Christian slaves in America sometimes were forbidden to sing—even to God. So when they went to the river, they would hang wet blankets around themselves, then sing into pots filled with water to absorb the sound. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10), they couldn’t hold inside their songs of praise.
Perhaps what you’re facing makes you wonder if God has turned His back on you. Your trial may last a day, a year, a decade, or more. But I doubt your circumstances are worse than that of those Christian slaves, stripped of liberty and dignity, with families routinely torn apart. Yet they couldn’t force themselves not to sing.
Throughout the centuries and around the world, many suffering believers affirm that God uses hard times to draw us to Him, to give us a profound happiness in Him, and to build greater Christlikeness and dependence. We pray “bring me closer to you, Lord,” and usually in answer, our loving and sovereign God keeps trials coming our way—even sometimes when we beg Him not to.
There’s no nearness to God without dependence on God. And nothing makes us more dependent on Him than when the bottom drops out.
We Christians will be delivered from eternal misery. But God never says we’ll avoid hardships now. In fact, He specifically promises them, in verses we seldom post on the refrigerator. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). I smile when I read this. It’s like God is saying, “Whatever gave you the idea you wouldn’t suffer?”
The apostle Paul told believers he was sending Timothy to them “to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:2–3). If we don’t know this, we should! When we think of what God has destined us for, abundant life and resurrection come to mind, but trials rarely do. Yet God assures us that He Himself—not the curse or Satan—has actually destined us to suffer. Afflictions are not just inevitable; they’re purposeful. Though they may appear random, they are the product of God’s intelligent and loving design.
In Trusting God, Jerry Bridges wrote, “That which should distinguish the suffering of believers from unbelievers is the confidence that our suffering is under the control of an all-powerful and all-loving God. Our suffering has meaning and purpose in God’s eternal plan.”
What can suffering do for me? It can show me the impossibility of finding true happiness outside of God. When what I once leaned on for happiness—my health, career, wealth, or popularity—crumbles into dust, the way is cleared for me to see that God is my only solid foundation.
We’re right to ask God for relief. Nevertheless, every time we ask Him to remove difficulty, we may be asking Him to forgo an opportunity to declare His greatness or deepen our relationship with Him. When did you last hear someone say, “I grew closest to God when my life was free from suffering”?
Ten months after his son was killed in a car accident, Greg Laurie told me, “What I wish is that I could have learned and grown and drawn close to the Lord just like I have, but that Christopher was still here.” Greg captured it perfectly—I too wish I could have all the good God brings through adversity without all that pain. But it doesn’t work that way, does it?
My beloved wife, Nanci, was diagnosed with colon cancer almost exactly one year ago. Throughout 2018 she underwent a long series of difficult treatments. We experienced countless appointments and changed diagnoses and timelines and side-effects. We saw long-term planning become guesswork.
As Nanci and I walked this path together over the last year, we resolved to worship our sovereign God, who bears the scars of His love for us. We’ve read His word and discussed great books about His attributes. We’ve sensed His presence and seen Him increase our dependence on Him. We’ve been deeply touched as our family and friends rallied around us. It’s been my privilege to serve Nanci more than ever, especially after all the ways she has served me over the years.
God graciously brings all this good out of what? Out of what none of us wanted to happen. (We’re grateful that recent tests showed no sign of cancer, and are continuing to ask God to renew her strength and return her to full health.)
Our Father sometimes answers our prayers to relieve our suffering, and each time He does we thank Him wholeheartedly. But when He answers no, we must honor His desire to work in us more deeply.
If asked, “Do you want to be closer to Jesus, and more like him?” we all know what we should say. Yet, if God answered all our prayers for relief from suffering, He would be delivering us from the very thing we say we want. Christlikeness is something to long for, not be delivered from. It’s not easy to pray, “Please do whatever it takes to make me more like Jesus.” But when He does whatever it takes, we should trust Him.
Since suffering builds character, no wonder the Bible tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). How can we possibly welcome difficulties instead of resenting them? By trusting God when He tells us trials draw us closer to Him, mature us, expand our ministry, and prepare us for eternal joy.
God doesn’t command us to cheer because we’ve been betrayed, diagnosed with cancer, or lost a loved one. Rather, our joy comes in the expectation of adversity’s by-products, including the development of godly character, greater dependence on Jesus, and countless reasons hidden to us for now (but crystal clear in our Father’s mind).
Paul said, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5:3). Paul and James both claim we should rejoice in suffering because of the fruit it ultimately yields. When we see with an eternal perspective, we can say, “This trial is difficult, but God is sovereign, loving, and kind. Through His grace and empowerment, I will become more like Jesus and closer to Him. And I will be eternally grateful for what God did through these hard times.”
Someday, we’ll see with clear-eyed certainty that God’s word was right all along, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” and that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:18, 28).
Someday, we’ll appreciate the value of each minute of every purpose-filled trial. But let’s not wait until we die to believe what God says about our present suffering. By faith, for His glory and our good, let’s front-load God’s promises into our hearts and minds today, and get a head start on entering into our Master’s happiness.
Browse more resources on the topic of suffering, and see Randy’s related books, including If God Is Good.
Photo by Samuel Martins on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.