Suffering is a reality of life, especially the Christian life. In fact, rarely have I met a Christian who isn’t suffering, some intensely. And it is understandable and natural that we ask, “Why me, God?”
However, in order to answer this common and perplexing question, we need to make a distinction between the suffering and our understanding of it. Interestingly, for some, the suffering can be unbearable; for others, it is entirely bearable. What makes the difference? The way we understand it! If we understand our suffering as something necessary and therefore good, it becomes bearable. If we understand it as a curse, it feels like a curse.
Two friends both contracted incurable illnesses. One regarded it as a curse, a sign of God’s disfavor, and he experienced it as a curse. The other regarded his illness as a sign of God’s love and faithfulness and therefore regarded it as a blessing. He understood that God disciplines His children out of His great love, and therefore saw his disease as a gift from God (Heb. 12:5-11).
But is it really a gift or are we just conning ourselves? According to Scripture, if we want to reign with Christ and bear His image to the world, we must endure suffering (2 Cor. 4:10-11). Paul was arguably the greatest missionary known to the church. However, he had to be prepared for this great work and honor through extreme suffering.
In the process of persecuting the church, God struck him down with blindness. Then He instructed the faithful Ananias to lay his hands upon Paul to heal him of his blindness. Ananias complained that Paul was the leading enemy of the church. However, God revealed that Paul was His chosen one and that Paul would have to suffer terribly for Him:
• But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” (Acts 9:15-16)
However, Paul learned to value his suffering:
• Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked…I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
The suffering seems to have produced great compassion in him.
• Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Cor. 11:24-29)
Nevertheless, he pleaded with God to remove a certain unnamed affliction. However, God informed him that He wouldn’t, and that by doing so would have an adverse affect on Paul. He subsequently came to understand that when he was weak, it was then that he became strong in faith through the grace of God (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Consequently, he came to regard suffering as a gift and not a curse.
I too have come to regard suffering as a precious gift. However, this understanding didn’t come until after decades of suffering depression, followed by panic attacks. Only in retrospect did I come to see that the suffering served to release me from psychological imprisonment unto a faith and a reliance upon Him through His Word, as David had reflected:
• It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. (Psalm 119:71).
Paul also explained that suffering served as a trainer to show him the foolishness of self-trust and the necessity for God-trust:
• We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Cor. 1:8-9).
Self-trust is our natural default position. Only the fires of suffering can consume it and the arrogance that self-reliance breeds.
Surgery can be painful, but it is also necessary. It can be a blessing. God’s mysterious surgery is also a blessing. To regard it as a curse is to misunderstand both God and His ways. It’s also to make the suffering far worse.