It’s probably not often that a Sunday school class gets attention in blogs. But the one my wife and I attended last Sunday at Third Ave Baptist Church (Louisville, KY) deserves attention. The teacher was a church elder, Scott Croft. His subject: suffering. It may even seem odd to have a class that teaches Christians about suffering, but as has been wisely said, the best time to learn and prepare for suffering is before you suffer, not during.
Suffering will come. You may have already experienced a measure of suffering, or you may be headed into a season of suffering. One thing is sure, all Christians will suffer. You can meet them in their suffering, coming out of suffering or on their way into suffering.
Christian suffering is distinctly and divinely different from other kinds. Christian suffering doesn’t alleviate the pain that may be felt. Pain, and loss are pain, and loss. But Christian suffering can be touched with the sweetness of the Spirit no matter how bitter the circumstances.
Suffering as God’s gift
Have you ever considered that suffering may be understood as a gift from God? For example, Phil 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.” When God grants something, it is a gift for our good and his glory. And consider what Jesus said about suffering: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’ (Luke 9:23).” Would your elder Brother, who laid down his life for you, his friend, call you to something evil? (If you want to look for a biblical answer go to Luke 11:12).
The purposes of God in suffering
No one can tell why believers suffer. We might be able to make some broadly educated guesses. Know this: only God, as the Father, knows why he brings what he does into the lives of his children. It is not helpful to try explanations for those going through difficult circumstances. As Scott said, give them a hug and pray with them! That is not to say that there are no purposes in the suffering of believers or that we are left in the dark. Here are eight points from my notes for your consideration; all without comment.
1. For growth in holiness (Ps 119:67).
2. To build perseverance (Rom 5:3; 1 Cor 10:13).
3. For your maturity (James 1).
4. To teach us God’s word (Ps 119:71).
5. To equip us to be an encouragement for others (2 Cor 1:3-4).
6. To wean us from self-reliance (2 Cor 1:8-10).
7. To strengthen assurance (Heb 12:7-8).
8. To glorify God when all the benefits of following Christ are gone, yet suffering Christians joyfully persevere (Heb 11:26; 1 Pet 3:15).
As my wife and I discussed the morning worship on our way to Starbucks, we instinctively returned to the class on suffering. As we reflected on our lives we came to similar conclusions arising from a conversation from the night before. The night before, we had been with some new friends for dinner. In the casualness of the evening, and the laughter of good conversation, we also shared how we came to the Lord, what he had done and is doing in our lives, and what we’ve experienced in our different ministry settings. Everyone had a story to tell that included some kind of suffering. Each had very different stories; very real and really difficult circumstances. But even as they were told, the story-teller never once “tasted” bitter over the past events. The stories were told with a calm confidence in the Lord’s providential oversight and goodness that seemed to lift the weight of the suffering but none pretended it was easy.
My wife and I concluded that our circumstances of suffering were bewildering and stretching at the time. We admitted doubt and wonder about “surviving through the struggles.” But today, as we look back, knowing that the Lord brought us through, the memories are touched with the sweet drops of the Spirit and we have to ask, “was that really suffering when compared to Jesus’ suffering? Didn’t he suffer far more for me than I did then?” The question is designed to be answered only one way: “Yes!” Like the song says,
Through many dangers, toils and snares we have already come.
T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far and Grace will lead us home.
The Lord has promised good to me, His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.