God Has a Purpose for Suffering
Even though the Bible doesn’t answer your specific why questions—the kind of questions every sufferer asks—it does unveil why God allows hardship into the lives of his children. There is tremendous comfort in the purpose of God revealed in Scripture. God lovingly clues us into his purpose so that in the middle of our suffering we have reason to hope.
1. We Suffer Because We Live in a Fallen World (2 Cor. 4:7–10)
You may be thinking, “Where is the comfort in knowing that we live in a fallen world?” It is comforting because it means that the painful things we deal with are not some bad accident, horrible luck, or indication of a massive failure of God’s plan. If any of these things were true, we would have reason to feel powerless and hopeless. Note how the Bible talks about our experience in the here and now:
We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. (2 Cor. 4:7–10)
No place in Scripture treats the fact of our suffering with shock, surprise, frustration, or dismay. Rather, suffering is presented to us as the normal experience of everyone living between the fall of Adam and Eve and the future coming of Christ. God hasn’t failed, his plan hasn’t failed, and you and I haven’t been abandoned. And because we know that God has a purpose for leaving us for a period of time in a terribly broken world, we can suffer but not be hauntingly perplexed or in constant despair, nor feel forsaken or that we’re about to be destroyed. Hope for sufferers is rooted in the fact that they’ve not been singled out or forsaken but that what is painful has a purpose. If suffering has a purpose, then there is reason to believe that good things will come out of what doesn’t seem good.
The picture in 2 Corinthians 4 is of cracked clay vessels, but you can see treasure shining through the cracks. Wow! There’s a whole lot of content in that little word picture. First, it reminds us that we were never unbreakable steel vessels and that we weren’t created to be independently strong. We were created to be fragile, because God wants to accomplish something good through our fragility. He allows us to be cracked so we will finally get the fact that hope and security are never found by what’s in us but only by what’s in him. In order to accomplish this, he has to put us in situations where we can’t make it on the basis of our strength and wisdom but instinctively reach out for help instead.
The picture of cracked vessels with treasure shining through the cracks is a picture of being filled. Suffering causes us to really know who we are and who God is and to begin to really celebrate what we’ve been given. God doesn’t always fill your cracks but often uses your cracks to fill you up with a sense of his presence, grace, and glory.
God leaves us in this broken world because what it produces in us is way better than the comfortable life we all want. I haven’t always felt this way, but it’s true that in our suffering God isn’t saddling us with less but graciously giving us more. This is why we can endure hardship without feeling forsaken or giving way to despair. Has suffering robbed you of your hope? Has it tempted you to tell yourself that you’ve been forsaken?
2. We Suffer Because God Uses It to Produce Good in Us (James 1:2–4)
The comfort in James 1:2–4 confronts us with what we truly want out of life. There are only two types of motivating hopes. You either hook your hope to a physical, situational life of comfort, success, strength, and pleasure or to a life of rich spiritual awakening, growth, and Godward glory. The Bible presents the second option as not only infinitely more satisfying in the long run but also that for which we were made. Because we were made for it, it does a much better job of satisfying the longing that’s in all our hearts. Suffering in the hands of God is a powerful tool of personal growth and transformation. Here’s what God does in us through the tool of hardship:
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)
That is a remarkable passage because it calls and alerts us to something counterintuitive. We don’t typically experience joy in suffering; in fact, many of us lose our joy even in the face of the smallest obstacles. Now, don’t misunderstand what James is calling you to here. He’s not saying you should rejoice because of pain and loss. This is not a call to some kind of joyful Christian stoicism. Rather, James is saying that you have reason to rejoice in the middle of your travail because of how God is using your suffering to produce in you what you could never produce in yourself. Suffering in the hands of God is used to fill you up, to grow you up, and to complete God’s work in you.
James is saying that the bad things you endure are a tool of a very good thing that God is doing in you and for you. So in the very moment when you and I think we’ve been forsaken, we’re actually being graced with God’s rescuing, transforming, and delivering power. And what is it that we’re being delivered from? James’s answer is clear: we are being delivered from ourselves. It is humbling to admit that the greatest disaster in our lives is not what we suffer, but the sin inside us, which separates us from God and always leads to death. While we tend to be intolerant of hardship and difficulty, God is intolerant of our sin, so he uses hard things to deliver us from it. The only name for this is grace. It’s true that grace often comes in uncomfortable forms. When we cry out for grace, we’re often already getting it, but it’s not the grace of release; it’s the grace of rescue and transformation, because that’s the grace we really need.
In our suffering God is at work to give us something much better than what we want. He’s not content to dispense temporary relief, when eternal change is what we really need. In the zeal of redeeming love, he uses hard tools to produce soft but sturdy hearts, and that’s a very good thing. Think of the power in suffering to change us:
Suffering has the power to destroy our self-reliance. We weren’t created to be self-reliant, so self-reliance never produces good things in us. We were created to be dependent on God and mutually dependent on one another. Our lives are a community project. Suffering exposes the fact that we’re not self-sufficient, that we do, in fact, need others. The pain and weakness of suffering cause us to cry out to God, perhaps more genuinely, more deeply, and more humbly than ever before.
Suffering has the power to expose our self-righteousness. We like to tell ourselves that we’re spiritually okay, but suffering also exposes the bad things that still live inside us. In our pain we’re irritable, envious, demanding, impatient, doubtful, and angry. Suffering doesn’t make us this way, but it draws out what’s been inside us already. Suffering demonstrates that we’re not grace graduates, that there’s still sin inside us, and that we desperately need the Savior’s grace. What comes out of us as we suffer proves that we need something profoundly more important than relief from situational, physical, relational, or cultural hardship.
Suffering has the power to lay waste to our idols. Suffering has a way of exposing what’s really dear to us, what we feel we can’t live without, and what truly rules our hearts. It’s not just that what we’re going through is painful, but also that we’ve lost what was giving us value and worth. Suffering exposes the inadequacy of hooking our hope to the temporary treasures of the created world and positions our heart to hook our hope to the Creator in ways we’ve never done before.
God leaves us in this broken world because what it produces in us is way better than the comfortable life we all want.
Are you looking gratefully for the ways that God will use what’s very hard to produce what’s very good in you?
3. Suffering Prepares Us for How God Will Use Us (2 Cor. 1:3–9)
Here’s the bottom line. If you’re God’s child, you’ve been liberated from the self-centered burden of living for yourself, and you’ve been freed to live for him. That means you’ve been called to be part of what God is doing in the lives of those around you and around the world. Ministry is not so much a career or a kind of episodic volunteerism; for every believer it’s a lifestyle we’ve been called to. The problem is that we don’t naturally have the desire to make personal sacrifices for the sake of ministry to others, and we need training. God uses suffering to make us both willing and ready to be part of what he’s doing in the lives of others. No passage captures this better than 2 Corinthians 1:3–9:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
God causes us to long for and experience his comfort so that we would be ready to be agents of his comfort in the lives of others. This means that our suffering has ministry in view. Your hardships qualify you to be part of the most wonderful and important work in the universe.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not always sympathetic and compassionate. I’m not always tender and generous in the face of the trials of others. But God has used my weakness, confusion, and fear to soften my heart and make me much more willing and able to enter into the trials of others with an understanding and compassionate heart. We all know that we don’t own the blessings in our lives, that we are meant to pass them forward into the lives of others, but this passage confronts us with the fact that even our sufferings belong to the Lord for his use. Suffering is meant not to drive us inside ourselves but to lead us out to offer to others the beautiful hope, comfort, joy, and security that God has given us.
Notice how this passage ends. Like Paul, God will give us stories to tell, stories of how God met us in our darkest moments of panic and doom. He gives us stories to tell about how he lifts us up, gives us hope, brings peace to our hearts, and meets our needs. We tell others our stories not to point to us, but to point to God so that those to whom we minister will find their comfort in him too. Where has God given you stories of suffering and comfort so that you can bring comfort to those around you who are suffering?
4. Suffering Teaches Us That This World Is Not Our Final Home (2 Cor. 4:16–5:5)
Pay careful attention to the following passage:
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. >For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. (2 Cor. 4:16–5:5)
This passage is all about spiritual preparation. It’s important to understand that this world isn’t your final destination. When you live with a here-and-now mentality, you want this life to be as comfortable, predictable, pleasurable, successful, and enjoyable as it can be. Like the old commercial said, “You only go around once in life: Go for all the gusto you can.” But the Bible is very clear that this is not all we have. It’s clear that what God is doing in the here and now is working to prepare us for the final destination.
We’re all like pilgrims on a great spiritual journey, living in the uncomfortable world of tents and temporary locations. All the hardship and loss we face are designed by God to prepare us for our eternal home. God is working through hardship to pry open our hands and loosen our hearts from our tight grip on the here and now. He’s working to release us from the hope that this present world will ever be the paradise that our hearts long for. He’s employing suffering to produce in our hearts a deep and motivating longing for a much, much better home, the eternal home that’s the promise of his grace to us all. And he’s given us his Spirit right now as the all-access pass to that home. Like a ticket that guarantees entrance, we carry the Spirit around with us to remind us that there’s a home waiting for us where we’ll be welcomed and taken in forever.
What we suffer isn’t a failure of God’s plan but a tool to bring us in line with God’s plan so that we’ll love what he’s prepared for us more than we love our present comfort. Where is there evidence in your life that you’ve been living with a destination mentality?
This article is adapted from Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense by Paul David Tripp.
No matter how hard your story is right here, right now, it is guaranteed for you as God’s child that it will end better that you can imagine.
While we may not understand what God is doing, we can always trust who he is. We must never interpret God’s character by our circumstances.
How can Christians can face profound life-changing suffering with their faith intact and find encouragement from God's word in the midst of a season of intense pain?