Mountain climbers could save time and energy if they reached the summit in a helicopter, but their ultimate purpose is conquest, not efficiency. Sure, they want to reach a goal, but they desire to do it by testing and deepening their character, discipline, and resolve.
God could create scientists, mathematicians, athletes, and musicians. He doesn’t. He creates children who take on those roles over a long process. God doesn’t make us fully Christlike the moment we’re born again. He conforms us to the image of Christ gradually: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In our spiritual lives, as in our professional lives, and in sports and hobbies, we improve and excel by handling failure and learning from it. Only in cultivating discipline, endurance, and patience do we find satisfaction and reward. And those qualities are most developed through some form of suffering.
Instead of blaming doctors, drunk drivers, and criminals for our suffering, we should look for what God can accomplish through it (see Romans 8:28).
Why do God’s children undergo pressures, suffering, and deadly peril? Paul answers clearly: “that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
A victim of a great evil told me, “I learned that God wasn’t going to go down my checklist of happiness and fulfill it. I learned what it meant to surrender to his will. Before, I wanted certain gifts from him; now I want him.”
For turning us toward God, sometimes nothing works like suffering. C. S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain). God uses suffering to bring us to the end of ourselves and back to Christ. And that’s worth any cost.
I write these words not from a lofty philosophical perch, but in the crucible of my precious wife Nanci’s battle against cancer. This is not theory to us; it is life. And we sense not only God’s presence, but also His purposes.
For us to be transformed increasingly into Christ’s likeness, we need God’s correction: “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 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 12:10–11, ESV).
Of course, God never punishes us to make us atone for our sins. He calls on us to accept, not repeat, Christ’s atonement (see Isaiah 53:5). But He does give us a clear reason for disciplining us: “that we may share in his holiness.”
C. S. Lewis spoke of God’s discipline this way:
But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless.... What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good”? Have they never even been to a dentist? (A Grief Observed)
Suffering also exposes idols in our lives. It uncovers our trust in God-substitutes and declares our need to transfer our trust to the only One who can bear its weight.
“The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe. The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall” (Proverbs 18:10–11). God uses any means necessary to tear down whatever we hide behind. Your job, reputation, accomplishments, or material possessions may be your fortified city or your imaginary, unscalable wall. But anything less than God Himself will come up short: “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
We may imagine God as our genie who comes to do our bidding. Suffering wakes us up to the fact that we serve Him, not He us. Diseases, accidents, and natural disasters remind us of our extreme vulnerability; life is out of our control.
We must relinquish our idol of control that causes us to believe we can prevent all bad things from happening, or correct their byproducts. God reminds us, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). We don’t even belong to ourselves: “You are not your own; you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
We should repeatedly tell our Lord, “This house is yours. The money, this body, and these children belong to you. You own the title deed; you own the rights; you have the power of life and death.” It becomes much easier to trust God when we understand that whatever He takes away belonged to him in the first place (see Job 1:21).
We come into this world needy and leave it the same way. Without suffering we quickly forget our neediness. If suffering seems too high a price for faith, it’s because we underestimate faith’s value.
James 1:2-4 tells us, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."
How can we possibly obey this command to welcome difficulties instead of resenting them? By trusting that God tells the truth when he says these make us more like Jesus, increase our endurance, expand our ministry, and prepare us for eternal joy.
Perseverance through suffering, for Christ’s glory, is the sure pathway to godliness. May our God of grace and kindness grant us His peace, and immerse us in His presence, as we walk that road—and may He remind us both that He walked the road before us and walks it with us now.
Photo by Micah Hallahan on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.