Suffering of any kind can be a dangerous threat to faith. Pain provokes us to doubt that Jesus is better than what we have lost, whether health, money, dreams, independence, or the life of a loved one.
God’s word declares that it’s possible to face the agonizing realities of life with joy because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness (James 1:2–3), and suffering gives rise to endurance (Romans 5:3). But suffering doesn’t automatically produce pleasant things. In fact, trials commonly make people increasingly bitter, despondent, impatient, envious, or angry. If we respond in unbelief, suffering produces bitter fruit. But if we do not give up, suffering can produce a harvest of righteousness (Galatians 6:9; James 3:18).
So what practical steps can we take in the midst of suffering in order to persevere in faith?
1. Please don’t stop gathering with your church.
When our twin boys were born with a devasting condition called nemaline myopathy, we went through a season when we didn’t feel like attending corporate worship gatherings. I’m not talking about the times when we were circumstantially unable to leave the home because we had two ventilator-dependent babies. I’m talking about the times when there was something in our hearts that didn’t want to be around God’s people. That is the kind of unbelieving attitude we need to guard against.
The excuses always feel legitimate. It’s too exhausting to be around people. I don’t want to answer the same questions over and over. I can’t take the well-meaning-but-unhelpful comments.
But feelings are unreliable guides. Lack of desire to participate in the body of Christ is never a reason not to. In fact, it’s a clear and alarming reminder that we desperately need to. If we are going to persevere, it’s going to be with the help of gospel community. Hebrews 10:23–25 says,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.
Belonging to the body of Christ means belonging to a community of believers who are called to intentionally think of ways to help us not give up. Corporate worship is where we stand shoulder to shoulder with the saints, raise our voices together in worship, publicly professing that we are still clinging to Jesus.
2. Don’t stop consuming God’s word.
Suffering provides all kinds of excuses to neglect God’s word. Perhaps my schedule is so dramatically disoriented that I can’t find the time. Or the word suddenly tastes stale and falls with a hollow thud on my pallid soul. When the comfort and hope we once knew is nowhere to be found, the temptation is to quit opening the Bible.
But we have a body and a soul. That’s why we don’t live by bread alone (Matthew 4:4). It’s not a question of whether our souls will consume spiritual calories; it’s a matter of where we will find them. Instead of looking to cheap diversions that numb our souls without satisfying them, we must continue to consume the word any way we can. Read it. Listen to it. Memorize it.
Jeremiah 15:16 says, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” Keep consuming the word of God whether or not it feels like joy and delight. Keep consuming until it becomes a joy and delight. It doesn’t change our circumstances, but it changes us. It proactively fills our minds with truth that serves as a sentinel to block out the creeping lies of unbelief.
3. Don’t stop asking for help.
Anxiety, depression, marriage conflict, grief — we’ve experienced it all. While pride would keep us from admitting we need help, God’s grace humbles us by reminding us that our temptations aren’t unique to us and that God promises to enable endurance and provide ways of escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). Knowing that everyone needs help encourages us to ask for it.
God has also supplied all the resources needed to instruct, correct, and encourage us in his word (2 Timothy 3:16–17), but we often need the help of wise believers who can bring the truths of the gospel to bear upon our souls from outside of our suffering. Thankfully, God has also equipped the church with people who are gifted to instruct, admonish, and counsel others.
One practical way to not give up is to seek out wise counselors who are convinced that God’s word is sufficient for every malady of the soul. In both formal and informal settings, we want to surround ourselves with people who can gently help us identify our attitudes of unbelief and our sinful responses to suffering, and then skillfully help us remember all that God promises to be and do for us in Christ.
4. Don’t stop clinging to God’s promises.
When we look at the future through the lens of past and present pain, the only thing we feel is despair because the only thing we see is more of the same. But through faith we obtain a glorious vista that looks back on our suffering in light of eternal glory.
From that perspective, we see that our suffering will maximize our eternal joy in the glory of God. And when we see that our present suffering is producing an eternal weight of glory that eclipses our momentary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17–18), we can affirm now what we will declare then: “We would have it no other way.”
5. Don’t stop serving others.
Suffering certainly changes our capacity to serve. It upends routines, saps strength, and crowds out emotional margin. But it doesn’t change that word that says, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). Serving others is a vital part of not giving up because it guards us against toxic self-pity and gives us the opportunity to prioritize the needs of others.
Serving others also positions us to receive divine strength. “Whoever serves, [let him do so] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11). Suffering may limit the ways we are able to serve, but it can’t nullify God’s provision of strength.
Keep Looking to Jesus
These are effective ways to persevere in faith because they are all ways of fixing our eyes on Jesus, who is the only source of endurance for the fainthearted (Hebrews 12:1–3).
Corporate worship is where we are built up as members of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–16) and where our souls are nourished with the body and blood of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:23–26). We read the Bible because it points us to Jesus (John 5:39). We seek wise counsel rooted in God’s word because Jesus himself is our wisdom and our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). We cling to every promise spoken by God because they are all yes for us in Jesus (2 Corinthians 1:20). And we serve others because that mind-set is ours in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Whatever else comes our way, let us never stop looking to Jesus.