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Is There Purpose to Suffering in the Christian Life?

  • Veronica Neffinger

    Veronica Neffinger wrote her first poem at age seven and went on to study English in college, focusing on 18th century literature. When she is not listening to baseball games, enjoying the…

  • 2016 Nov 15

No one wants to face trials and experience suffering. Most of us spend a great deal of time trying to avoid suffering. We would rather ignore the many times Jesus or the apostles tell us we will suffer as Christians.

This impulse to avoid pain and suffering is normal and logical for human beings. The gospel, however, often turns what we view as normal and logical directly on its head.

In the article “Does Christianity Make Life Harder” on Pastor John Piper’s Desiring God website, author Tony Reinke discusses the role suffering plays in the Christian life and how our union with Christ will likely bring greater suffering, but also greater glory.

Reinke poses two questions:

  1. Does being united to Christ give meaning to the suffering we experience in this life?
  2. Does being united with Christ mean that we will experience more suffering?

Essentially, Reinke has found the answers to both questions to be yes.

Suffering in the Christian life is not random or arbitrary, but our suffering is given greater meaning when we remember that Jesus also suffered.

Renike quotes author Rankin Wilbourne who says that “We are united to the One whose whole life was perpetual crucifixion.”

Jesus suffered on the cross for our sins, but He also felt the burden of those sins every day he walked the earth. And now in heaven He is a High Priest who can relate to our suffering.

“This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

Jesus told His followers that the servant is not greater than the master and “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Logically, then, we can expect to face trials as Jesus did. And yet, we know that Jesus endured all the trials He faced, looking forward to a time when all would be made right--”who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). This also gives meaning to the sufferings we face. They remind us that a better day is coming when Christ will restore all things and make all things new.

But what about the second question?

Not only does living the Christian life mean that the suffering we experience--whether physical pain, loss of a loved one, a family tragedy--has meaning and is not arbitrary, but it also means that, as Christians, we will experience specific suffering as Christ-followers.

Many Christians around the world experience this as overt persecution and sometimes even martyrdom (To read more about these persecuted Christians and how you can pray for them, click here). That is not the reality for most of us in the Western world, but we also will experience trials because of our faith.

There is always a cost to taking up your cross. Perhaps it is a strained relationship with a family member due to your faith, or perhaps it is the hard decision of going against the rest of the crowd at school or work or with your friends.

Reinke writes that many Christians read Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 12 “When I am weak, then I am strong” to mean that we are weak in ourselves, but strong in Christ. That is only partly of what the passage means, however, says Reinke.   

“I think people read this passage as though Paul is saying that we are weak in ourselves but strong in Christ. But he’s saying that our weakness is also a function of our union with Christ, because we share in his distinctive sufferings, not on the level of their atoning power, but in terms of the model of their fruit-bearing character.”

This tells us as Christians that our suffering is not only inevitable, but that it has meaning, and specifically, God is using these trials to grow our faith and allow us to bear fruit--something we cannot do apart from Christ (John 15:5).

A devotional on about bearing spiritual fruit puts it this way:

“The simple truth is that there is not much use in a fruit tree that doesn’t grow fruit, just like there isn’t much use in a Christian that isn’t living out Christ’s teachings. God made us, the Church, to be people of growth and action. It is his desire that we constantly seek to mature in our faith.”

Although it may seem contrary to us, trials and suffering are often what God uses to make us grow more like Christ. That is the beauty of the gospel--it is often contrary to the world’s way of thinking, and yet so much richer and deeper.


Will you be open today to how Christ is using pain and suffering in your life to draw you to Him?


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Publication date: November 15, 2016

Veronica Neffinger is the editor of