For many people, personal suffering is viewed from the perspective that any hardship, difficulty, or pain should be avoided at all costs. In fact, this is the orientation of secular psychology and our culture at large. It should be no wonder that a pleasure-seeking and sexualized world would promote avoiding anything that causes discomfort, hurt feelings, or even low self-esteem. When the goal of life is personal happiness, then anything that gets in the way of that pursuit (or is in any way perceived to be counterproductive to that end) should be cast off, or so the conventional wisdom goes.
But what about for those of us in the church? Do we see suffering as non-redemptive? Do we see any fruitful purpose in it, or have we gone with the world in seeing it as an inconvenience? In my own counseling experience with those who are active members of a local church and many growing up in the church, I find that their view of suffering is just as emaciated as the view of the world.
If we as biblical counselors attempt to emulate the counsel of the world, we would have to (by necessity and consistency sake) throw out a large chunk of the Bible. Adam and Eve suffered, but in spite of the curse, God’s plan of redemption took center stage (Genesis 3:15). Noah suffered, but through his obedience, especially when that obedience didn’t make sense, he provided a lifeline for the human race (Genesis 6:9-22). Elijah suffered, but in spite of his pleas for death, God’s sovereign providence and provision was made miraculously manifest (1 Kings 19:1-18). Jesus suffered, but through his death, life was provided for me, you, and our counselees. To God’s glory, the Scriptures provide for both us and our counselees much hope in the face of suffering. This doesn’t mean that we seek to suffer, but that we seek joy in the midst of our suffering. This perspective can make all of the difference in the face of trials (James 1:2-4).
In order to engage with the teaching of Scripture regarding suffering, there are three key truths that will be profitable to meditate on and embrace for ourselves and for our counselees.
First, we must abandon the faulty expectation that we should encounter no suffering in this life.
Truthfully, this is not even a realistic or practical expectation to have. Life is hard and suffering cannot be avoided in any part. In a general sense, this is true because sin impacts this world and brings about death, disease, pain, relational strife, emotional problems, frustration, and the list goes on. On a more particular note, believers should not expect to live a life free of suffering because of the One to whom we belong. Paul noted, “For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29). Christ himself spoke about the expectation of persecution to His disciples when He was giving them a real case of what to expect once He left. The world hated Jesus thus the world will hate us (John 15:18-25). If we live in such a way (or set up our counselees to live in such a way) as to expect a suffering-less existence, we are setting ourselves (and them) up for frustration and disappointment.
Secondly, we must reclaim the mercies and blessings that God often brings through suffering.
As we can see through the biblical examples above, God works out His will through all aspects of our lives, and that includes suffering. His goodness, faithfulness, and sanctifying work engages our hearts to conform us to His image. A palpable example of this is expressed by the psalmist:
You have dealt well with Your servant, O Lord, according to your word. Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments. Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I keep your word. You are good and do good; teach me Your statutes…It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces (Psalm 119:65-68, 71-72).
Similar to what we learn through the faithful witness of Job, the psalmist expresses several truths about suffering that we would do well to keep in mind.
- The Lord always deals well with His servants, even in affliction and suffering.
- The Lord can redeem suffering and affliction to bring us back to obedience.
- The Lord teaches us discernment and knowledge through suffering.
- The Lord is good in our suffering.
- The Lord (and His commandments) are made precious to us in our suffering.
We can and should remind our counselees about these mercies of the Lord. Look again closely at the passage above. Notice that in our suffering, in our hardships, and even in our questioning, the Lord remains good and does good. What a comforting truth that the Lord’s goodness, love, and faithfulness towards His children is not diminished one jot or tittle. Even if the path of life become steep or difficult to traverse, He makes a straight and clear path for His children (Romans 7:24-25; 8:28-39).
Thirdly, we must see our suffering as an avenue for blessing God and others.
As we learned, the Lord’s compassion and care for us is not diminished in our suffering, but His compassion goes beyond just the idea that He acts as our balm in the midst of trial. He has a deeper purpose in our troubles. Paul recognized this when he wrote, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). How is God blessed by our suffering as seen in this passage? Paul shows us here that God is the source of comfort. He is the one to whom thankfulness and gratitude is due. He alone makes it possible to redeem the seemingly unredeemable and uses it to bring glory to His name.
Also, we see that the comfort we are given by God is provided for another purpose. In these two verses, the word comfort shows up five times. Clearly we are called to pay attention! This comfort from God is not a mere distraction from pain. It is not a platitude. It is not an escape from present troubles. God’s comfort is supernatural peace given to us that grounds us, surrounds us, and fills our hearts with confidence in Him and His purposes despite the circumstances. When we receive this comfort, we are not to hoard it, but we are required to share and minister that comfort with others who suffer. This is a foundational aspect of biblical counseling. We, as earthen vessels, hold a precious treasure that is to be shared with others so whether our counselees are crushed, perplexed, persecuted, or struck down, they are not crushed, despairing, forsaken or destroyed (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
Be encouraged in your suffering to not lose heart! While we will experience suffering in this life, God’s plans and purposes for us are for our good and His glory!