I’ve had toothache this week. Which is never fun. But neither is it on a par with the intensity of the suffering that many others endure, so I’m trying not to complain too much. Nonetheless, pain is hard to ignore, and causes you to view life from a different perspective.
So I’ve been reflecting on the ways that God uses suffering for good in my life, even though I would much prefer to have the “glory” without the suffering, and the power to escape instead of the power to endure.
First, suffering drives me to prayer. To my shame, I too easily allow my prayer life to become sporadic and mechanical. But pain reminds me that I am not self-sufficient, and I desperately need to know God’s presence with me, and drives me to my knees in prayer.
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. James 5:13
Second, suffering increases my compassion for others. Far too often I remain self-absorbed in my own activities, but my own suffering often brings to mind others I know who are in need of prayer and encouragement.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 2 Cor 1:3,4
Third, and perhaps counter-intuitively, suffering increases my thankfulness. It makes me realise quite how many blessings I enjoy and take for granted. Often suffering involves something good (e.g. our health) being taken away from us. This leaves me reflecting thankfully on the multitude good things that I still have, including most of all the blessings of the gospel which can never be stolen from me.
give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thess 5:18
Fourth, suffering brings an eternal perspective. When things are going well for me, I can become absorbed with the things of this present age that are passing away. But suffering, particularly health issues, serve as a stark reminder of the fact of our mortality and focus us on our future hope.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Cor 4:16-18
Fifth, suffering gives an opportunity to grow in patience and perseverance, two virtues that by their very nature cannot be learned in an instant, or simply by reading about them. Just maybe this is part of the reason that answers to prayer often don’t come as quickly as we would like.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. James 1:2-4
Sixth, suffering presents an opportunity to fight sin. Pain has a way of bringing out some lurking character issues. For me, the tendency to be irritable with my family is something I need to fight. However, though suffering can be the occasion for sin, it is also the perfect opportunity to grow in character. As Paul says in Rom 5, “perseverance produces character”.
Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. Rom 5:3,4
Finally, suffering leads me to the cross, where Jesus willingly chose to suffer, in order that I may be saved from eternal suffering. At any moment Jesus could have said, “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here”, yet instead he prayed:
"Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." Luke 22:42
None of this means that I like suffering, or want it, or even that I think it’s good. But it’s good to remind myself that God is working his purposes out even in the circumstances I don’t enjoy.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Rom 8:28