When suffering comes to us, we usually view it as an enemy rather than a tool that can and does change us more into the image of Jesus.
How God Uses Suffering
God uses suffering, first of all, to teach us that we aren’t God. He gets our attention through pain because our awareness of God is often dulled or silenced by prosperity. We are so easily enamored by the trinkets and toys of this life that we often forsake the hand of blessing that brought them to us. Pain is a way that God gets our attention and reminds us that we aren’t God. Just because we have a nice house or car or job, it doesn’t mean that we have attained these things on our own and can jettison our reliance upon God like training wheels on a child’s bicycle.
“Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.
(Deuteronomy 8:11-20 ESV)
God warned his people that the mustn’t forget that he was the one who blessed them and he promised judgment if they forgot. While we don’t fear eschatological judgment because of our pride and arrogance, we do know that God disciplines those he loves (Hebrews 12), and uses pain to remind us that we are human, weak and needy.
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world- C.S. Lewis
God also uses pain to remind us that we need Christ. We need redemption. We are broken and Christ came to redeem broken things. That is why Jesus became a man. Theologians call this Christus Exemplar or Christ, our example. Jesus came to identify with our weakness. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who died as our substitutionary atonement that we might rest and rely upon him for our salvation and learn how to suffer Christian-ly.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
(Hebrews 4:15-16 ESV)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 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.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
How We Can Use Suffering
There are countless ways we can use suffering in our walk with Christ, but I wanted to list three simple ones for your consideration and joy:
1. Increased frequency and intensity of prayer: I talk to God more frequently and more passionately when I am in pain. When things are going well, I act as if prayer is unnecessary. “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8 ESV).
2. Training in righteousness: my journey with Christ is often deepened by the uncomfortable.
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11 ESV)
3. Character production that prosperity cannot accomplish: There are things that God does in my character through suffering that would not be accomplished in me if everything was going well.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5 ESV)
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. (James 1:2-4 ESV)
God appoints suffering for us. He sends it. We might not ever know his reasoning, but it ought not stop us from using it to further our sanctification in Christ.