Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Suffering, Part IV

I'm finally returning to the topic of suffering. If you haven't checked out the previous entries, you may want to head to those first:

The Christian and Suffering, Part I
The Cause of Suffering, Part II
On Suffering, Part III

When last I wrote on the subject, I tried to make the case that suffering is a tool used by God to cleanse His people and make them holy. It is a process of chastening.

One type of chastening is God's disciplining of His people. David, I think, serves as one such example. In Psalms 119, we read, "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes." Here God uses tribulation to discipline David, so that he will hold tight to the law and statutes of God.

Second, trials can be educative. Frequently, trials occur not because of open sin or for the purpose of correction, but rather to develop spiritual graces. In his sufferings, Abraham learned how to trust God. He was weaned from the things of this world and driven to closer fellowship with God. The result is that he was reconciled to God, indeed became a “friend of God” (James 2:23).

Third, suffering can prevent us from coming to depend on our own strength. The Apostle Paul was a man who received so much revelation from God that there was clearly a danger he could become haughty and arrogant. Three times that we know of, Paul asked the Lord to remove his thorn of the flesh. He did not do so. In II Corinthians 12:7, Paul says, "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure."

Fourth, suffering can serve as a means of purification. Though the penalty for sin has already been paid, the image of God in us has been marred. God is in the process of restoration, and sometimes restoration involves some pain (Mal. 3:3). For Israel, the exile was a form of purification. Isaiah 48:10 says, "Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction." As an aside, the type of furnace referred to here is used for separation, not punishment. It is necessary for God to do a work in us by separating wheat from chaff to make us holy. As we go through the process of conforming ourselves to the image of Christ, is it reasonable to think we won’t go through any of the sufferings He did on our behalf?

Fifth, suffering can be used by God to bring about more fruit in our lives. One primary purpose of the Christian life is to bear fruit. Indeed this is a sign of our salvation, that we belong to God (John 15:2,8; Heb. 12:11).

Six, God uses suffering to perfect us. I Peter 5:10 says, "But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you." To “perfect” here means to make complete. In other words, God may use suffering to bring about spiritual maturity. To “establish” means to bring stability. Often in our lives, circumstances are the sole factor that determine our happiness or lack thereof. Through our sufferings, we can learn to depend on God, bringing a unity, integrity, stability, and happiness to our lives. We are made stronger by suffering because with each trial, the next one becomes easier as we have newfound strength in God. Again, consider the example of Abraham who had to leave his country, separate himself from Lot, wait a long time for the birth of a son, and then was asked to sacrifice Isaac. Through all these trials he became stronger in his faith.

Finally, suffering allows us to dispose of ourselves and learn to empathize with others. In our trials, we become "able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God" (II Cor. 1:4).

Because there are many reasons for suffering, we should be loath to pronounce judgment on our brothers and sisters. God may be correcting them, but He also may be preparing them for something great. We don’t really know exactly why it is happening. But we do know that we are commanded to comfort those who are suffering. To reach out, helping them in their sufferings, crying with them, keeping up their spirits. In doing that, we demonstrate the love of Christ and bring glory to God.

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