Suffering and Discipleship

Photo Credit: Brad.S.Cook via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Brad.S.Cook via Compfight cc

I recently had a conversation with a group of friends about the role of suffering in discipleship. We all agreed that most books or sermons we have read or heard don’t really talk about the relationship between people’s pain and suffering as it relates to the life of a disciple of Jesus. We also agreed that pain and suffering are realities in life and necessary parts of our progress toward godliness.

Sadly, many Christians and others have been deceived by false teachers, leading them to believe that the whole goal of the Christian life is to be happy not holy.

In his helpful book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller notes, “The implicit but strong cultural assumption of young adults is that God owes all people a comfortable life. This premise, however, inevitably leads to bitter disillusionment. Life is nasty, hard, brutish, and always feels too short. The presumption of spiritual entitlement dooms its bearers to a life of confusion when things in life go inevitably wrong.”

And things in life do go inevitably wrong. Whether it is the death of a spouse (or child), disease such as cancer, chronic pain, loss of a job, loss of a home in a natural disaster, or a thousand other things, we have all suffered. Some have suffered to a greater degree than others, but each of us have either walked through a crisis, are now walking through a crisis, or are heading toward a crisis. As I have noted before, we’re all broken. The pain and depth of a crisis is in the eye of the beholder and it is hard for those on the outside to judge the severity and impact on an individual.

Obviously, no one wants to suffer. We would rather not face pain, nor do we want others to face pain. Yet it is in these times of trial that we have an incredible opportunity to grow in our walk with Christ. So, how should a Christian respond to suffering for the purpose of godliness?

Be honest with God. It doesn’t make you super-spiritual to pretend that your suffering has not impacted your faith. Whatever you do, don’t stop praying and talking to the Lord. If you are angry with God or don’t understand or wish it was different, tell Him. The Lord is big enough to handle our emotions. The Word of God, particularly the Psalms give Holy Spirit-inspired examples of humans who are real with God in their time of pain (look at Psalm 88, for example).

Remember the example of Jesus. In whatever we suffer, we can know that Jesus also suffered more than we can imagine and therefore identifies with us in our suffering. We are encouraged in Hebrews to be, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Keller’s words are again helpful. “The sovereign God himself has come down into this world and has experienced its darkness. He has personally drunk the cup of its suffering to the dregs.”

Trust God even when you don’t have the answer. In the Bible Job suffered greatly and was never given a reason. He simply learned to submit to the sovereign hand of God. Keller observes that while we may not know the reasons why God allows suffering we can know what the reason is not: “Only Christianity, of all the world’s major religions, teaches that God came to earth in Jesus Christ and became subject to suffering and death himself. See what this means? Yes, we do not know the reason God allows pain and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he does not care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he always has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear.”

If you are suffering, I am sorry. My prayer for you is that God will comfort you and that you will use this season to let the Lord refine you and draw you closer to dependence on him. May the words of Jesus himself be your anthem: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

  • Nick Wolfe

    Another response is praise. James 1 teaches us that our sufferings are perfect gifts from the Father. The trials of life are meant to conform, transform, and change us more into the image of Christ. When we are staring in the face of tribulation, we should rejoice for we know at the end of it we will be more like Jesus.

    • BrianUpshaw

      I agree, Nick.