When you experience suffering as a Christian, how do you typically respond? Perhaps with patience, fear, or despair? Some lash out in anger while others sink into an isolated depression. Still others joyfully accept what comes their way. But how should we respond when we experience suffering? It’s a good question.
RESPONDING “RIGHTLY” TO SUFFERING
Satan’s busiest times seem to be our suffering times. When we come under external attacks of affliction and pain, it often brings out the internal attacks of temptation to sin. While this might seem unsympathetic and harsh at first mention, here’s the truth: Suffering does not give us a justifying excuse to sin. In fact, sin actually increases the pain experienced. While it might seem medicinal to “vent” in anger, binge on life-altering drugs or alcohol, and assume a full victimization mentality, these responses lead to greater internal suffering; they end up hurting us. Thus, we need to have a clear understanding of the “right” responses during times of suffering.
First, and foremost, we see in Jesus the greatest example on how to respond amidst pain and affliction. The apostle Peter encourages us to look to Christ’s example when he suffered. He writes,
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Pet. 2:22-23; 3:9).
Peter adds later, in Chapter 3, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (v. 17) and in Chapter 4, “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (v. 19). We see here that God not only ordains suffering, but that we are to respond by “doing good.” As anybody must learn about and prepare for marriage, for a new job, or for just about anything, so you must also learn about and prepare for suffering so that we might glorify God when under trial.
Jesus often prepared his disciples to suffer and the apostles prepared their readers to suffer—so that they would be ready when the time came to give glory to God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples,
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matt. 5:10-12).
Much of Jesus’ teaching actually involves preparing his disciples to suffer, and how they should respond. “In this world,” Jesus says,” you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
So what might a right response to suffering look like? A sufferer can rightly respond to suffering in one of two (or both) big-picture ways: with passive responses and active responses. Passive responses have to do with humbly affirming God’s character (sovereignty, goodness, wisdom, etc.) and trusting him and his plan for your life. This response is not signified by much outward change in your behavior. Rather, it usually expresses itself in a quiet disposition, thoughtful meditation, enduring suffering with patience, and humble submission to the King of kings and the Lord of lords—who also happens to be our heavenly Father who loves us through his Son, Jesus.
Usually, these passive responses give way to active responses. That is, when you mediate upon God’s character, cultivate patience, and joyfully submit to the will of God while suffering, your desire will often translate into actual outward expressions that complete your God-glorifying response. So what are some of these outward, active responses?
Rather than sulking in endless misery, we are called to actively improve our sufferings for profitable gain. Afflictions are made profitable to us when we draw near to God in them.
Some of these active responses might include:
- (1) Communing with God by reading and meditating upon his Word
- (2) Individual and corporate prayer
- (3) Resting in the assurance of his promises through the Lord’s Supper
- (4) Reading helpful literature on the subject
- (5) Repenting of any particular sin that has become evident during your trial
- (6) Serving others as a follower of the Suffering Servant
- (7) Intentional fellowship in your local church through corporate worship, small groups, or discipleship
Both passive and active responses provide the sufferer with the added benefit of true healing. When we respond rightly during times of suffering, we also find healing. While getting drunk, bursting out in fits of anger, or taking on the chronic “victim mentality” might seem to help ease the pain, in the end it only intensifies it. However, when we respond with faith, hope, and loving trust during times of suffering—passively and actively—we find healing and balm for our pain. In other words (and it’s worth repeating) our sin during times of suffering intensifies the pain we experience while God’s preserving grace to sustain us in times of suffering alleviates the pain we experience.
It’s important to remember that you are not alone. God is with you as a Refuge and Strength and he calls you to cling to him as the greatest Treasure in the universe. As the words to the well-known hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” remind us (from God’s perspective):
When through the deep waters, I call thee to go
The rivers of grief shall not thee overflow
For I will be with thee, in trouble to bless
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie
My grace all-sufficient shall be thy supply
The flames shall not hurt thee, I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine
Brian Cosby serves as senior pastor of Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, visiting professor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, and author of numerous books, including A Christian’s Pocket Guide to Suffering (Christian Focus, 2015).
Publication date: February 2, 2016