In the last two months, My wife and I have have had relatives impacted by cancer diagnoses and a stroke. In the last two months, our country has experienced a bombing in Boston, tornadoes decimating Oklahoma, and the horror associated with the Kermit Gosnell trial. Suffering seems to be predominate on the world scene as well as in our own personal lives. I had a pastor who once said that a person is either about to go through a period of suffering, is in the middle of a period of suffering, or will soon go through a period of suffering. It is inescapable, and we are all exposed to it.
I call suffering a Christian paradox because of how the Bible refers to these times of trials in our lives. Suffering is awful, but the Bible not only tells us to expect it (John 17, James 1) but to take joy in it (James 1). This is where the paradox lies. The darkest times in the life of a believer is often where they sense the joy of the Lord the strongest. There are three things I believe God's word teaches us about suffering.
Suffering Exposes our Weakness and Highlights God's Strength
In 2 Corinthians 11:22-27, Paul gives a list of his sufferings. He mentions his imprisonments, beatings, and being near death many times. At one point, he received 39 lashes. He was persecuted by the Romans and the Jews, stoned, and shipwrecked. He literally faced danger at every turn along his journeys. Paul said many believers were boasting in an unspiritual way about their accomplishments. Paul's point was that if he was going to boast in anything, he was going to boast in his weaknesses because they exalt the strength of God. In Chapter 12, Paul even says he was given a thorn in his flesh to "torment me so I would not exalt myself" (v.7, HCSB). God refused to remove this ailment so that Paul would see that God's grace was sufficient enough for him. We are weak and broken vessels, but God has chosen us to display his strength and power through. It is a mystery, but the glory of God's strength is made more evident to us and to the world when it is displayed in our moments of weakness.
Suffering Matures Us As Believers
James 1 is clear that suffering is inevitable, but we are to take joy in it. It also says the trials develop our character in a way that matures us as believers. According to James 1, suffering and trials help us develop endurance, gives us wisdom, and increases our faith. All of this leads to a better understanding of who we are as believers and followers of Christ. It also increases our hope. James 1:12 says that the "man who endures trials is blessed, because when he passes the test he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him." (HCSB) God in his infinite wisdom knew this fallen world would bring suffering on His children, but because He is sovereign over suffering, He can use it shape us more into the image of His Son.
Suffering Gives Us a Clearer Portrait of God
My suffering is nothing compared to what many have suffered, but I know that in some of the darkest periods of my life is where I learned more clearly who God is. You see examples of this in Scripture as well. Daniel learned this in a lion's den. Joseph, Paul, and Peter all got greater glimpses of God from a jail cell. John received a powerful revelation of God while exiled on Patmos. But my favorite example of this is from Job. We all know his story. He lost everything. His wife had turned on him, and his friends were attributing his suffering to his own sin. Job never cursed God, but he did demand an answer from him. And what an answer did God give (read Job 38-41). After all of Job's suffering, Job received an image of God he would never forget, and Job's response is one we should all have: "I had heard rumors about You, but now my eyes have seen You; therefore, I take back my words and repent in dust and ashes".
Suffering affects us all, but let us never forget that God is sovereign over suffering and has a purpose for it. Also let us never forget that he is not immune to it. The greatest example of suffering was endured by Him after all. He became man and walked among us. He bore the weight of our sins on His shoulders. He endured His own wrath for sin on our behalf. He faced the sting of death we deserved. He indeed knows all about suffering.