The Lessons from Suffering
by John MacArthur
A sign on the wall of a junior high classroom contained these words: "Experience is the hardest teacher. It gives the test first and then the lesson." This truism was likely forgotten by most of the students who used that classroom. Likewise, many Christians do not realize or forget that the experiences of the Christian life, whether difficult or pleasant, tend to be followed by an understanding of the lessons they are intended to teach us. In this final chapter we'll examine the general principles you can apply to your specific circumstances to begin to understand the lessons of suffering.
Not only does the Lord want us to be aware of truths and results that occur after periods of trial and suffering, He wants us to embrace the lessons as positives in the ongoing spirit of Romans 8:28. Horatius Bonar, the nineteenth-century Scottish pastor and hymn writer, knew a lot about this spirit when he wrote:
He who is carrying it on is not one who can be baffled and forced to give up His design. He is able to carry it out in the unlikeliest circumstances and against the most resolute resistance. Everything must give way before Him. This thought is, I confess, to me one of the most comforting connected with the discipline. If it could fail! If God could be frustrated in His designs after we have suffered so much, it would be awful! ... [but] God's treatment must succeed. It cannot miscarry or be frustrated even in its most arduous efforts, even in reference to its minutest objects. It is the mighty power of God that is at work within and upon us, and this is our consolation.... All is love, all is wisdom, and all is faithfulness, yet all is also power (When God's Children Suffer [New Canaan, Conn.: Keats Publishing, 19811, 30-31. Cited in Jerry Bridges, Trusting God [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988], 176).
During a particular time of testing or suffering, God may seem distant or disinterested in our plight. That's because our human emotions can override trust in God's truth, and we can come to believe that no outcome to our present situation is desirable for us. Job, on the other hand, shows us the kind of endurance and patience that is eager to trust God and learn whatever lessons His sovereign purpose desires us to learn. It was that very trust that caused him to glorify God at the conclusion to his time of suffering:
I know that Thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of Thine can be thwarted. "Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?" Therefore I have declared that which I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. "Hear, now, and I will speak, I will ask Thee, and do Thou instruct me." I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes gob 42:2-6).
As a result of patience and unwavering trust during his long ordeal, Job gained a new understanding of his sovereign God and a greater reassurance of the joys of being dealt with as one of His children. It is this joy that I want to focus on first in our look at the lessons from suffering.
SUFFERING PRODUCES FRESH JOY
We have already seen how it is possible, by grace, to rejoice in the midst of suffering. It is also true that the joy we experience from our trials can be some of the greatest joy we ever know. Since one of the major reasons God sends trials into the believer's life is to test the very genuineness of his faith (Gen. 22), what more fitting occasion to have joy than in the aftermath of an experience of suffering that has proved the reality of our salvation? A strengthened assurance of our salvation and confidence that God cares for us, as manifest in the reality that our suffering could neither break our faith nor sever us from His love, is cause for the highest happiness. In his first letter written to believers who were suffering persecution, the Apostle Peter clearly affirms the close connection between suffering and the assurance of salvation:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:3-7).
True joy does not come cheaply or as a fleeting, superficial emotion. Real joy is produced by much deeper factors than the circumstances that produce superficial happiness. Christians who struggle through the negative circumstances of life, floundering in doubt and dismay, have forgotten that genuine joy awaits them from the confidence that their lives are hid with Christ in God. In God's providence, that joy and assurance can be most strong in a time of suffering.
Peter gives several perspectives that will help us gain a fresh appreciation for the joy of our salvation.
Confidence in Our Protected Inheritance
One reality that Peter offers as incentive for having joy--no matter what we may have endured--is confidence in our protected inheritance. He describes this inheritance in 1 Peter 1:4 as one that is "imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven." And this great confidence is something we can "greatly rejoice" in (v. 6). This key term is very expressive in the original and much stronger than the usual word translated "rejoice." It means to be super abundantly happy in the richest sense. (The King James translates it "be exceedingly glad" in Matt. 5:12.) The term is always used in the New Testament in reference to a spiritual joy that comes from a relationship with God, never of a temporal joy (or circumstantial happiness) that results from other relationships.
Peter assures us that suffering is indeed positive because it is so integrally tied to assurance of salvation. Jesus' disciples had difficulty with this truth, as was evident when He was teaching them in the Upper Room. In response to their confusion and apprehension concerning His imminent death, burial, and resurrection, Jesus told them: "Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned to joy. Whenever a woman is in travail she has sorrow, because her hour has come; but when she gives birth to the child, she remembers the anguish no more, for joy that a child has been born into the world. Therefore you, too, now have sorrow; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one takes your joy away from you" (John 16:20-22). He told the disciples there was reason to rejoice because of what He promised them in the future when the suffering would be over. Their time of grief when Jesus died turned into tremendous joy when they saw Him again and came to grips with the significance of His resurrection. We are encouraged by Paul's words in Ephesians 1:11-13, "We have obtained an inheritance ... to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.... having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise." The Spirit of God dwelling in us is the guarantee of our protected inheritance.
Whenever we have endured a period of suffering or trial, it tends to make us long for our eternal inheritance. Our joy will not always be automatic and we cannot deny that real pain and sorrow accompanies suffering, but in the long run it's a matter of which way we look. The bellever's response to trials can be compared to riding on a train. Imagine that you're in the observation car of a train passing through the mountains. On the left side the train is passing very close to a high mountain and all you can see is a dark shadow. On the right side the train is passing a magnificent view of valleys, meadows, streams, and lakes, stretching as far as the eye can see. Some people on this train, just as some in life, will look only to the left, at the dark mountain. But some will choose to look to the right and take advantage of the splendid and uplifting scenery.
Too often believers choose to focus on the negatives of their circumstances and the dark moments of their times of trial and suffering. First they concentrate on the negatives while the train is in the tunnel of dffficulty. But compounding their sorrow they continue to look to the mountain shadows of their trial after the train has left the tunnel behind. In so doing, such Christians forfeit the joy that is theirs had they only looked to the brightness and certainty of their eternal inheritance in Christ. Again, it is simply a choice to look ahead. Nothing in this life can take away an eternal inheritance in heaven's glory. As Peter says, it is "reserved" in heaven for us. The reservation was made by God, purchased by Jesus Christ, and is now guaranteed by the Holy Spirit (as suggested in the opening to this chapter).
Confidence in a Proven Faith
Perhaps the greatest positive result that can come from suffering is a fresh sense of joyful confidence that our faith is genuine. That is Peter's second perspective: trials and sufferings prove our faith. When we successfully persevere through the period of suffering, God affirms to us the strength of our saving faith.
In 1 Peter 1:7, Peter uses an earthly illustration to demonstrate how valuable a proven faith is as a source of rejoicing. He says it is "more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire." In biblical times gold was fashioned into a variety of practical as well as decorative items. It was the most highly valued metal, and it was also the standard for all monetary transactions. (Even in modern times, until the 1930s, the United States and other industrialized nations used a gold standard. In this system the nation's currency has a value measured in gold, and it can be exchanged for gold.) So Peter chose an item his readers would instantly recognize as the most valuable metal and said that even when processed by fire to the highest level of purity, it was still not as precious as a proven faith. Gold, even the most highly refined, simply cannot pass the test of eternity. But our faith can.
SUFFERING ENHANCES FUTURE GLORY
God brings sufferings, trials, persecutions, and other kinds of adversity as vital events in our spiritual growth process. The following familiar verses in James 1:2-4 confirm this truth succinctly: "Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowmg that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." That refers primarily to our Christian pilgrimage on earth. But Peter bridges present suffering to future glory when he says that God, who has called us to glory, will "perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you" (1 Peter 5:10).
As long as we are in this world, we are called to bear suffering patiently and see it through to God's ultimate purpose. That's when we begin to see that suffering is beneficial--it is part of our final perfection and glorification. We took some glimpses earlier in the book and earlier in this chapter at the relationship between present suffering and future glory. Now let's take a closer look at this relationship, for it profoundly affects how we view the result of any particular incident of suffering in our lives.
Suffering teaches patience, but that's not all. In light of eternity, patience is not the primary thing we need to grasp, because in heaven we will have no need to exercise patience. God is far more pleased if we learn this principle: what we suffer now is directly related to our capacity to glorify Him in eternity. After all, praising, honoring, adoring, and glorifying God will be our eternal function (Rev. 4-5), so we should be concerned with whatever impact events in our life have on that future reality.
The Apostle Paul enhances our understanding: "If we endure, we shall also reign with Him" (2 Tim. 2:12). The point is simply that the greater endurance we develop through suffering in this life, the greater the eternal reward we will realize in the next life. I firmly believe that this eternal reward is primarily our capacity to glorify God throughout eternity. Therefore, the greater the endurance now, the greater the capacity to glorify Him later.
Jesus applied this principle when teaching James and John about their positions in the kingdom of God (Matt. 20:20-23). The two disciples approached Jesus through their mother and wanted Him to appoint one of them to sit on His right and the other to sit on His left in the kingdom. In other words, they were asking for the positions of greatest prominence and reward--the highest ones any of His brethren could hold in Christ's kingdom. They obviously recognized the concept of rankings or rewards in the kingdom and Jesus did not disagree with that interpretation, because it was right (1 Cor. 3:9-15; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 John 8). However, He did need to correct their understanding regarding how, within God's plan, the concept worked: "Jesus answered and said, 'You do not know what you are asking for. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?' They said to Him, 'We are able.' He said to them, 'My cup you shall drink, but to sit on My right and on My left, this is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by My Father"' (Matt. 20:22-23).
The cup Jesus refers to is His suffering and death. He is asking rhetorically if the brothers would be able to drink that cup if they wanted to sit on His right and left. The implication is that suffering and elevation in the kingdom are directly correlated. (Christ suffered the most in His crucifixion and He was elevated to the highest position, the right hand of the Father.) If the disciples had their eyes set on great prominence and high rewards in eternity, they had to know the path to that end is marked by great suffering and endurance.
The lesson for us is that whenever we suffer and emerge patiently and faithfully from it, God is pleased because we are increasing our eternal capacity to glorify Him. We too should take great pleasure and joy in the outcome of a time of suffering, trial, or persecution, realizing that we are enhancing our heavenly reward and understanding more about the power of suffering (see Rev. 2:10).
SUFFERING PRODUCES TRUE COMFORT
Several summers ago I had the joy of visiting Ireland, the "Emerald Isle." It is nicknamed that for good reason because it has perhaps the greenest countryside of any place in the world. The green land results from the amount of mist and fog that sometimes obscures its usually soft and gentle landscape. This phenomenon is a parallel to the Christian life. Oftentimes when a believer's life is shrouded by suffering and sorrow, there is a fresh beauty of soul underneath. As we have seen with the Apostle Paul's example, gentle and tender hearts are the product of great troubles. God allows troubles and sufferings so that He might give us much comfort and we can comfort others.
The Lord is the only one who can give us that supreme comfort. Second Corinthians 1:3-4 says, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."
Paul, based on his own experiences, has some simple yet profound things to say (2 Cor. 1:3-8) about comfort as it relates to suffering. First, he reaffirms the basic promise that God will comfort us (vv. 3-4; see also Ps. 23:4; Isa. 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 61:2; Matt. 5:4; Acts 9:31). In Romans 8:32 he says: "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?" The clear application is that if God the Father has already given us His greatest gift, His Son Jesus Christ, then it is no problem for Him to give us comparatively small servings of His comfort.
God's comfort comes to us not as an end in itself nor merely for our own benefit. Second Corinthians 1:4 indicates a definite purpose: "so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any afffiction." Comfort, therefore, is something that God entrusts to us so that we can share it with others. And it is entrusted to us in direct proportion to the amount and intensity of suffering we endure, which means the more we suffer, the more we're comforted; and the more we're comforted, the more we can be comforters. The Apostle Paul was certainly a testimony to this principle--he suffered as much as any man (2 Cor. 11:23-27) and yet ministered to others in the gentleness of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:8) and with the tenderness of a nursing mother (1 Thes. 2:7). God's comfort, as great as it is, does have some boundaries. Just as Peter correlated godly benefits and rewards with the right kind of suffering, other Scripture clearly implies that we can and should expect divine comfort only if we are suffering for righteousness (2 Cor. 1:5). It logically follows that we can't be true comforters ff we ourselves have not experienced suffering and comfort within God's limits--as Christians for Christ's sake. Paul is again our example (4:11-15). Finally, one of the most cherished by-products that genuine comfort will give us is the assurance of a partnership in suffering. As part of the body of Christ we are not alone and do not experience suffering in a vacuum. Partnership in suffering is vital. If comfort allows us to be comforters, then obviously other people are being affected by the outcome of our suffering experience. The partnership concept fills out the role we can have as a comforter. That is Paul's point when he says,
But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer; and our hope for you is firmly grounded, knowing that as you are sharers of our sufferings, so also you are sharers of our comfort (1:6-7).
That is a portrait of mutuality, connectedness, and solidarity among a group of believers (Paul and the Corinthians) who knew and would know the reality of suffering. It is also motivation for us to be encouraged as we emerge from any period of suffering. The comfort we receive from the Lord helps us look beyond ourselves and reminds us that others in our local body can benefit from our comfort. These other believers can in turn be a comfort to us later on as they go through their own trials. Therefore, all our sufferings enable us to minister to each other in genuine body life fashion. (This principle of partnership in suffering is an extended application of 1 Cor. 12, especially v. 26.)
SUFFERING YIELDS GREATER WISDOM
Wisdom has always been one of the most valued character traits that a believer could possess. The case of Solomon is especially appropriate. First there is the well-known account of his asking God for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5-13). Then there is the fact of his authorship of Wisdom literature in the Bible (Ecc. and portions of Prov.). Another important Old Testament figure who appreciated the value of wisdom was Job, who learned it amidst severe suffering.
He learned to recognize the bankruptcy of his reason and even the inadequacy of other's advice and came to understand that God's wisdom was the source for understanding all of life and its problems. Here is what Job said about the unsurpassed value of divine wisdom:
But where can wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its value, nor is it found in the land of the living. The deep says, "It is not in me"; and the sea says, "It is not with me." Pure gold cannot be given in exchange for it, nor can silver be weighed as its price. It cannot be valued in the gold of Ophir, in precious onyx, or sapphire. Gold or glass cannot equal it, nor can it be exchanged for articles of fine gold. Coral and crystal are not to be mentioned; and the acquisition of wisdom is above that of pearls. The topaz of Ethiopia cannot equal it, nor can it be valued in pure gold. Where then does wisdom come from? And where is the place of understanding? ... God understands its way; and He knows its place. For He looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.... And to man He said, "Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding" (Job 28:12-20, 23-24, 28).
Wisdom from God puts everything together during suffering, helps us to endure it, and allows us to have a right perspective. But wisdom is something we must not presume will be ours or that we can gain in our own strength. James informed of the means to obtain wisdom when he wrote: "But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all men generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him" (1:5).
Of course, the kind of wisdom James is referring to is not a detached academic knowledge or some philosophical speculation. Instead, it corresponds to what the Wisdom literature teaches: Wisdom is the practical understanding of how to live life in obedience to the will and Word of God and for His glory (Prov. 3:5-7; 4:11; 8:12; 10:8; 14:8).
In the context of suffering, therefore, we need to ask God for wisdom to help us persevere scripturally. We need His help to see sovereignty and providence working in our situation, to have a joyful attitude, and to respond submissively. This need for help dovetails marvelously with one of the overall purposes God has in allowing sufferings and trials: to make us more dependent on Him. Such dependency is synonymous with prayer, which is implied in the phrase "let him ask of God" (James 1:5). The Lord is very generous with the wisdom we require--James says He "gives to all men generously [unconditionally]"--and all His resources, and He desires to pour out on us everything that is beneficial (Prov. 2:2-7; Jer. 29:11-13; Matt. 7:7-11).
SUFFERING YIELDS TRUE HUMILITY
One of the most humbling, yet least regarded, truths concerning sufferings is that they do not exclude favorites. This principle operates all through the natural world. Disasters, accidents, crimes, diseases, economic recessions, and wars affect people of all classes. In the recent earthquakes that struck Kobe, Japan and Southern California, thousands of homes and businesses in all sections of the quake areas were damaged or destroyed. Rich and poor alike were similarly affected by transportation disruptions in the first weeks following the quakes. Expensive homes and modest apartments were each subjected to significant damage.
The realization that difficulty does not discriminate tends to sober and humble believers as well. Again James speaks to poor and rich believers being affected by the humbling nature of trials and sufferings, dealing first with the attitude of the believer of modest means: "But let the brother of humble circumstances glory in his high position" (James 1:9). For poor Christians, poverty itself can be an ongoing trial. For them the challenge is not in realizing the humility of suffering, but in remembering that they can rejoice in their exalted spiritual position as Christians (1 Peter 1:3-6). Economic deprivation does not detract from the glorious inheritance to be received in the next life (Eph. 1:11-14).
The wealthier Christian, on the other hand, does have the challenge of accepting the humiliation that results from trials and sufferings: "And let the rich man glory in his humiliation, because like flowering grass he will pass away" (James 1:10). Those of us who are better off materially need to welcome trials because they remind us that our true dependency is on God and His grace, not in our privileged economic status. The humiliation of trials will also remind us that earthly riches are temporary; they fade away like grass.
Therefore, there is a great leveling factor at work in the process of sufferings, trials, and persecutions. True humility teaches all believers, whether of high position or low, to say with sincerity, "My resources are in God." R.C.H. Lenski, the conservative Lutheran commentator, summarizes this equalizing principle well:
Faith in Christ lifts the lowly brother beyond his trials to the great height of a position in the Kingdom of Christ, where as God's child he is rich and may rejoice and boast. Faith in Christ does an equally blessed thing for the rich brother: it fills him with the Spirit of Christ, the spirit of lowliness and true Christian humility... As the poor brother forgets all his earthly poverty, so the rich brother forgets all his earthly riches. The two are equals by faith in Christ (The Interpretation of the Epistle to the Hebrews and the Epistle of James [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966], 534-35).
It is always a challenge for believers to keep their hearts and minds focused properly through a difficult trial or time of suffering. Even with the promise of lessons learned and rewards realized, the certainty of these benefits can seem more theoretical than real. But we can have a much greater confidence in the reality of all these things if we simply remember these words: "For we live by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7). God's purposes are not always apparent at the start of a trial, but that need not deter us from keeping our eyes on Him. Those mentioned in faith's "hall of fame" in Hebrews 11 were enabled to see beyond the immediate obstacles to the ultimate prize (see especially vv. 13-16). Christians in modern times have also comprehended how essential it is to trust in God's sovereignty through all circumstances. William Cowper was an eighteenth-century English poet and hymn writer with a naturally melancholy disposition. In spite of his sufferings and struggles, Cowper ministered as a lay assistant to the great John Newton and wrote sixty-eight hymns. One of those, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way," expresses well the mind-set all believers should have toward life and its difficulties.
God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs, and works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust Him for His grace;
behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding ev'ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flow'r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
and He will make it plain.
Taken from The Power of Suffering, © 1995 by John MacArthur, Jr. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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