God’s Purpose in a Believer’s Suffering
“He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness.”
The Lord has significant reasons for why He will allow suffering into our lives, even great sufferings.
Our great portion is meant to be the Lord Himself. Yet we often disbelieve this and try to make the vain things of the world our portion, putting confidence in man and ourselves, rather than really having our trust in God and His ways. We fail to see how foolish our ideals, how incomplete our righteousness, and how small our faith truly are in comparison to what they are meant to be. The suffering through which the Lord brings many of His children is used to cause us to be disillusioned with the things of this world, to turn away from sin and foolishness, and to truly make God and true religion our wholehearted aim. All of this is to cause us to become truly holy, filled with the Spirit, and live truly righteous lives.
We have so many ways we get taken up with the world. We can delight in its ambitions, honors, pleasures, and its ideals of truth, wisdom, goodness, or justice. But the Lord will cross our path again and again in order to make us see the truth about man, the truth about this world, and to see the truth about Himself. He works to open our eyes, to show us that everything in this life is transient, that all of mankind is fallen (Ps 14:2-3, Jn 2:24-25), and that the aspirations of the world are a delusion—He must make us come to see how great the darkness in the world truly is. At the same time, He shows us where true Light is found—that He is the Living God, the great Light in Whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5), and our refuge is in Him. As we follow Him down this path, He leads us into a far greater understanding of the only place wisdom, goodness, life, and truth are found, and that it is only in a wholehearted submission and devotion to our Lord whereby we will walk in these things.
The reason this is so essential for believers is because a great majority of saints imagine that a partial holiness is enough. We rest satisfied, and spend our time in one petty thing or another, when we are all meant to be deeply focused on seeking God and becoming truly sanctified in our Lord. This sanctification is meant to be our deepest concern (Phil 3:12), and the whole aim of our lives. This sanctification is not merely “icing on the cake” of our saved souls—it is the salt of the saved soul, and if we do not walk it, we will be like salt without flavor (Matt 5:13)—empty of anything to offer, and greatly endangered.
And this is precisely what God uses afflictions for—to drive us to live for what we are actually meant to live for. To cut off all this self satisfaction, to break down our pride, love for strife, love for the commandments and opinions of men, affection for worldly ways, and outright spiritual idleness. The Lord is holy, and He and His work in Christ is to save us from our sins, to make us holy (Col 1:22). He "gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works." (Titus 2:14) Yet it is only all too common to hear people practically deny that the work of the Gospel is to make us holy. A great many today rejoice in the truth that the Gospel saves us from condemnation, but far less rejoice in the truth that the Gospel cleanses us from all of the sins that are so condemnable. Yes, to make us a little more moral, yes to save us from the wrath of God, but rarely do we love the Gospel that is meant to cleanse us of all sins. Over and over we resist God in the truth that His Gospel is far greater than we make it out to be. We are meant to dwell full of faith, godliness, truth, and love (1 Tim 6:11, 2 Tim 2:22). And in this we are meant to be prepared for heaven, a place where only holiness dwells: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 5:23) Also see the whole of Psalm 15.
How far does the church drift away from this purpose of true religion? And is it not worth all the suffering God will bring into our lives to bring us back to the reality of Christ? To living as we are meant to (Titus 2:11-14)?
When we are in bitterness of heart, it’s easy to think that God is cruel to us and causes us to suffer without reason. But if we only knew how much sin, foolishness, and worldliness there is in us, we’d see how necessary suffering is to drive our sin out of us and make us truly holy. To be truly holy, that is, to be perfect. Where every part of goodness finds its home in our mind, hearts, and actions, where every form of evil is shunned and despised. It is this settling for a partial goodness that is so wrong of us. We fail to understand that only in everything finding its right place is true goodness upheld. So I can love truth, but if I do not also love gentleness and respect, born of true change in the heart, then I am unbalanced and will do harm. I can love mercy but if I do not also love justice, then I am off balance and will work harm. The perfection of God is not some “perfectionism”; it is everything being set right—everything. Not a few things, but everything. And as believers of Jesus Christ, we are meant to aim at this holy perfection in our own lives. Anything less than this reveals evil hatred, bias, spiritual laziness, and love for sin in us. This perfection, and seeking of this perfection is what is so sorely lacking in many believers' lives.
God crossing us, getting in our way again and again, bringing suffering, pain, confusion, or even trauma into our lives is something that is so hard to understand. But the pathway forward for us in such suffering is not to seek out merely escaping it, but to seek to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in it. Allowing Him to teach us, to reveal things to us, and to bring about real change in us. In the deepest darkness can be the greatest work of God, blessing us by causing us to actually change, to truly share His holiness and be prepared for heaven (Heb 12:10). Praise God that He is faithful to afflict us that we might share in such great things as these.
Many of us do not realize or accept just how far away we are from what Christ calls His church to be. Without afflictions and without faithfulness on our part to truly seek the Lord, we’ll never see just how great perfect holiness is, how great true religion is meant to be, and we will continue to settle for all these lower forms of it. But that is not what Christ died for; He died to make us perfectly holy. Not so we could settle for the morality of a hallmark card, for our politics, our little ministries and opinions, our prejudice and judgments we deal out, our lazy indifference to His glory and the great need of the Gospel in this earth, or so we could argue about certain topics again and again… He died so we might be actually holy, that we might pursue the perfection of holiness. This is the call of the Christian. And without suffering and/or true integrity on our part, we will all continue to try and make all these things our portion rather than what Christ says to make our portion: God, heaven, and holiness.
If God so breaks us, even in the greatest ways, is it not worth suffering for Christ’s sake so that we might finally get back on track to what we are called to be in Christ? Is He not worth it? Is His Kingdom and Gospel not worth it? God afflicts us so that we might live our lives as Christians are intended to live. That we might follow in the example of Paul, as he sought to live like the Lord. To be so changed, to live for Christ, His Kingdom and Gospel, for heaven and for holiness, is worth whatever we will suffer. And if we are faithful to Christ in whatever suffering we face, even if we don’t fully understand what to do or which way to go, the Lord will surely work such great things into our lives.
Now briefly a word to those who aren’t suffering. Many people fret when they aren’t suffering because they feel this alone grants them a deeper walk with God. No, obedience grants you a deeper walk with God. In reality, the path the suffering person is being called to by God is not a path merely of suffering, but what?—a path of obedience in the suffering. That of following the Spirit, kneeling before the Lord to learn from Him, and fervently seeking by prayer that God would change us into His image. So do not create your own crosses, you’ll only find them to be vanity and foolishness in the end. Rather, the course is the same for all: seek God, obey Him, and fight to live to all He says. And if the Lord brings a cross to you, then take heart, it is God’s good purpose.
And with this a brief word about suffering. Suffering is not sacred. We must be terribly careful of believing the lie the world believes, that suffering itself is some significant thing. No, again, our obedience to and seeking of Christ is what makes a difference in our lives. Without our suffering being of Christ in this way, we will fall into the foolishness of the world. The world lives by their imaginations and desires in their sufferings, ascribing their own meanings and endings to them. And this sort of thinking greatly deceives them, leading them into even deeper sin, pride against God and man, and believing in themselves over God, consoling themselves with empty ideas (Prov 28:26, Matt 6:23). Be terribly careful of the council of the world in this way (Psalm 1:1). Remember it is the following of Christ in our suffering that is the promise, not suffering itself. It is those who love God for whom all things work together for good (Rom 8:28), so simply, humbly, choose the love of God.
Believer, your seeking of and obedience to Jesus Christ is everything you need, wherever you find yourself. In suffering or pleasantness, in darkness or light, sorrow or joy, our hope is never in these externals, it is in Christ Himself and the keeping of His Word. Anything external is never the point. We love to think that things of circumstance or of the flesh are what matter, and we give ourselves to trying to change external things, when that’s not what is needed. We need to see that the only distinction is keeping with Christ or not. If we look closer at God’s purposes in suffering what do we see? What is the person rebuked to? To suffering? No, but "Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word." (Psalm 119:67) It is to the keeping of God's Word. So take courage, your hope is in keeping God's Word, never in externals. This is where the promise of growth and the fruits of righteousness are (John 8:31-32).
Suffering is never a welcome presence in our lives, but as believers, we can receive it from God with hope. If only we remain faithful, if only we fight to listen to what the will of God is, what the Spirit is leading us in, what sins God hates, what foolishness we’ve indulged in, and what worldly things we’ve loved—these are often things we will never see for what they are, but for walking the path of suffering with Christ. This process can be terribly humiliating and painful. It often does not make sense to us at the time. But do not be afraid to hope in Christ and continue to be faithful to the Lord through these afflictions. He has such great purposes in it, work that cannot be done another way, and which produces much fruit.
“...and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Not only that,
but we rejoice in our sufferings,
that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,
and hope does not put us to shame,
because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
March 11, 2022