No one wants to suffer. We may welcome small trials, counting them joy because of what they will do in us, but no one invites life-altering pain. No one wants to lie awake with a pit in the stomach, agonizing over where a disastrous situation is headed. No one wants to experience a loss so deep that we wonder how to even go on.
While we understand that rain falls into everyone’s life, no one wants a deluge. We don’t pray for it. We don’t seek it. We don’t welcome it. All we can think about is relief. Which is what we cry out to God for. Reprieve. Rescue. Deliverance.
But in Job, we discover a surprising truth: sometimes deliverance comes by affliction.
He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity. (Job 36:15)
This statement seems to make no sense at first. How can affliction deliver the afflicted? We want to be delivered from affliction, to have whatever is troubling us removed, and we pray and work to that end. So if we want rescue and relief from affliction, how can we possibly find it by affliction?
In order to be delivered by affliction, what we are being delivered from must be worse than the affliction itself. Since affliction is unpleasant at best and crushing at worst, what we are being delivered from must be a great evil. Or to say it another way, the affliction must be producing something that is far more precious than immediate relief.
So what does affliction deliver us from, and what is more precious than relief from our deep pain?
Delivered from Indifference
God “opens [our] ear” by adversity, which means our struggles make us listen more closely to him. We learn to recognize his voice, as Samuel did, when he was aware that God was speaking to him (1 Samuel 3:4–14). We can then find God’s comfort, his presence, and his direction in trials because we are actively looking for it, with eyes and ears open.
As the prophet Isaiah says,
Though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left. (Isaiah 30:20–21)
Listening to God, recognizing his voice, and heeding it above the competing voices around us will radically transform us. It will give us supernatural wisdom and clear direction; it will ultimately reshape who we are.
“Affliction draws us to the things of God because we realize the things of this world are broken.”
Psalm 119 shows us that affliction can make the word of God more effective in our lives. The psalmist points out, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word” (Psalm 119:67), and, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Affliction draws us to the things of God because we realize the things of this world are broken. Nothing is as it should be, sin has marred everything, and all creation is groaning.
Pain spurs us to search for meaning and hope beyond our present circumstances, which can open our eyes to the power and beauty of the word. This word can reframe our world, bringing light to our eyes, opening our ears, and feeding our souls. God’s word and his presence become sweeter in our suffering as we taste and see for ourselves his goodness and grace.
In my own struggle, I honestly didn’t love God’s word or listen as closely to him until after my first husband left our family. God’s word became my only hope, and it was only then that God opened my ears to hear him speaking throughout the day. I hadn’t been attuned to his voice, hadn’t strained to hear it above the din in my life, but as I pored over the Bible in my pain, God opened my ears. And there I found an unexpected delight in fellowship with Christ through his word.
Delivered from Sin
Affliction makes us aware of our sin by bringing our buried struggles to the surface. When we are satisfied and self-sufficient, we won’t see the hidden pride in our own abilities. But when life falls apart and we can’t depend on ourselves anymore, we learn to cling to God. Paul underscores this dynamic through the story of his own suffering: “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:8–9).
When despair sets in and we feel burdened beyond ourselves, reliance on God takes on a new meaning. And when he has rescued us from a horrifying situation, we learn to trust him more in the next trial. After we have seen for ourselves that our God — who owns the cattle on a thousand hills, who spoke the world into existence, and who raises the dead — is able to deliver us from any situation, we shift our focus from relying on our own abilities to relying on him.
God has taught me to depend on him through suffering. I once loved being self-sufficient, proud I could take care of myself without needing help from anyone. Yet with post-polio syndrome, I am losing the ability to care for myself, which has been agonizing from a worldly perspective, but abundantly fruitful from a spiritual one. I have asked God for more physical strength — and at times he has granted it. But at other times he has demonstrated that his power is made perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
“Affliction makes us aware of our sin by bringing our buried struggles to the surface.”
God has refined me in the furnace of affliction, softening the rough edges that I wouldn’t have discovered without the fire. On difficult days, I see how self-focused, demanding, and impatient I can be, but God is teaching me patience and a daily, often moment-by-moment reliance on him. Suffering, just like discipline, is never pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Our suffering will not be wasted — it is producing a lasting endurance and character and hope (Romans 5:2–5).
Delivered from Loving the World
Affliction makes us long for heaven because we become increasingly aware that this world is not our home. When our dreams are broken, it’s harder to be like Demas, in love with the present world (2 Timothy 4:10), and it becomes easier to heed John’s admonition not to love the world or the things in it (1 John 2:15). Our suffering will make heaven even more glorious for us and will increase our eternal joy as we glimpse what God accomplished through it.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I didn’t want Jesus to return soon — I was having too much fun on earth and didn’t think about heaven at all. My first yearning for heaven came after my son, Paul, died, when I longed to see him again. I’m still excited to see him in heaven, but I realize there is so much more awaiting me there than seeing my loved ones.
The greatest joy of heaven will be seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6), which will make everything in our lives, even our present suffering, pale in comparison. Not only is our pain not worth comparing with the joys of heaven (Romans 8:18), but it is actually preparing us for it (2 Corinthians 4:17). This isn’t to minimize our present suffering, which can feel monumental, but to encourage us in the joy that’s coming.
Mercy Greater Than Deliverance
While God delivers the afflicted by their affliction, not everyone turns to God in pain, for both Satan and God have purposes in affliction.
Satan uses suffering to turn people from faith and to convince them that God is indifferent to their deepest struggles. Some demand that God remove their suffering, and when he doesn’t, they become disillusioned and turn away. Others blame God for all the pain in the world and see suffering as a justification for their faithlessness. None of these responses will enable us to see God’s blessings in suffering, but only the painful loss. “Affliction will slay the wicked” (Psalm 34:21), because Satan uses affliction to bring disillusionment and doubt, to deconstruct our faith and to ultimately destroy us.
Thankfully, God has life-giving purposes in affliction as we turn to him. In the hands of our loving God, affliction rescues his people from evil. God uses affliction to deliver us, deepen our faith, drive us to him, and direct our paths. While being delivered from affliction is a great mercy, being delivered by affliction is a greater one. It makes us more aware of God’s voice, increases our reliance on him, and prepares us for heaven and a weight of glory beyond all comparison.