Am I Suffering Just to Learn a Lesson?
Whenever you talk about suffering you have a captive audience.
If you are a Christian, you will suffer. The Bible promises it (Rom 8:17; 2 Cor 1:5; Phil 1:29). Life does have its joys, and its pleasures, and its laughs. But life will also bring spiritual, emotional, psychological, and (sometimes) physical pain. Jesus is a “man of sorrows,” so do not be surprised when your life is full of hurt.
We suffer for many reasons: we live in a broken world, God uses suffering to discipline those he loves when we walk in disobedience, God uses suffering to grow us in our faith, suffering is a way to imitate Christ, etc. But the purpose of this blog is not to give a full theology of suffering (for that we would recommend the book, How Long O Lord by D.A. Carson). This blog will also assume that you are not walking in knowing, intentional, continual, high-handed, unrepentant sin. If that’s you, then the solution for dealing with your suffering is simply to repent.
Instead, this blog is aimed at addressing a common misconception many Christians have when it comes to righteous suffering. It goes something like this:
When we suffer it is because God wants us to come to a cognitive knowledge of some fact and, once we have learned that fact, he will take away the suffering.
We tend to imagine that our suffering is some sort of divine elementary school where we’re supposed to learn some fundamental spiritual lesson. We think that if we can just learn to “trust God more,” or learn “how selfish we are,” or learn how to “let go,” for example, that God will take away our suffering. Though it’s true that you can learn lessons in the midst of suffering, we would contend that this is not the main purpose in our suffering. Rather, there’s something far more gracious and much deeper going on when the Christian experiences suffering..
The treadmill of suffering
Imagine that you’re out of shape...you can’t even open a bag of Cheetos without getting winded. You hear about a personal trainer who is world-famous for helping individuals just like yourself to live healthier lives. So, you sign up for one of his sessions.
Knowing that you can sometimes be a little unmotivated, you make him promise that no matter what you say, or how much you beg, or how mad you get that he will do whatever he has to do to get you into shape.
With that in mind, he puts you on a treadmill. But, this is no ordinary treadmill; he’s committed to getting you into shape at all costs, so he’s put up walls around the edges of the treadmill (and has even deactivated the buttons so you cannot turn it off). So, now you are stuck on the treadmill, and all you can do is run.
When you start getting tired, the first thing you may try to do is get off the treadmill. That is often the first thing we try to do when we begin to suffer. Our first response to suffering is that we try to get out of it. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing - If you can get out of suffering…do it! If you are sick (and there is a cure for your sickness) by all means please take the cure. If you need counseling, please get counseling. If you need to get a new job, please get a new job. If your marriage is on fire, please talk to the pastors of your local church. You shouldn’t try to stay in suffering if you don’t have to. Suffering will find you; you don’t have to try to find it.
But what do you do after you have tried to get out of the suffering and it doesn’t go away? Remember, in this scenario your trainer has made it to where you can’t get off the treadmill. He did this because he has promised to do whatever he has to do to get you in shape…even if you don’t like it.
So the next thing you will probably do is begin to beg. “Please let me off the treadmill.” “My lungs are killing me.” “I feel like I’m going to pass-out.” This is the next step of suffering. We beg and weep and cry for God to take it away. Again, this is not a bad thing. You should beg God to take suffering away. He is sovereign over it, and the only one who can grant this request. But suppose that he doesn’t take it away.
This leads to our third step of suffering which is where we think that if we just learn some spiritual lesson then the suffering will stop. But is that true? Is the purpose of suffering just to learn some Sunday school lesson that you could have learned by simply reading the Bible? Again, there is nothing wrong with learning lessons in your suffering; learning theological truth is always good. But is there more to it than that? Is the purpose of putting you on the treadmill really just so you can learn some mental lesson about how the treadmill is good for you? Or is it to actually change you – to actually get you into shape?
Listen closely to this next part:
We would contend that the purpose of putting you on the treadmill is not so that you would try to get off of it, to make you beg, or so you would merely learn some lesson, but so you would actually get into shape.
The treadmill itself is what gets you into shape, not merely the lessons you learn while on it. It is the means of getting you into shape, whether you like it or understand it or agree with it or not.
Trust the Trainer
In the example of the trainer above notice that the end goal was your physical health. And likewise, God’s end goal for you is your spiritual health--your joy in Christ and his Kingdom. Suffering is the treadmill that produces spiritual health.
It is the pain of suffering itself that the Spirit uses to sanctify us. That’s why Christians are so well-acquainted with suffering. We don’t get to get into shape just by knowing about the treadmill; we actually have to let it make us hurt. We actually have to run on it. And no matter how much we kick and scream and feel hopeless, the treadmill is making us stronger.
The Bible doesn’t just want us to learn some secret lesson when we are suffering. In fact, that can even become works-based. (“If I can just be smart enough to figure this out I can make God stop hurting me”) Rather, it commands us to simply endure it.
Romans 5:3-4 - Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
2 Timothy 2:3 - Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
2 Timothy 4:5 - As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering…
James 1:2–4 - Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
So suppose you are on the treadmill, and you feel like you’re dying. You feel like you cannot get out, and the trainer won’t let you out, and you accept that you just have to run. What do you do then?
You remind yourself that the trainer is good.
The trainer is not there to hurt you for no reason. The trainer is not there to be mean. The trainer loves you so much that he has promised to get you into shape no matter what. Yes it hurts now, but when you get into shape, and your lungs get stronger, and your legs stop cramping, and you get to live longer you will realize that it was worth it in the long run (pun intended).
The problem isn’t the trainer (God). The problem isn’t the treadmill (suffering). The problem is us. We’re the ones who are out of shape. Our sin is the problem.
Don’t get us wrong. God does use suffering to teach us lessons, and he does sometimes take the suffering away when we learn that lesson. However, that’s not always the case. In 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 the Apostle Paul is suffering. He begs God to get out of it and God’s answer is “no.” Paul is not merely learning that one must rest in God’s strength--he is having to actually do it.