It is a conviction meant to quiet our minds and encourage our hearts: In some way God has a hand in our suffering. Whatever circumstances we experience can no more arise without the hand of God than a saw can cut without the hand of the carpenter. Job in his suffering did not say, “The Lord gave and the devil took away,” but, “The Lord gave and the Lord took away.” Suffering never comes our way apart from the purpose and providence of God and for that reason, suffering is always significant, never meaningless. Here are some ways that God brings good from our suffering.
Suffering is our preacher and teacher. It was Luther who said that he could never properly understand some of the Psalms until he endured suffering. A sick bed often teaches more than a sermon, and suffering first teaches us about our sin and sinfulness. Suffering also teaches us about ourselves, for in times of health and prosperity all seems to be well and we are both humble and grateful, but in suffering we come to see the ingratitude and rebellion of our hearts. We can best see the ugly face of sin and the reality of spiritual childishness in the mirror of suffering.
Suffering is the means of making our hearts more upright. In times of prosperity our hearts are often divided, half pursuing God and half obsessed with the world. Our hearts can be like a compass needle that swings wildly between two poles. But in suffering God takes away the world so the heart will hold to him in full sincerity. Just as we heat a crooked rod to straighten it, God holds us over the fire of suffering to make us more upright. It is good that when sin has bent our souls away from God, he will use suffering to straighten them.
Suffering conforms us to Christ. There is meant to be symmetry and proportion between the model and the canvas, between Christ and his people. Suffering is like an artist’s pencil that draws Christ’s image upon us. If we want to be parts of Christ’s body, we must want to be like him, and his life was a series of sufferings, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). If Christ’s head was crowned with thorns, why do we think ours should only ever be crowned with roses? It is good to be like Christ, and conformity often comes through suffering.
Suffering destroys sin. There are loads of sin remaining in even the best heart and suffering serves to purge it, just like fire purifies gold. The fire of suffering purges away all spiritual impurities—pride, lust, covetousness, and a million more. It never harms the soul, but only ever leaves it more pure and more beautiful.
Suffering loosens our hearts from the world. If we want to remove a tree from the ground, we first need to loosen the earth from around its roots. Just like that, God digs away our earthly comforts to loosen our hearts from the world. It is God’s desire that our hearts hold to this world by only the smallest root, and suffering serves to shake away all attachments.
Suffering makes way for comfort. God tempers outward pain with inward peace. “Your sorrow shall be turned to joy” (John 16:20), promises Jesus. In suffering we see water turned into wine, bitter medicine being chased with choice desserts. Many believers can testify that in suffering they have had the sweetest experiences of joy and the closest sense of God’s nearness.
Suffering shows that God makes much of us. Job asked, “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him?” (Job 7:17). In suffering, God makes much of us in at least three ways. First, he condescends so low as to take notice of us at all. It shows our place in God’s world that he thinks us worthy to suffer. Second, suffering is a sign of sonship. “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7). Third, suffering makes God’s people more renowned in the world. Soldiers are never so admired as for their victories, and saints never more so for their sufferings. After all, isn’t Job the sufferer more renowned than Alexander the conqueror?
Suffering is a means to joy. Suffering brings joy by bringing us nearer to God. The full moon is the furthest from the sun and, likewise, many people in the full moon of prosperity are furthest from God. When God begins to remove our worldly comforts, it is then that we run to him and make peace with him. It was only when the prodigal was needy that he returned home to his father (Luke 15:13) and only when the dove could not find any rest that she flew to the ark. When God brings a flood of suffering upon us, it is then that we fly to the ark, Christ.
Suffering silences the wicked. Unbelievers love to claim that Christians serve God only out of self-interest. Therefore, God has his people suffer so they will shut the mouths of those who cast aspersions on them and their God. It shuts the blasphemers’ mouths to see Christians hold fast to their God in suffering, for as they do so they prove that they serve God first out of love.
Suffering makes way for glory. As ploughing prepares the earth for a crop, so suffering prepares and makes us fit for glory. The skilled artist knows that gold paint shows best against dark colors, and, similarly, God first lays the dark colors of suffering, then brushes on the golden color of glory. Suffering does not earn us glory, but it does prepare us for it.
In all these ways we see that suffering is not harmful to believers but beneficial. Thus we should train ourselves to look less at the evil of suffering and more at the good, to look less at the dark side of the cloud and more at the light. The worst that God ever does to his children is to drive them toward heaven, toward himself.
I love to plunder the Puritans! These eight points and much of the wording was drawn from Thomas Watson’s A Divine Cordial.