We always want to avoid pain. At least I do. But pain reminds us of something. Pain reminds us of a deeper need, and that deeper need is God.
Paul the apostle was a brilliant example of this. God used him to blaze a trail, establishing converts in churches all over. He preached to philosophers, religious leaders, rulers, soldiers, sorcerers, sailors, slaves and most likely Caesar himself. Paul, in effect, changed his world. He was called to bring the gospel to his generation, and he did so brilliantly.
But there is another characteristic of Paul’s life that we sometimes overlook: Paul suffered. God used him to perform miracles. God used him to write epistles that we look at as the very Word of God. Yet God allowed him to suffer greatly. In fact, Paul said that it is through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (see Acts 14:22).
If we are going to be used by God; if we are going to stand for him, then we are going to suffer in varying degrees. We are going to be slandered. We are going to have things made up about us. Sometimes we may even have our lives threatened. So we had better toughen up, because that is the way it is going to be.
This is how Paul described his life:
“I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” (2 Corinthians 11:23–27 NLT)
There is suffering in serving God, but there is also great joy. In fact, I know of no greater joy than to be used by God.
I have had my share of suffering in ministry, but the worst thing that has ever happened to me was when my son Christopher died. He was 33 years old. He was married and had a little daughter. Things were going so well, and it was so sudden and unexpected. To say your life changes is the understatement of the century. Just because I was a pastor, I was still a person – still a dad who was devastated. To have to plan a funeral for my son and pick a casket was just unimaginable.
I remember at times when I would go and minister to people who had lost children, I would share all of the Scriptures I could share. I would try to use as much compassion as I could. But I would walk away and would actually say to God, “God, I hope this never happens to me, because if it did, I don’t think I could handle it.” Well, it did happen to me. And it was horrific.
But I also want to say that if God hadn’t come through for me on that day, I would have stopped preaching. But He did come through. And He does come through. It doesn’t mean it is easy. It doesn’t mean that it is all behind me now. Every day, I still struggle with it, and it hurts. And one thing I find myself doing more of is weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice.
So, why does God allow suffering in the lives of Christians?
He allows it because He loves us. That may not make sense, but it is true. The Bible illustrates this with the story of Lazarus, who died. When he was ill, word was sent to Jesus. We read in John 11:5–6, “So although Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, he stayed where he was for the next two days.” If Jesus loved them, he would have gone to Lazarus and healed him, right? No. God had a different plan in mind. He wanted a resurrection, not a healing.
God loves us and will allow suffering in our lives so that we will grow spiritually. The faith that cannot be tested is the faith that cannot be trusted. When someone says they lost their faith because of a certain crisis, I would have to say that maybe they never had real faith. Because if your faith is real, it will get stronger through testing – not weaker.
I don’t know that crisis builds character as much as it reveals character. It shows what you are really made of. The apostle James wrote, “Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing” (James 1:2–4).
Adversity and suffering keep us humble and usable by God. The apostle Paul said that to prevent him from becoming too proud, he “was given a thorn in [his] flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Suffering also can prepare for us a special task. Right now, you are going through preparation for the future God still has for you.
I am confident that ultimately in heaven, I will look back and say that all things indeed did work together for good. I am confident that many things in life that are hard now God will turn around and bring good out of them. But I am also aware of the fact that some things may not have such a tidy result in this life. So I just need to hold the course, do what God has called me to do, and remember that he is in control of my life. And it will all be sorted out in the end.