimately relate to these experiences.
Peter offers an explanation for the suffering the believers have endured. We are told that the hardships came “so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7). This is the first “little why”: it is possible that God is using our trials to solidify our faith. He is testing its authenticity through the proving ground of suffering. The merchant holds the dollar bill to the light to find out if it is valid or counterfeit. While maintaining his mercy and faithfulness, God may indeed hold us to the light of hardship to test the genuineness of our faith.
Hebrews chapter eleven tells of the renowned “Role Call of Faith” in which heroes of the Bible are revered for their steadfast hope and trust in God. People like Abraham, Moses, David, and Rahab, who through faith “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34).
It all sounds pretty good, like a lineup of Biblical Justice League superheroes who fought the bad guys and saved the day without a scratch. Yet as we read on, the uglier side of the stories comes to light. Some of our heroes, we read, “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated” (Hebrews 11:36-37).
Why would these grotesque, seemingly unjust things happen to such paragons of faith? The beginning of Hebrews chapter twelve gives an unexpected answer. We are told to consider the perfect example, Jesus, who endured suffering on our behalf went he went to the cross (Hebrews 12:1-3). That seems sensible enough. The surprising part, however, comes in chapter twelve, verse seven: “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”.
For the heroes of Hebrews eleven, and for believers in Jesus today, the suffering we endure is not punishment. It is training. It can be easy to forget that God is in the process of making us perfect, transferring us from one degree of glory to another (Matthew 5:48; 2 Corinthians 3:18). To accomplish this task, there may be situations in which suffering is used to re-center our lives on the Lord. The word “discipline” sounds so negative to our postmodern ears, yet as we may recall from our childhood, it is one of the most effective tools that shape kind, humble, and loving adults. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). It is through the crucible of suffering that the Christian emerges with a more Christlike appearance.
- Producing Hope
The book of Romans sheds light on the third purpose for suffering. Like Peter, Paul does not shy away from the painful realities that believers faced in Rome. After addressing their suffering, the apostle veers off in a direction we did not see coming. “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings…” (Romans 5:3).
How in the world is this possible? Enduring suffering is one thing, but rejoicing in it? It simply does not seem right. Baptisms, graduations, and weddings call for rejoicing, not job-loss, health concerns, and family strife. Luckily, Paul gives the “why” behind the call to this seemingly preposterous action: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5).
Is Paul saying we should put a smile on our face and pretend to be happy when things are hitting the fan? I do not believe so. He is reminding readers of the eternal hope found in Christ alone. Our world is broken; it is in desperate need of repair. At times, our personal suffering may tempt us to drift into despair. In the middle of our anxiety, anger, and pain, we wonder where God is and why he has abandoned us. Paul debunks these thoughts and entreats us to see the bigger picture. Even amidst suffering, we must remember that there is a good, gracious, and just God in the heavens. Though his ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:9) and we cannot fully understand it at the time, God’s Word reminds us to remember and ignite the eternal hope we have in Jesus, the one who has reconciled us back to our Creator. When suffering begins to overtake us, God calls us to see our present struggle with eternal lenses. This shift in perspective produces hope, and this hope will never put us to shame. Jesus wins in the end. Because this is true, we can find embers of joy to fan into flame even in the darkest of nights.
The Big Why
These “little why’s” behind suffering are of no small consequence. The Bible has shown that confirmation of faith, discipline, and the producing of hope are vital reasons why believers endure hardship. Despite their significance, I believe there is an ultimate reason behind suffering; a “big why” behind the little ones. With the first three purposes in view, we return to the words of Peter.
Though speaking specifically to servants in the context of the first-century world, the words of 1 Peter 2:19-20 ring true for Christians today: “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (1 Peter 2:19-20).
This begs the question: why? Why is it a “gracious thing” to endure suffering? Peter goes on: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23).
Peter is telling us to endure suffering because Jesus endured suffering. We must follow the example of Jesus. One final question is in order, “Why should we follow the example of Jesus?”
Here lies the heart of the matter. Suffering reveals who we truly are and what we truly value. It is not when the sun shines bright on the happy home that we find out who the brave man is, but when it is dark and cold, and there is a bump in the night. In the endurance of his suffering, Jesus revealed that his heart treasured God Almighty above all else. The lashes cut deep, the thorns drew blood, the cross was heavy, and yet on Calvary the world saw a Savior so satisfied in God that even death could not conquer him. This is why we ought to follow the example of Jesus in our suffering. Our faith is being proven genuine, our minds are being disciplined, and hope is growing in the soil of our heart for one purpose: to treasure the God of the universe through Jesus Christ above all things, even in the worst of circumstances.
I do not at all intend to undermine or diminish the pain that many have felt in their suffering, especially in our current season. It is a right and biblical thing to grieve, mourn, and even question why certain things happen. I hope that these “little why’s” and the “big why” offer encouragement and an expanded perspective on the potential purposes behind suffering. There are times when dark seasons seem eternal, overwhelming, and meaningless. When you feel as though you are on the edge of oblivion, strive to remember that you have a loving Father who will never leave nor forsake you. He is growing you in your capacity to treasure him above all else.