Why Do Christians Suffer?

Bob RoaneLoving and Trusting God, Prayer, Praise, Worship

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1 Peter 4:12-14)

Much Afraid

Hannah Hurnard (1905–1990) was an independent missionary to Israel and a Christian author. She is best known for her allegorical novel, Hinds’ Feet on High Places.1 The book contains some theological errors, so I can’t endorse it.2 But I do want to borrow an illustration from Hurnard’s book. Whereas Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory that deals with the overall Christian journey, Hinds’ Feet focuses on overcoming a life of fear, anxiety, and worry.

The main character in the book is named Much-Afraid. She is constantly criticized and harassed by her family, the Fearings. But Much-Afraid loves the Shepherd (representing Jesus Christ), who takes her to a pleasant land in the far mountains. For her journey, the Shepherd gives her two companions, sisters named Sorrow and Suffering. The Lord intends these companions to help her, not harm her. At one point in the journey, Much-Afraid is tempted to give in to pride and cease following Christ. She calls upon her Chief Shepherd who rescues her. He gently rebukes her that she should not have let go of the hands of Sorrow and Suffering. This echoes many Scriptures which teach that God uses pain and problems to strengthen our faith in Him and our grip on Him. Unfortunately, we often don’t want to go through hard things to be blessed by God.

The Lord’s Bigger Purposes

John Piper says: God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them. There is no power in the universe that can stop the Lord from fulfilling His totally good plans for you. You only see a tiny fraction of what God is doing in your life and the part you do see may make no sense to you. Philosopher Simone Weil says: “The extreme greatness of Christianity lies in the fact that it does not only seek a supernatural remedy for suffering but a supernatural use for it.”3

Some of God’s Reasons

Elisabeth Elliot’s book, A Path Through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship Between God’s Mercy and Our Pain, is a gem! Joni Eareckson Tada said, “Next to your Bible, this treasured classic could be your best guide in cultivating genuine good for your soul, no matter how harsh the suffering.” In an appendix to her book, Elliot lists some (not all) of the reasons that God ordains hardship in the lives of His repenting and believing children. She groups these reasons into four categories and the Scripture references are not exhaustive. I use this list in classes and number items for ease in discussion.

  1. We suffer for our own sake:
    1. To learn who God is — Ps 46:1,10; Dan 4:24-37; Job
    2. To learn to trust Him — 2 Cor 1:8-9
    3. To learn to obey Him — Ps 119:67,71
    4. Discipline is a proof of the Father’s love and the validity of our adoption — Heb 12:5-11
    5. Suffering is a consequence of discipleship — Acts 14:22; Luke 14:26-27,33
    6. And is required of Jesus’ soldiers — 2 Tim 2:3-4
    7. We are “pruned” so that we may bear fruit — John 15:2
    8. And be shaped into Christ’s image — Rom 8:29
    9. And be shaped as fellow-heirs with Christ — Rom 8:17
    10. And be shapes for God’s kingdom — 2 Thes 1:4-5
    11. To qualify us to reign with Christ — 2 Tim 2:12
    12. To strengthen our faith — James 1:3; 2 Thess 1:4-5; Acts 14:22
    13. To test and refine our faith — Isaiah 43:2; Dan 11:35; Mal 3:2; 1 Cor 3:13; 1 Pet 1:7
    14. To make us spiritually mature — James 1:4
    15. God’s power is demonstrated in our weakness — 2 Cor 12:9
    16. To produce in us endurance, character, hope — Rom 5:3-4
    17. To produce in us joy and generosity — 2 Cor 8:2
  2. We suffer for the sake of God’s people:
    1. So they may obtain salvation — 2 Tim 2:10
    2. To give them courage — Phil 1:14
    3. Because of death working in us, life may work in them — 2 Cor 4:12; Gal 4:13; 1 John 3:16
    4. So that grace may extend to more — 2 Cor 4:15
    5. So that our generosity may bless others — 2 Cor 8:2
  3. We suffer for the world’s sake:
    1. To show them love and obedience to God — Job; John 14:31; Matt 27:40-43
    2. To make the life of Jesus visible in our ordinary human flesh — 2 Cor 4:10
  4. We suffer for Christ’s sake:
    1. To be identified with Him in His crucifixion — Gal 2:20
    2. Suffering is a consequence of faith in Jesus — Psalm 44:22; Acts 9:16, 14:22; 2 Tim 3:12; John 15:18-21; 1 Thess 1:6, 3:4
    3. To share His suffering — 1 Pet 4:12-13; Phil 1:29, 2:17, 3:8-10; Col 1:24; 2 Tim 1:8; Heb 13:13
    4. To share His glory — Rom 8:17-18; Heb 2:9-10; 2 Cor 4:17

God’s prophet Habakkuk says: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, He enables me to tread on the heights.4

Prayer: Lord Jesus, you know your sheep by name, be our Shepherd this day. When we are burdened by the cares of life, give us rest. When we are helpless against the enemies of our souls, be our Defender. When we are hungry, feed us. When we are weary, restore us. When we are vulnerable, protect us. Guard us, keep us, shield us, so that we may experience your loving care this day and all our lives. We pray in your name. Amen.5

Notes (various Bible translations): 1 Christian Literature Crusade (1955).     2 See “The Problematic Theology of Hinds’ Feet on High Places.”     3 Gravity and Grace (2002).     4 Habakkuk 3:17-19.     5 Adapted from a prayer by W. David O. Taylor.