Author: Ron Graham
Suffering produces various responses in people. There are right and wrong responses to suffering. When I say "wrong" I do not mean immoral or sinful, but rather that these negative responses do not help the sufferer; they only make the suffering worse. In this lesson we look at seven responses to suffering, five of which are wrong. The last two are right responses.
Fear is an understandable response to tribulation and suffering. It is natural to be afraid if our lives are about to be ripped apart by some disaster or tragedy, or we are about to suffer great pain. However we can choose to take courage and have faith. When Hezekiah was threatened by Sennacherib, he encouraged the officers of his army with these words, "Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be dismayed because of the king of Assyria, nor because of all the multitude with him, for the One with us is greater than the one with him" (2Chronicles 32:1-2,6-7).
Whatever threatens us, we can be sure that in some way Satan is behind it, but there is One greater who can strengthen us. That's why Paul, in speaking of his hardships, could say to the Thessalonians, "No one should be shaken by these troubles" (1Thessalonians 3:2-4). God promises all of us the same thing he promised in the words of Moses. "Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the Lord your God is the One who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you" (Deuteronomy 31:8).
It is easy to "become weary and discouraged in your souls" however we can rise above our discouragement by "looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of your faith" (Hebrews 12:1-3). When we consider how Jesus suffered yet endured and went on to victory, we can be encouraged to endure our own sufferings and not give up or despair.
When things have been rocking along well and life has been on the up and up, it can be a shock when sudden disaster hits. Many churches today preach a doctrine of prosperity and physical wellbeing. They teach that Jesus takes away sickness and misfortune. Thus people are not prepared for tribulation, and when it comes they are surprised and crushed by it. Peter said, "Do not be surprised, beloved, at the fiery ordeal which has come to test you. Do not react as though some strange thing were happening to you" (1Peter 4:12)).
When Jesus told the parable of the sower, he spoke of the seed that fell on rocky ground. "They have no root in themselves, but are only temporary. When affliction or persecution arises, because of the world, immediately they fall away" (Mark 4:16-17). The parable is applicable to the kingdom of God today as much as ever. Today "affliction or persecution arises" just as it always did. Jesus said, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me" (Matthew 16:24).
Some Christians place altogether too much store in material well-being, treating it as a sign and product of their good sense, godliness, and hard work. Of course it may well be so. There is nothing commendable about being foolhardy and prodigal, and people are to be congratulated who are thrifty and wise in their daily conduct, who take care of their bodies and material assets.
However for all our efforts, misfortune through circumstances beyond our control can strike at any moment, and wipe out all that we have accomplished. If and when that happens, many people feel ashamed thinking that somehow they have been remiss.
James is very stern toward those who think they have control over their lives and trust too much in themselves.
¶“13Some of you say, 'Today or tomorrow, we shall go into such and such a city and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit'. You should think before you say that. 14You don't even know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a wisp of mist that appears for a little while and then disappears. 15Instead you should say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.' 16But you are boasting in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil” (James 4:13-16).
So shame is not to be felt when misfortune strikes, but rather when we arrogantly think we have made ourselves immune to it.
Peter says, "If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God" (1Peter 4:16). This statement applies to any kind of suffering a Christian might endure because "the endurance of Job" is a paradigm or pattern of "suffering and patience" (James 5:10-11).
Job's extreme sufferings were not because of any fault in him —on the contrary, Satan desired to afflict him in order to destroy his faith. God permitted the test because God trusted that Job would endure and his faith would be victorious (Job 1-2). With this insight into suffering, the least appropriate response is to feel ashamed.
In times of trouble, we are beset by many negative feelings, fear, disappointment, bewilderment, grief, a sense of failure, rejection and guilt. Guilt is one of the worst. We cannot cope with our troubles when burdened with guilt.
Some Christians respond to suffering by feeling guilt, because they think God is afflicting them and doing so as punishment for their sins. God does not punish us. He forgives us. "There is now therefore no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).
However there is a "chastening" by God of his children, and it is even made analgous to a father chastising his son (Hebrews 12:1-13). There may well be an element of "rebuke" in this chastening. But the chastening is not punitive, or in any sense a vengeance. It is "for our profit" and is meant to increase our faith through endurance.
The Hebrew writer has already used an analogy that comes closer to being parallel to our experience of suffering. He says, "let us run with endurance the race that is set before us" (Hebrews 12:1). Anyone who seriously enters a race must endure pain in training. The Hebrew writer uses a similar analogy when he says, "Therefore strengthen the slack arms and the feeble knees" You may exercise your arms and legs with certain exercises which strengthen them. During the exercise you probably experience some pain. However you don't necessarily stop the exercise because of pain. There is a certain kind of pain which you are willing to endure because you know the exercise is not injurious but will strengthen the limb. So you suffer the pain in order to have the gain. This is what the "chastening" or "discipline" of God is like. God sees a need for you to become stronger through suffering, so he allows the suffering for your good. He is not punishing you. So do not be ashamed or feel guilt, rather say, "I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ's sake, for when I am weak, then I am strong" (2Corinthians 12:9-10).
With all that we have seen, it becomes clear that the correct response to suffering is to accept it and submit to it with endurance. This attitude is beautifully expressed by Paul... "We do not lose heart. Even though our outer person is perishing, yet our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our affliction is light and only for a moment, and is producing for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. Meanwhile, we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. The things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal" (2Corinthians 4:16-18).
Peter says, "As you share the suffering of Christ, rejoice, and you will be overjoyed when his glory is revealed" (1Peter 4:13). This echoes the beatitude, "Happy are you when they insult and persecute you... Be full of joy and celebrate because your reward in heaven is great" (Matthew 5:11-12). That statement is applicable even when suffering is not caused by men speaking evil against us, because all suffering may be understood as Satan reviling us, "a messenger of Satan to buffet" (2Corinthians 12:7). This, you will recall, was the case with Job's suffering.
To the world, joy may seem an inappropriate response to tribulation. However the joy is sustained by the conviction that glory follows suffering and our suffering has a good purpose (Romans 8:16-18).
¶“16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit, that we are the children of God. 17Now if we are children, then we are also heirs. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ —so long as we are also joint sufferers with him, and thereby share his glory. 18I consider our present day sufferings as not worthy of comparison with the glory that will be revealed to us” (Romans 8:16-18).