I’ve been challenged about the role of suffering in the discipleship process. I have all kinds of questions going off in my head and this post will help me sort them out. It is a work in process for sure and these are mostly random thoughts that need much organization. Some questions are:
- What is it that constitutes a biblical response to suffering?
- Must we be the model of godliness at every moment of suffering in order to benefit from it?
We know that struggles and trials are coming in our lives (Ps 34:19; John 16:33) and we would like to think when they do we will respond in faith, worship, obedience and testimony to others. We don’t want to waste the trial to the point that we don’t glorify God or benefit from it. And yet, we see the biblical examples of struggle in times of trial from the likes of Moses who smashed a rock, Abraham who said “she is my sister,” David who questioned God in trials, and Job himself who needed a lesson in theology proper at the end of his trial. All of this causes us to at least ask these questions:
- Is it possible that God in his sovereign wisdom allows us to struggle, question, and even be emotionally distraught at times when suffering comes?
- Does weakness, doubt, and even fear play a part in his process of making us more like Christ?
I do not have the answers to these questions. But I would like to look at one verse, and in particular one Greek verb that may hopefully help us to understand how trials can cause suffering yet this suffering and even grief is part of the God’s process in maturing us.
First Peter, perhaps more than any other New Testament book, addresses the issue of suffering and its impact in the lives of believers. In 1:1-2 Peter greets his readers and in that greeting imparts a massive amount of theology and expectation that calls for a least a comment. He states,
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure.
Peter greets the believers who’ve been scattered and describes them as elect or “chosen” by the “foreknowledge of God” (another post) and then states, “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” While the term “sanctify” (hagiasmos – ἁγιοσμός) often refers to the progressive growth of believers in terms of daily sanctification (1 Cor 1:30; 1 Thess 4:3, 4, 7), in this case the noun which means “set apart” denotes the work of the Spirit in salvation since it modifies those “chosen.” In other words, they are chosen “according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” and “by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” Peter then adds the purpose of this work of the Father and the Spirit: “to obey Jesus Christ.” So we see all three persons of the Trinity as well as how justification (“chosen”) and sanctification (“obey”) are part of God’s plan for us.
Peter then declares that our relationship with God that includes justification and sanctification, is exposed to great trials and sufferings. Much can be said about all this but I want to focus on one particular truth. These sufferings and trials are often very painful and can upset the believer. In 1:3-6a, Peter praises God for his great salvation and that in light of it we too can rejoice in our position and possession. The he adds something very interesting. Regarding this great salvation ready to be revealed at the time of Christ’s appearing, we read this:
6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ;
Notice the tension in verse 6: we greatly rejoice and we are also distressed by various trials. The verb “distressed” (lupeō – λυπέω) is a very strong term. BDAG lists two major entries: 1) “to cause severe mental or emotional distress,” hence to “vex,” “irritate,” “offend,” or “insult,” and 2) In the passive as is the case here, “to become sad, sorrowful, or distressed.”
Jesus himself experienced deep emotional trauma at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:33) and was deeply troubled at the prospect of his own death (Matt 26:22). And while he suffered physically on the cross, emotionally in these two examples, he also suffered in being tempted (Heb 2:18). No one would state that him emotional responses in any of these examples denoted
Examples of this passive use in the New Testament are these:
Jesus speaks of the response believers would have at his departure from earth:
Truly, truly, I say to you, that you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will grieve, but your grief will be turned into joy (John 16:20)
Paul, after listing the experiences that he and God’s people go through (2 Cor 6:1-9), adds this noting the tension we all must endure:
as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things (2 Cor 6:10).
Believers go through trials and they can be very painful, to the point of great emotional distress. These experiences are normal and not in any way a lack of faith or an improper response to God. We can suffer and still trust God. We can suffer and not curse God (Job 2:9). This is not a surprise since Old Testament saints also experienced sorrow to the point where they even questioned the love and care of God. Moses often did, David and the other Psalmists declared the same, and Job got so messed up emotionally that he called God his “adversary” (ṣăr –צַר) in Job 16:9; 19:11, a term he applied to Satan in 6:23! Yet the text declares that in spite of all of his suffering, “Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10).
Peter does not say that when we suffer various trials we will have complete peace in heart in mind. He doesn’t declare that we won’t act like Moses or David or Job when tested. As a matter of fact, he states that we will be deeply affected emotionally like they were. But Peter is also sure that these trials which so affect us emotionally ultimately have a purpose. Our faith will be tested by these trials like gold is refined through fire and this testing will (through the hand of God) result in a mature faith since it leads to the worship and glory of God. How God does it I do not know. Peter states,
so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:7)
What can we do to be ready? How do we prepare for suffering? It would seem that one way we can prepare is by doing the very thing we would be doing were we to find ourselves in the midst of suffering: worshiping, praying, serving, studying God’s word, and sharing the gospel. But this does not mean we won’t struggle in many ways while we suffer. We need to remember a few things. Many of God’s children who the Scriptures declare walked by faith struggled in the midst of trials that he sent them. So also need to keep in mind that God ultimately sends us trials, he knows his purpose in them for us as well as what he wants us to learn in trial and suffering. In other words, though we struggle, question, and even get angry when we “have been distressed by various trials,” in the end we cling to God and we don’t curse him because “he who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6). Or as Paul would say said later in Philippians, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13).
But don’t we want to honor him when suffering and trials come!? Yes, we do and so it would also seem that the best way to prepare may simply be to draw close to God now so we are not scrambling about trying to muster up faith when the suffering does come. In addition, maybe we should also let him know now that when he sends trials our way that we honor him and not want to embarrass him. In other words, we should ask him now to provide grace later so that we will glorify him and are spiritually enriched and more conformed to Christ.
Just some thoughts….