Christians have an interesting relationship with suffering. We follow a suffering Savior who assures us that we, like him, will have to bear a cross. We suffer the consequences of living in a world stained by sin, the consequences of our own depravity, the consequences of our association with Jesus. It is no surprise, then, that Christians have created a whole body of work dedicated to suffering. Some great Christian classics and many powerful sermons explore why we suffer and propose how we can suffer well. Our forebears have left us well equipped when our time comes.
I am an avid collector of quotes and find that many of the best ones are meant to comfort the sorrowful. “There is no commentary that opens up the Bible so much as sickness and sorrow,” says J.C. Ryle. Spurgeon says, “I am certain that I never did grow in grace one-half so much anywhere as I have upon the bed of pain.” Then there’s Piper: “I have never heard anyone say, ‘The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and comfort’.” I could dig up a hundred more.
As we read quotes like these, and as we read the books and sermons they are drawn from, we can easily arrive at the impression that there is a necessary relationship between suffering and character. We can come to believe there can be no maturity without suffering, that suffering is the key to the heights of Christian spirituality. Suffering is often lauded as a key, and perhaps the key to growth and maturity.
This has made me wonder: Should I want to suffer? It’s my desire to grow up in every way possible, to experience the greatest spiritual maturity. And, according to these trustworthy mentors, it seems like it can’t be had without pain. If, as C.S. Lewis says, God “whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains,” is it possible that unless we suffer we never hear more than whispers?
My problem, if indeed there is a problem, is that I am a near stranger to suffering. I have lived an easy life, at least compared to what so many others have endured. My toughest moments have been another person’s garden party. My worst day has been better than their best. Does this serve as an inhibitor to maturity? Should I hope for pain or even seek out suffering if I want to continue to grow up in the Lord?
I’ve found powerful, heartening encouragement in the words of J.R. Miller. He points to nature as a clear demonstration of God’s intimate care for his people.
There is no haphazard in this world. God leads every one of his children by the right way. He knows where and under what influences each particular life will ripen best. One tree grows best in the sheltered valley, another by the water’s edge, another on the bleak mountain-top swept by storms. There is always adaptation in nature. Every tree or plant is found in the locality where the conditions of its growth exist, and does God give more thought to trees and plants than to his own children? He places us amid the circumstances and experiences in which our life will grow and ripen the best. The peculiar discipline to which we are each subjected is the discipline we each need to bring out in us the beauties and graces of true spiritual character.
God means to bring out “the beauties and graces of true spiritual character” in every one of his people. He doesn’t merely mean to, though. He also sovereignly arranges circumstances in the best possible way to bring it about.
The wise gardener knows best where to plant each flower, and so God, the divine Gardener, knows where His people will best grow into what he would have them to be. Some require the fierce storms, some will only thrive spiritually in the shadow of worldly adversity, and some come to ripeness more sweetly under the soft and gentle influences of prosperity, whose beauty rough experiences would mar. He knows what is best for each one.
Some come to maturity under the influence of adversity and some under prosperity. I suppose most of us come to maturity under the influence of each over the course of a long life. His words demonstrate, though, that while suffering may be a influence for godliness, it is not the influence. God does not need suffering in order to bring us to maturity. He needs only his Word and Spirit which speak powerfully in both light and darkness.