This article was written by Dr. Chad Meeks, who is the Lead Pastor at Cedar Heights Baptist Church in North Little Rock and an adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He enjoys reading, hanging out with his family, hiking, and exploring the deep mysteries of Sumatra coffee.
Our natural human proclivity is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. We all want a comfortable bed; a climate controlled house; and tasty meals to fill our bellies. No one wants a terminal illness. No good parent wants to lose a child. No sane person wants to suffer.
So it might sound a bit strange to claim that God uses suffering for His glory and our benefit, but that is exactly what Scripture shows us. In other words, there is a purpose—of sorts—behind suffering. Let me explain.
The author of Hebrews makes a stark claim in Hebrews 5:8, “He [Jesus] learned obedience through suffering.” Though there is much to be said about this passage, I would like to focus on the claim that Jesus somehow benefited from suffering. This isn’t hard to see: look what happened because of His suffering on the cross. He endured a gruesome death and is now seated at the right hand of the Father and all who repent and believe have received a massive benefit from His suffering. So God can use suffering for His glory and our benefit, but this wasn’t our suffering—it was Christ’s—so how does our suffering work this way?
Paul can help us here. In Romans 5:3-4, Paul writes, “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…” The Greek word Paul uses for suffering, literally means “pressure.” So life pressure produces character. The word used for “character” here can also mean “proof,” which is a word used to describe the process of testing the purity of metal instruments. So pressures of life produce a strength or purity in the life of a believer.
This is a clear indication that your suffering isn’t pointless. In fact, in some sense, suffering should be embraced. God doesn’t want to make you suffer (in some kind of psychopathic sense), but He uses suffering for a greater purpose than we may not initially understand.
I get it: this all sounds nice while I’m sitting comfortably in my climate-controlled office suffering no ailments or real difficulties in life. So all of this—one may say—is easy for me to say. But I’m merely drawing out what Sacred Scripture articulates. That just is, God uses suffering to mold us into the image of His Son. He uses suffering for a spiritual good that may not have come about otherwise.
This isn’t to say that we should go looking for pain and suffering. Nor am I claiming that we should intentionally subject ourselves to suffering so we may reap significant spiritual benefit. As I noted before, however, suffering will happen. And when it does, followers of Jesus Christ can rest in the fact that God is doing something through that experience to draw them closer to Christ. Furthermore, God is using that difficult situation to shape and mold one into the image of His Son. This process is generally called sanctification, the process of being set apart or made holy. So put this together: God uses suffering to help make His followers holy.
Therefore, believers can take comfort in their suffering. But the comfort does not necessarily come from the avoidance of pain and suffering. The comfort comes from knowing that in spite of suffering and pain, God has not abandoned His people in their suffering. He is working His plan through it. And His plan, the plan that is far greater than any human could ever devise, is well under control.
But what about suffering that is directly caused by God? If God is good, why and how could He ever cause suffering, pain—or even severe punishment? In my final article on this topic, I’ll try to answer that question.