The "Why" of Suffering
Suffering comes in many forms, some physical and some spiritual. At times, it is more intense than others, but according to James, all our suffering as believers is to be related to in the same way—with pure joy and gratitude.
The women of Providence recently completed a study in the book of James. During our six weeks in this rich epistle, I was convicted and encouraged by many of its truths, the foremost impact being James’ perspective—the biblical perspective—of suffering.
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
Though I have read and heard these verses many times, their potent truths are far too often forgotten in the midst of my suffering. Perhaps you can relate. In the midst of trials, it is our fleshly propensity to ask, “Why?”, searching for the meaning or purpose behind the trial God has asked us to endure. Yet James makes it clear that our trials, hardships, and suffering have an ultimate purpose, namely to perfect the believer. That is, to mature and sanctify us, making us more like Christ. Though there may be immediate reasons and causes for our suffering, we are called to view it with the eyes of eternity, turning our focus to its ultimate end. Peter encourages the suffering believer in this way:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. —1 Peter 1:6–7
Contrary to what some teach, we believers are simply not promised a life of comfort and ease. Jesus himself said in John 16:33, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” And again, Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 4:12–13, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
Whether or not we have bought in, to whatever degree, to the pervasive lie of so-called “health and wealth teaching,” we are often guilty of taking the wrong attitude towards suffering. And therein our hearts reveal what we truly believe—that we deserve better than what the Lord has providentially ordained. Suffering and trials unmask our unbelief. And more than we would like to admit, they reveal not faith and confidence in our sovereign God who is always and only working all things for our good and his glory (Romans 8:28), but rather they bring to light dissatisfaction, unbelief, and discontent with the purposes and plans of God.
The question is: if we truly believe God is sovereign and good, why do we question his providence? And as always, the answer rings painfully clear—sin. We sinfully desire (and may even believe we deserve) comfort now. We wrongfully turn our affections to the things of this world instead of fixing our eyes on Christ. But as believers, we understand that our treasure does not lie in this earth. If we belong to Christ, our lives are hidden in him and our eternal home is with him in heaven. We are pilgrims, sojourners, and aliens in this world, awaiting our eternal home (Philippians 3:20).
This is exactly why we are able to rejoice in our trials; they cause us to cast our eyes upon Christ, and as we behold him, we are made to be increasingly like him and more useful to him (2 Corinthians 3:18). Suffering proves our faith, not to God who already knows and keeps his own, but to us.
Could it be that your suffering is meant to make you long for heaven, to strengthen your faith? Is your pain a call to take your eyes off of yourself and turn them to Christ? Is it possible that the suffering we now experience has an exceedingly great purpose? According to Scripture, we can answer emphatically—yes!
Brothers and sisters, let us endure well, with this great hope—the Judge is at the door (James 5:9); our Lord is returning. There is a glorious day coming (Revelation 21:3–4). May we be found as those who have suffered with all patience and have therefore been prepared for the glories that are yet to be revealed.
Ryan Bailey is a stay-at-home mom of three beautiful kids and wife to her husband of almost 15 years, Chad. She is passionate about learning and teaching scripture, discipling her kids, serving her family, and good coffee. Ryan and her family joined Providence Church in November 2016.