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Suffering and Sanctification

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Congratulations. I compliment you on being willing to read an article with such a title. American Christians often don’t want to deal with suffering. Like most people, we try to avoid pain whenever possible. Then, when it becomes unavoidable, we try to get through it as quickly as possible.

Reality is, however, that if we are going to be like Jesus, we must accept the fact that suffering is essential. It is a tool God has used to sanctify many of His servants—even Jesus himself.

In How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, D. A. Carson writes: “There is a certain kind of maturity that can be attained only through the discipline of suffering.”

He quotes Hebrews 5:7–9: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . .” [italics added].

Carson continues, “The idea is not that Jesus was disobedient before he suffered, but that in his incarnate state he too had to learn lessons of obedience, levels of obedience, that could only be attained through suffering . . . If even Jesus ‘learned obedience from what he suffered,’ what ghastly misapprehension is it—or arrogance!—that assumes we should be exempt?”

What would happen if we viewed suffering as necessary for sanctification? How would our lives change if we understood that there is a “certain kind of maturity” that is “attained only through the discipline of suffering”?

When I wrote the first draft of this article, I had not swallowed for 18 months. As a result of an extended illness, my esophagus closed, and I’d not been able to get anything down it—food, liquid or even saliva. It is a condition called “dysphagia.” There are worse things that can go wrong with our bodies—as some readers know—but this was the unhappy condition I dealt with every day. I longed to eat. I dreamt of food. I envied others as they took a drink of cold water. I tired of spitting day and night, which is the only way I could manage my saliva.

In the months that followed, I received a miraculous touch from God, and some of my ability to swallow was restored and continues to improve. Two doctors acknowledged that this is a “miracle, not medicine.” In His sovereignty God delivered me from the worst of the crisis but allowed numerous symptoms to remain. I can only conclude that He must have a reason.

I, and perhaps you as well, need a reminder that to suffer is to be “normal.” It is not an exception or oddity. Suffering is common to man and a useful tool in the hand of God.

So let me raise the question again: What difference would it make if we viewed suffering not as something to be always avoided but as a necessary tool for becoming like Jesus?

The first result is that we would suffer with greater hope. Suffering— whether from physical pain, emotional distress, financial crisis, relational loss—can be used for good. It is okay to despise the suffering while cherishing its fruit. For this reason, in my trial I have often said, “I love the gift. I just hate the package it’s wrapped in.” If I didn’t have a sense of the good work of God in the midst of my crisis, I would sorrow as those who have no hope. Knowing that God will not waste this pain but use it for good in my life, lifts my head and my heart to better places.

The second difference is expectation. When I have the hope that God will use this trial for my good, I begin to look for ways that He is changing me. Since the trials are a refining fire, I look through the flames to see glimpses of new character emerging. Suffering with expectancy—what an odd concept! Yet, it is a truly Christian concept. We neither suffer in vain nor alone. Christ suffers with us and redeems the suffering in us.

Living with hope and expectancy despite severe trials can lead us to the pinnacle of suffering: joy. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,” James teaches us (1:2). Believing with all our being that great good arises out of great hardship, and desiring nothing on earth more than seeing the life of Christ lived through us, we can experience an otherworldly joy in adversity. I confess that I’m not there yet. I see it on the horizon some days. I have heard its voice and know it to be real, but I cannot yet testify that I have come to the summit of suffering and found joy in it. Meanwhile, I find solace in the fact that Christ himself, “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Heb. 12:2), saw it as a coming reality.

I’ve finished writing these words in a hospital room with an IV in my arm, a tube in my stomach and nagging pain throughout my body. Those are my momentary circumstances. Meanwhile, I’ve written these words in the presence of God, with peace in my spirit and a hope-filled expectancy in my heart. I trust that Christ-like character is being formed in me in the same way it was formed in Him.

He “learned obedience through what he suffered.” May we learn it as well.

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