Understanding suffering


James tells us that we are to count it all joy when we encounter trials (James 1:2). Trials are things which put us to the test. By testing us, they bring out what is in us, for better or for worse. We could put it this way: Pressure reveals the person. Trials may be difficulties which come from outside, such as the persecution James’ own readers were probably facing, or they may come from our own inner struggles. The trials he goes on to refer to in verses 2-4 (where the testing of our faith produces endurance) are the first kind, whereas the trials (or “temptations”) of verses 13-15 are the second. Both kinds of trials occur when negative occurrences encounter our weak and imperfect human nature.

This raises some serious questions. For instance, where do trials come from?  James answers by way of a negative. They are not directly from God, he says.  God is the author of every good and perfect gift (1:17).  Sickness and suffering were never in the purpose of God when he placed his creation in the garden. They came as a result of our rejection of God. Our lives and the creation we live in came under a curse from that moment. The curse is lifted in Christ insofar as it pertains to our condemnation as sinners (Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:1), yet both we ourselves and the creation we live in still groan in the reality of the fallenness of this present world (Romans 8:18-23). Trials, in whatever form they come, are a sign of the continuing disorder in the creation. Suffering hits indiscriminately. Jesus said the people on whom the tower of Siloam fell were no more sinful than anyone else (  ). God promises to keep us spiritually in the midst of trial. If we choose to sin, to course, we can bring trouble on ourselves. Smoking causes lung cancer. Yet there are countless people struck by cancer who love the Lord with all their heart. Trials are like nuclear fallout -- they affect everyone. The plagues of Revelation represent the judgments of God on this fallen world throughout the church age, from Christ's resurrection until his return. Christians, along with unbelievers, suffer as a consequence, yet only Christians are spiritually protected in the midst of them. Part of our joy in suffering is the realization that this life is only the doorway to an eternity in God's presence.

But a second question arises. Are trials simply indiscriminate and without meaning? To this the answer is No, certainly for the faithful Christian. James says we are to find joy in affliction because affliction kicks off a process which leads to the perfection of our faith (James 1:2-4). Paul says the same thing. We rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4). For the unbeliever, affliction becomes a cause of despair, but for the Christian, it leads on to hope. Why? Because God has always has a plan to bring good out of evil and to use everything in a positive, redemptive manner. His ways are always constructive and never destructive. God has the capacity to take the worst possible thing and still bring good out of it. What is wrong is wrong and what is evil and evil, but God can bring good out of anything. Trial in the life of the Christian is often intended to remove the false and unreliable supports of this world. This process can be painful, but in return we gain something far better: the true support that comes with the presence and comfort of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

What should our response to suffering and trial be? We aren't called to rejoice because of the suffering itself. We are called to rejoice because God has a plan to turn our suffering into joy, and in the process draw us closer to himself.  But to see this happen, we must work with Him and not against him. Blaming God is the road to death. Ultimately we have only ourselves and our corporate sin in Adam to blame for any trial. The nuclear fallout of sin may have hit you harder than the next person, and that does not make you any worse than they are. It simply means you still live in a fallen world. But remember this. God himself endured the greatest suffering in all of history in the sending and the death of his Son. Through that suffering, God produced the greatest good -- our eternal salvation.

The fact is God has kept all of us through many difficult circumstances. He has not abandoned us. We have grown through them. I regularly ask people if they have grown spiritually the most in times of suffering or times of ease. The answer is always the same. He who has kept us will bring us safely to his heavenly kingdom, and then our joy will indeed be full.