In one of my favorite sermons by Sinclair Ferguson, he points out that God is often working not just for our good but for the good of others through us. Sometimes in our American context, we can get a little wrapped up in our own little world. We can think that our suffering is just all about us and God, that God is only doing something in my life. But as Dr. Ferguson also points out in his sermon, the truth is that God is always working in multiple lives and in multiple ways all at once.
Dr. Ferguson uses Joseph’s story as an example. Certainly, Joseph learned great personal humility and patience during his sufferings, which were intense. Thrown into a pit by his own brothers and then enslaved to Egypt, he faced not only the physical suffering of brutal slave labor (at least in the early years), but he also suffered the mental and emotional trauma that comes from being abandoned by his family. No doubt he spent many days and nights wondering where God was in all of this? But as we eventually see, Joseph’s sufferings were leading him to be placed in circumstances at a crucial time to save his family from starvation. Suffering is both for you and for others.
Is “Why?” the best question for our suffering?
Often the first question we ask when we suffer is “why me?” I wonder what would happen if we changed that question to “for whom?” How would this question change our perspective on our sufferings, moving it from inward focused to outward focused? I remember one of the elders in the church I went to in college had Parkinson’s Disease. One time he had some of us college kids over to his house. In a moment of open vulnerability, he shared with us how difficult it was for him to have Parkinson’s but that he thought one of the reasons God allowed this suffering was so that he could sympathize with the sufferings of others. It struck me at the time as an incredible statement.
The more I think about it, the more I think it is true that an aspect of our suffering we can often miss is how it might be for others. I think we see evidence of this in the Bible. Throughout history, God has always used people’s sufferings for his good purposes. The prime example is Jesus himself. Consider how the sufferings of Jesus were not about him. His sufferings were all about others: he suffered so that he would be a sympathetic high priest, he suffered so that his people would not have to suffer eternal condemnation for their sin, he suffered in humble obedience to his Father. Jesus knew exactly why he was suffering, and he knew that it had to be him. This didn’t necessarily make the suffering any easier, but neither was it pointless.
Similarly, God uses our own sufferings both for our spiritual growth and for others. Our suffering may help us be more empathetic with the sufferings of others and thereby share their burden. Or God’s work in your faith may help strengthen the faith of others, or God may use your suffering to bring out the conversion of someone who otherwise would not see the power of God.
Whatever it is, whether we are able to see it or not, God always works for good in the lives of his people. And as the body of Christ, the good of others is your good and your good is connected to the good of others (1 Cor. 12:14-26).
I wonder how it would change our attitude and even make our sufferings bear the fruit of godliness if we kept in mind that our sufferings are not only about us. If we discerned the opportunities our sufferings give us to witness to Christ and serve others, how would the gospel spread and our faith blossom? God used Jesus’ sufferings to bring redemption to the world and he can surely use our sufferings for good purposes as well. And he can faithfully bring us through those sufferings into our eternal glory and rest just as he did for Jesus (Heb. 2:9-10).
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