Why will God allow us to suffer as Christians if that suffering will harm our faith? It’s a question that comes in from an international listener. “Pastor John, hello! My name is Bernice. I’m 21 years old and live in Kenya, East Africa. My question stems from doubt in God’s good nature that crept in while talking to my friend about trusting God with her life and choosing to follow Jesus above all else. She won’t, and she won’t because she says following God will simply mean additional suffering and going through more trials that he causes (or allows) to happen before we can enjoy his goodness. I wonder if she’s right. Her point of view has made me question God’s goodness. Why would he cause pain to someone who trusted in him completely? Why would he allow them to suffer in ways that may injure their faith in him? Why believe if it just opens us to more suffering?”
Bernice’s friend understands something almost correctly. Sometimes almost is really good, and sometimes almost is a total loss. If you’re playing baseball, and you hit a long drive over the outfielder’s head, and you almost get a triple, but have to settle for a double, everybody’s happy. In baseball, a double is great, so almost a triple is great. But if you’re at bat, and you’ve got two strikes, and you swing at the next pitch and you almost hit the ball, you’re out totally — whether you missed it by a sixteenth of an inch or ten inches.
What Bernice’s friend sees is that when Jesus calls us to himself, he says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In other words, following Jesus involves taking up a cross, which is an instrument of suffering and death. So, she knows that it will be costly to follow Jesus, and this is keeping her away. And that’s tragic. I would like to see if I can change her mind, and in the process keep Bernice from going down that dead-end street.
Infinitely Less Suffering
Two things need to be addressed here. Here’s the first one. She says, “Following God will simply mean additional suffering and going through more trials that he causes (or allows) to happen before we can enjoy his goodness. . . . Why believe if it just opens us to more suffering?”
There are two mistakes in that sentence: one is quantitative and the other is chronological. Here’s the quantitative problem. She says, “Following God will simply mean additional suffering. . . . Why believe if it just opens us to more suffering?” Twice she says that following Christ is going to result in additional or more suffering.
“Existence, human existence, is eternal, either in the joyful presence of God or in the absence of God under his wrath.”
Now, that is quantitatively, absolutely not true. The only reason it sounds true is that it treats the vapor’s breath that we call “this life” as though it were the totality of life, when in fact our life between birth and death is an infinitesimal fraction of life, which in fact lasts forever. When you come into existence at conception in your mother’s womb, you begin a life that never ends; it goes on forever — first in this tiny, tiny fraction of life in this world, and then forever, either with joy in the kingdom of God or with misery in hell.
In Matthew 25:46, Jesus said that the unrighteous “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” Existence, human existence, is eternal, either in the joyful presence of God or in the absence of God under his wrath. Jesus said in John 3:36, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
So, back to the sentence that is quantitatively wrong: It is simply wrong to say that believing in Jesus brings more suffering. It doesn’t. It brings infinitely less suffering because it rescues from eternal suffering. Let me say that again. Believing in Jesus brings infinitely less suffering because it rescues from eternal suffering. The sentence that says, “Following God will simply mean additional suffering” is quantitatively wrong. It is infinitely wrong.
Beauty in the Very Moment
It is also wrong chronologically to say that becoming a Christian brings more trials before we can enjoy his goodness. That’s not true. The very moment that we are born again, that we become Christians — that very moment — the blindness of Satan is taken away, and we see the beauty of Christ.
- The burden of guilt in that very moment is lifted from our conscience with every sin forgiven.
- The wrath of God in that moment is taken away from us, removed.
- The Holy Spirit is poured into our lives, shedding abroad in our hearts the love of God (Romans 5:5).
- The friendship of the King of the universe is ours.
- Intimate fellowship with Christ begins.
- Bold communication in prayer is open.
- “Joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” is tasted (1 Peter 1:8).
- All bondages of sin are broken.
- Invincible hope is awakened.
- The omnipotence of God shifts from being against us to working everything together for our eternal good (Romans 8:28).
“Believing in Jesus brings infinitely less suffering because it rescues from eternal suffering.”
All of this and more begins the instant we are born again. It is simply not true to say that becoming a Christian brings more trials before we can enjoy God’s goodness. It’s precisely all this instantaneous goodness that we experience that enables us to bear the trials.
I said there were two things that needed to be addressed. That was the first one: the quantitative and chronological mistake of saying that becoming a Christian means more suffering, and that the goodness of God must wait until after the hardships before it comes.
Serving Our Salvation
The second thing that needs to be addressed is the question that Bernice raises: “Why would [God] cause pain to someone who trusted in him completely? Why would he allow them to suffer in ways that may injure their faith in him?” Now, there are at least six biblical, broad, trustworthy, satisfying answers to that question. I wrote an article called “Five Purposes for Suffering,” and just a few weeks ago, I decided I had to add a sixth. So, I now am thinking in terms of the six broad reasons for Christian suffering. I’m not going to rehearse those now. What I want to do instead is suggest for Bernice a reorientation of the way she sees the suffering of believers.
What if, instead of seeing Christian suffering as something added to our lives because we become Christians, we see our suffering as something that up till now was certain and deserved, but now, by the grace of God, has become suffering that is made to serve our salvation? That is a radical reorientation of the way you see your suffering. In other words, instead of seeing suffering as something that God randomly adds to your life, you see suffering as something that you deserved, and that was coming for sure, and that would eventually destroy you, but now God, as the all-wise, all-powerful, all-compassionate physician, miraculously causes all that suffering to serve us and not destroy us.
For example, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul says he’s got this thorn in the flesh that God has given him. Without Jesus Christ, that thorn would be entirely destructive. But because of Christ, even though that thorn is “a messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7), God makes it into an instrument of Paul’s sanctification and joy. When Paul asks that the thorn be taken away, Christ answers, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” And so, Paul responds like this: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). In other words, the very suffering that is designed by Satan for our misery and would result in eternal misery without Christ, that very suffering is turned by God into a means of our salvation.
So Bernice, I plead with you and your friend:
When you consider the sufferings of life, remember that life lasts forever, not just eighty years, and God gave his Son to restrict your suffering to a tiny fraction of that life, and then give you everlasting joy.
Reorient the way you see your sufferings, so that you see God turning deserved and inevitable sufferings into the kind of divine therapy that leads to everlasting health and joy.