No one likes suffering, and generally, we try to avoid it. However, some suffering is unavoidable, as there are people and circumstances beyond our ability to influence. This is part of the human experience. But we are not neutral, and though suffering is inevitable, how we handle it is optional. If we greatly fear suffering, then we may be tempted to avoid it at all costs, and the weakening instinct of self-preservation might handicap us from maturing in life. God wants us to grow up and become mature Christians (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-14), and suffering is sometimes the vehicle He uses to help get us there.
As Christians, we realize some fear is rational and healthy, and this helps regulate our words and actions. Rational fear might also be labeled as healthy caution, which is a mark of wisdom. When driving on the highway, it’s good to be slightly cautious of other drivers, as this can help us avoid an accident. And, when entering a relationship with another person (i.e., friend, business partner, spouse, etc.), a little caution can save us much heartache. Solomon tells us, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Here, an ounce of prevention will save us from a pound of trouble.
Sometimes, we’re the source of our own suffering, as we make bad choices that affect us physically, socially, financially, etc. The wise will learn from their bad choices—even choices done in ignorance—and be better. And sometimes our mental and emotional distress is the product of irrational fears in which we manufacture imaginary negative situations that upset us. These are the mental dramas we construct in our thinking in which we are under attack by someone or something and feel helpless to stop the assault. These self-produced mental plays can include family, friends, coworkers, or anyone we think has the power to hurt us. But we have the power to redirect our thoughts, shut the story down, change the characters, or rewrite the script any time we want. Of course, this requires introspection and the discipline to manage our thoughts. As I’ve shared in other lessons, the stability of the Christian is often predicated on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. It’s not only what we think, but we keep on thinking that provides mental and emotional equilibrium.
As a Christian, suffering can be viewed either as a liability or an asset. A liability is a burden, a drain on one’s life and resources. However, an asset is a benefit, something that adds value to life. If we’re able to frame life’s difficulties from the divine perspective, then we can thank God for the trials He sends our way, because we know He’s using them to humble us and shape us into the persons He wants us to be. How we view the trial determines whether it makes us bitter or better. But such an attitude is a discipline of the mind.
In Paul’s second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he recorded an incident in which he’d been caught up to heaven and “heard inexpressible words” (2 Cor 12:4). But Paul’s heavenly experience came with a price. The Lord knew Paul would become prideful because of the experience, so the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh” that was intended to cause him suffering and humility (2 Cor 12:7). Though Paul did not like the suffering, he eventually came to understand it was divinely purposeful. Twice he declared it was given “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Cor 12:7). The word “exalt” translates the Greek verb ὑπεραίρω huperairo, which means “to have an undue sense of one’s self-importance, rise up, [or] exalt oneself.” It means one becomes prideful. Elsewhere in Scripture we learn “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov 16:18), and that God “is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b).
Paul asked God, on three occasions, to take the discomfort away (2 Cor 12:8). But God denied Paul’s request, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). God’s grace (χάρις charis) in this passage refers to His divine enablement to cope with a problem that He refused to remove. God’s grace was the strength necessary to cope with a problem that was greater than Paul’s ability to handle on his own. And God’s grace was in proportion to Paul’s weakness. The greater Paul’s weakness, the more grace God gave. This was a moment-by-moment grace, sufficient for Paul’s need.
As Christians, it’s legitimate that we ask God to remove our suffering; however, what He does not remove, He intends for us to deal with. This was true with Paul. God did not want to remove Paul’s discomfort because it served a purpose, and that was to keep him humble, to keep him close to the Lord. When Paul understood what God was accomplishing in him through the suffering, Paul chose to embrace it, knowing it came with divine help to shape him into a better person. Paul responded properly, saying, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9b). This was done by faith and not feelings. Furthermore, Paul said, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). The word content translates the Greek verb εὐδοκέω eudokeo, which means “to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, [to] take delight.” Paul was not a victim of his suffering, as he chose to frame it with a healthy biblical attitude. This also fulfills the command to “Do all things without complaining” (Phil 2:14), and to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18).
Elsewhere, Paul said, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). Exulting in tribulations and counting it all joy when we encounter various trials is a discipline of the mind and will, in which “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Warren Wiersbe states:
Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to “count it all joy.” If we live only for the present and forget the future, then trials will make us bitter, not better. Job had the right outlook when he said, “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So, when trials come, immediately give thanks to the Lord and adopt a joyful attitude. Do not pretend; do not try self-hypnosis; simply look at trials through the eyes of faith. Outlook determines outcome; to end with joy, begin with joy.
Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. And we cease to be the victim when we see suffering as divinely purposeful. This is not always easy, but the alternative to faith is fear, and fear brings mental slavery to the circumstances of life. By framing his weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties from the divine perspective, Paul was able to see them, not as a liability, but as an asset that worked for his benefit to help shape him into the person God wanted him to be. From God’s perspective, Paul’s Christian character was more important than his creaturely comforts. And Paul needed to have a character that was marked by humility, not pride.
It is true that God desires to bless us; and of course, we enjoy this. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But it’s also God’s will to advance us spiritually, and this means He will send us trials that are intended to burn away the dross of weak character and refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. We trust that when God turns up the heat, that He also keeps His hand on the thermostat, regulating the temperature. And when we desire and pursue spiritual maturity as an important goal in our Christian life, then we can become content, pleased, and even find delight in the hardships, because we know God controls them and sends them our way for our good. And this is done by faith, and not feelings.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- The Gospel Explained
- Biblical Self-Talk
- Rejoice, Pray, and Give Thanks
- Faith Strengthening Techniques
- When Life Gets Tough
- When God Gives Us a Test
- Walking with God
- Advancing to Spiritual Maturity
- Knowing and Doing the Will of God
- The Life of Faith
- The Sovereignty of God
- Satan as the Ruler of this World
- Satan’s Evil World-System
- Satan’s Strategies to Defeat God’s People
- Biblical Encouragement
- The Faithfulness of the Lord
 William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1031.
 Ibid., 404.
 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 338.