Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

How Suffering Is Useful For Christians

There are some mysterious verses about suffering in the Bible, and how that suffering is possibly useful or even beneficial to Christians.

For example, in Romans 8:16-18 Paul writes:

"The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

So somehow, it seems, suffering is linked to being glorified with Christ.

I could always agree with the latter portion of this verse—that heaven will outweigh any suffering we have in this life. But the first part was perplexing.

During a theology discussion group, one of my friends commented that Christians often interpret the sufferings mentioned in this verse as being related only to the suffering we experience specifically because of being Christians. So basically, "suffering with Christ" only included suffering persecution for believing in Jesus.

But my friend said that he thinks the sufferings mentioned in this verse can include any sort of suffering that Christians experience in this life.

At first, I thought this was strange. It seemed like he was trying to be too generous, or to make Christians feel like there was some sort of purpose behind even the minor sufferings we all experience in day-to-day life, instead of these simply being the results of living in a sinful fallen world.

But after further reflection, I think I agree with him. So in this post I want to discuss two ways that suffering—any suffering at all—in this life, can be useful and beneficial for Christians.

Suffering and Heavenly Rewards

First, we should remember that Christians will be rewarded for the good works we do in this life. Heavenly rewards are a large part of the Free Grace movement's theology regarding sanctification. If you're interested, I've written more about heavenly rewards here.

1 Cor. 3:10-15 teaches that our works will be judged by Christ, not to determine if we receive eternal life (because eternal life is based only on having faith in Christ as our Savior), but for eternal heavenly rewards. Whatever was worthy of heavenly reward will endure God's judgment and is represented as gold and jewels, but whatever we did in our lives that was unworthy or was just an utter waste of time, will be "burned up" and does not earn any heavenly rewards. See also 2 Cor. 5:9-10.

So then, once this evaluation of our works is complete, we will be left with a metaphorical pile of heavenly rewards, larger or smaller, depending on our lives. This is our "heavenly treasure" (Matt 6:19-21).

Scripture hints that these rewards may be expressed as different levels of ruling privileges with Christ on the New Earth (Luke 19:16-19; Matt. 25:21-23), or maybe other rewards we can't even imagine now. Even if it doesn't seem like we want this responsibility now, Randy Alcorn points out that ruling will not be stressful but will be a joy, for we will have improved minds and bodies, and will live in a perfect society of love.1

So the Bible's teaching about heavenly rewards encourages us to make the best use of our lives now, by not resisting the Holy Spirit's prompting and enabling to overcome sin and become more like Christ, which will then enable us to do the things God has called us and enabled us to do (Eph. 2:10), for which we will be eternally rewarded.

I had already discussed that heavenly rewards are one reason why Christians should not cut their lives short by suicide in this post.

But then I realized that heavenly rewards can also make sense of Romans 8:16-18. Let's look at it again:

"The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

By Christians continuing to go about their Father's business and doing all the good things God calls them to do in this life, this will inherently involve experiencing and tolerating some various sorts of suffering. Because the only way in this life to avoid all suffering is to die and go be with Jesus, but death also ends the time we have to do good works that earn heavenly rewards.

Paul, for example, says that he would rather die and go to be with Christ which is "far better" than staying in this sinful world, but he will stay because he knows he can be a benefit to the early church and do "fruitful labour" for God (Phil. 1:21-24).

So by continuing to be a Christian in the world, if we're doing the things that God wants us to do, then the suffering that we endure as a by-product of being in this sinful world and in these weak bodies is contributing to the amazing heavenly rewards we will have for eternity.

Therefore, all Christians can be confident that if we're serving God, none of our suffering is pointless or useless. Instead, enduring it will contribute to the glory we will experience in heaven.

By experiencing suffering in this life while attempting to do God's work, we are in some small way like Christ, who also suffered while accomplishing God's work in this world. Since all Christians make up the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27; Rom. 12:4-5), which continues Christ's work in the world, then in some way, our suffering is indeed part of Christ's suffering, which God uses to reconcile the world to Himself.

This seems strange, but I think this is why Scripture often counts it as an honor or privilege to suffer for Christ, and says we should rejoice in it. For example, Col. 1:24, 1 Pet. 4:13.

Sources of Christian Suffering

So what sort of sufferings are included in our Christian experience, which become part of suffering with Christ, and which contribute somehow to our future glory?

Persecution

It includes overt persecution we may face for standing firm in our beliefs despite the world's judgement.

Persecution can come in minor forms such as being thought of as eccentric, strange, old-fashioned, or an oddball for not participating in some of the things the world thinks are normal, or standing up for what you believe is right (Matt. 5:10), or being insulted for Christ (1 Pet. 4:14, Matt 5:11-12, Luke 6:22).

But it might involve being tortured or even being killed for being a Christian (Luke 12:4, John 16:2), such as what those in the early church experienced and which Christians elsewhere in the world today experience.

Missions or Evangelism

It includes the suffering that comes as part of spreading the gospel.

For example, Paul talks about all the suffering he endured in his missionary trips, such as: beatings, imprisonment, whipping, stoning, shipwreck, potential dangers, sleeplessness, hunger, thirst, cold, and anxiety (2 Cor. 11:23-28).

But this can also include the 'suffering' of spending time volunteering at church or with other Christian groups who spread the gospel, rather than having more leisure time. Or maybe the 'suffering' of giving up your summer vacation to go on a mission trip.

Yet this does not exclude those who cannot physically go evangelize others. Even people who may be so ill or disabled that they can't do anything in the external world can still make a difference by praying for others. Being bedridden or living in a nursing home doesn't mean your ability to serve God is gone. Instead, prayer is a critical part of fighting against the powers of evil, supporting other Christians, and praying for more people to come to faith in Christ.

Groaning for our Bodily Redemption

It includes the "groaning" that all Christians experience as we live in this world while waiting for our bodies to be redeemed (Rom 8:23), when we will receive the new strong, perfect, and eternal bodies God promises we will have (1 Cor. 15:42-44, 2 Cor. 5:1-5).

This bodily suffering would include illnesses, injuries, disabilities, hunger, thirst, and any other sort of physical or mental suffering we experience in daily life.

Enduring A Sinful World

And it includes the spiritual suffering we experience from having to endure the sinfulness of those around us.

For example, when Lot lived in Sodom he was "greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard)" (2 Pet. 2:7-8).

That sounds like suffering to me. This is a great encouragement when I am so disappointed and frustrated with the stupidity, hypocrisy, and outright evil that is present in our society.

Suffering from our Sins

However, I think it is correct to say that the suffering which contributes to our glorification does not automatically include any suffering that we bring on ourselves due to our sins (1 Pet. 4:15-16).

It could be true that by experiencing the suffering we bring on ourselves, if we repent and get back to pursuing God's will for us, then any suffering we endure (even if originally caused by our own sin) will become purposeful again.

In itself, the suffering from our sins may only be useful to convince us to not repeat that sin. Yet even this can be helpful to our spiritual progress, for it shows us that sin only leads to suffering, and thus, helps us give it up, which in turn makes us more like Christ and able to serve Him better.

Soul-Making Suffering

There is a second way that suffering may benefit Christians.

There is an approach to theodicy (i.e. explaining why God allows evil in this world) which Richard Rice calls the soul-making theodicy.

This is the view that suffering and facing challenges are necessary to help us grow into the people we are meant to become by developing godly character. This approach is especially promoted by John Hick.2

Hick argues that, for example, if we lived in a world where no one suffered, we would never learn how to have compassion for others. Or if there was no danger to ourselves or others, then there would be no need for courage. Other important character traits we develop in response to challenges and suffering may be virtues like patience, determination, or persistence.3

We find this idea hinted at in Romans 5:3-5:

"Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."

Again, this is a somewhat mysterious verse. But it does say that suffering has some beneficial effect on our character.

I am not convinced that the soul-making theodicy can explain all suffering and evil in the world. I think there are many other aspects to why there is evil in the world and why we suffer, such as spiritual warfare, the post-Fall condition of both humanity and nature, and misuse of the God-given gift of free will.

And unfortunately, the soul-making theodicy implies that God needed Adam and Eve to sin, in order to lead to a world of suffering, so that God could produce people of godly character through it. This makes sin and evil a necessary part of God's plan for the world, but the Bible does not support this.

But it is true that God can make use of evil and suffering to produce good, so that all things can be said to work together for the good of those who love God (Rom 8:28), including evil and suffering, even if we don't understand how.

This doesn't mean evil or suffering is ever God's original intention for anyone, but God can redeem even these things and find some sort of good that can be brought out of them.

For example, learning to endure some minor suffering can make us ready if we need to endure worse suffering in the future. Patient endurance of suffering is encouraged in James 5:10.

How we endure suffering can be a witness to non-Christians about our faith, for they will be curious about how we can have a positive attitude despite our suffering, instead of becoming bitter, complaining constantly, or wallowing in self-pity.

Learning to endure suffering can also help us not fall away from faith if persecution comes. A person is instantly and permanently given eternal life the moment they first believe in Christ (Eph. 1:13-14), but this doesn't mean they cannot fall away from faith and thereby miss out on some heavenly rewards.

Some Free Grace proponents argue that only those who persevere in faith to the end of their lives will be rewarded with special ruling privileges with Christ (e.g. 2 Tim. 2:11-13),4 and if so, then developing the character that allows us to endure potential suffering and persecution is important to avoid falling away if times get tough.

Suffering is also useful to become better disciples of Christ. If we never learned to endure anything that was even mildly unpleasant, it would be very difficult to be a Christian. For example, even developing the character that is committed to waking up early to make it to church every Sunday, whether we feel like it or not, is useful for Christians, so that we can hear the pastor's sermon and worship with fellow Christians, and so be built up in our faith.

Conclusion

These are just a few of my thoughts on how suffering is indeed useful for Christians. For by living in this world despite suffering, we can be useful to God in continuing the work of Christ in the world, and the rewards God gives for this service will last forever.

This patient endurance also builds our character which makes us ready to face whatever is ahead of us in life, and to develop important virtues which makes us better suited to God's purposes for our lives.

Therefore, all suffering can have some purpose in Christians' lives, and we can trust that if we're pursuing God's will, then our suffering is contributing to the future glory we will experience in heaven.

Footnotes:

  • 1. Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 220-221.
  • 2. Richard Rice, "No Pain, No Gain: Soul Making Theodicy" in Suffering and the Search for Meaning: Contemporary Responses to the Problem of Pain (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 57-73.
  • 3. Rice, Suffering and the Search for Meaning, 67. Unfortunately, Hick's views are not really orthodox, because he says that we live a succession of lives until we develop enough spiritual maturity to be united with God, and says mistakes are a necessary part of this world and God's purposes for people to grow, instead of evil and suffering being a result of Adam and Eve's first sin. Rice, 67-71.
  • 4. Bob Wilkin, "Is Perseverance Required for Holy Presentation? Colossians 1:21-23", Grace Evangelical Society Blog, July 15, 2016. Accessed March 18, 2019.

Feeds