Asking the Hard Questions
The question of why we suffer is probably on the heart of every honest person. A frequent misconception about suffering often recurs in Christian circles. It says: “You are suffering because God is trying to teach you something.” The implication is that suffering correlates to addressing some particular sin in your life.
Now it is true that God meets us and grows us in the midst of suffering—but that’s not the whole story. Consider Job, for example. Job’s counselors were wrong to draw a punitive conclusion: “You must have some secret sin and you are suffering because God is angry at you.” It is also wrong to draw moralistic conclusions: “You must have some sin or shortcoming or blind spot that God is putting his finger on and teaching you a lesson.”
Many things were going on simultaneously in Job’s suffering. Satan was undermined, Job’s wife and friends were reproved, Job’s honesty and faith were demonstrated, God revealed His love for Job, God was glorified. Innumerable other sufferers in the millennia that followed have been encouraged by reading Job. And Job did grow.
In the context of the suffering he experienced, Job was convicted of self-righteousness. His faith was so deepened that he said, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).
We're Not Alone
I think many Christians have similar experiences. I certainly have. I went through five-and-a-half years of extreme and progressive disability and fatigue. Many people who had gone through their own health trials told me, “I would never choose to go through that. But I would never want to lose what I gained.” I came to be able to say the same things.
Those were very hard years, but as I reflect on the quality, the depth, and the consistency of my faith, it is almost as though I wasn’t a Christian before. I was, but I grew to know God’s love in ways I previously hadn’t known.
So, yes, we do learn from suffering, but it’s not a simple lesson. What’s most important is this: God shows up in our lives and hearts. He walks with us through fire. He directly communicates His love. He purifies our faith. He anchors our hope. He deepens our love for other strugglers. God is teaching us something. He is revealing Himself to us.
A misconception about the image of Christ often goes hand-in-hand with this misconception about suffering. We imagine that the image of Christ is all the things that are good and strong and noble and generous. We can forget that His image includes the heartfelt way in which Jesus lived out Scriptures such as Psalms 22, 25, and 31.
His faith honestly expressed affliction. He wrestled with God. He agonized. He trusted. He sought His God. He walks with God on difficult roads, not immune to the heartache and grief that come with our plight as human beings. We are being conformed to the image of Christ. Psalms teach us that one of the things we learn is how to suffer honestly and believingly—and how to know the love of God for us in the very hardest parts of life. That is a whole series of lessons much worth receiving.