There’s a fact about God that I just might love Him for more than anything else, but at the same time is one of the hardest things to understand about Him. It’s that God often uses pain and suffering to grow us, to make us mature, and to make us like Him. It even seems to be His preferred method of spiritual growth.
“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… Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:2-4;12).
Here’s the plan for spiritual maturity, for being “complete, lacking in nothing:” Be joyful when you face suffering, grow in steadfastness (might be perseverance in your translation), and then you will reach spiritual maturity and receive the crown of life.
Easy formula. Suffer with Jesus and you’ll become mature, you’ll become like Him. But let’s be honest it’s far from easy. The death of your child isn’t easy. Cancer isn’t easy. Divorce isn’t easy. Infidelity isn’t easy. Loneliness isn’t easy. The loss of your job isn’t easy. Sickness isn’t easy. Pain isn’t easy. Suffering isn’t easy. Can we just say that sometimes life is freaking hard?
But there’s a promise from God that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). In the midst of intense pain, in the midst of suffering, God is working for your good. God is always doing the best thing. And often, one thing that He is doing, is making you mature, is growing you, is making you more like Him. Hebrews 2:10 tells us, “For in bringing many sons to glory, it was entirely appropriate that God—all things exist for Him and through Him—should make the source of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” Jesus Himself was made perfect through suffering. If Jesus, God Himself, had to suffer to become perfect, I definitely think we will have to suffer!
God allows us to go through pain and suffering for our own God, to make us more like Him, but again that doesn’t make it easy! One thing that can help us rejoice in our sufferings, is to realize that God allows suffering and pain to discipline us just like our own parents would.
Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline—which all receive—then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had natural fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but He does it for our benefit, so that we can share His holiness. No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore strengthen your tired hands and weakened knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be dislocated but healed instead. (Hebrews 12:7-12)
Here’s one way to find joy in the midst of suffering: realize that your suffering is proof that you are God’s son or daughter! If God disciplines you, He loves you. He allows pain and suffering and it “yields the fruit of peace and righteousness.” It allows us to “share in His holiness.” God is always doing what’s best for you, just like a parent does for his son or daughter. And we all know that children don’t always understand the punishment. So we must trust that God always knows what He is doing, even when we can’t see the big picture or the end result. And here’s the kicker in this passage, if discipline proves that we are God’s children, then also if we are not disciplined we are illegitimate children! So if your life with Jesus is easy, if you don’t suffer in your faith, maybe you need to consider how well you are truly following Jesus. Maybe you need to follow after Jesus a little harder.
I was recently reminded of something about the story of Jesus and the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane from John 18. After the Last Supper, after Jesus prayed in the garden, a group of soldiers came to arrest Jesus, because Judas had told them where Jesus would be. You probably know the part of the story where Peter (man he’s the best) pulls out a sword and cuts off the ear of Malchus, the high priest’s servant. Of course Jesus just heals it right then and there.
But here’s what had somewhat escaped me about this story before. See the Jewish people as a whole at this time, certainly including the disciples, expected Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom. They longed for the nation of Israel to be sovereign again, with Jesus as king. They wanted Jesus to overthrow the Romans who had now oppressed and ruled over them for quite some time. They believed that the messianic prophecies from what we call the Old Testament meant that the Messiah would come and set up an earthly kingdom. Peter wanted this so badly, and honestly he desired it with the best of intentions. He had Israel’s well being at heart. He wanted this earthly kingdom so badly, he was willing to pull out a sword and attack these soldiers who greatly outnumbered them.
And here’s the deal: Jesus EASILY could have given Peter what he wanted, what he longed for. He could have easily taken out these soldiers (in fact He knocked them down when they first showed up just by saying the words “I am he,” John 18:4-6). He could have moved on from there and defeated all of the Roman occupants. He could have set up an earthly kingdom with barely any effort at all. And Peter, and the Jews, would have absolutely loved it. It was what they always dreamed of! But if Jesus had done this for Peter, and hadn’t humbled Himself and gone to cross, Peter and everyone who came after would be going to hell. See, Jesus didn’t give Peter what he wanted, because He was giving him something better.
It’s the same with us. So often we complain. We are mad at God! God why won’t you just give me what I want? Why won’t you take this cancer away? Why did you let my son or daughter die? Why do I have to go through this? And the answer is always, “because I’m doing something better.” Sometimes God doesn’t give us what we want, because He has something better for us. Don’t get me wrong. It’s ok to ask for healing. It’s ok to ask God to remove suffering. Even Jesus prayed to God and asked isn’t there any other way? He was so broken up about going to the cross that He cried drops of blood. So it’s ok to ask God to take pain away. But when God says, no, this is the only way, we have to trust that. We have to trust that God is ALWAYS doing the best thing for us. He’s making us more mature. He’s making us perfect. He’s making us like Him.
“So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). When Jesus knew that there was no other way to save us, He suffered and endured the worst pain imaginable, because He knew it was the only way. He knew it was the best way.
So if you’re reading this, and you’re in the midst of deep pain or suffering, I hope you know in the deepest part of your heart, that God is ALWAYS doing something better. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, it doesn’t mean we always know what He is doing, but we can trust that He is doing something better. You can have confidence that God is working for your good. In the middle of suffering, God is closer to you than you could ever even know or understand. He’s with you. He’s fighting for you. He’s making you like Him. He’s doing something better.
Shall we not drink the cup that God has given us?