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 (Manna 64: Dealing with Calamities)
Understanding Suffering
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Understanding Suffering

FF Chong—London, United Kingdom

Nobody in his right mind enjoys suffering. Suffering brings pain and breaks down the normal cycle of life. It disturbs the balance of peace in the heart, which, in turn, influences the ability to interact normally with others, to exhibit life’s vibrancy to the full. In severe cases, suffering can threaten the very existence of a person. For this reason, we try to avoid it.

The Bible’s teachings regarding suffering, however, are very different from our common concepts. Suffering can appear in various forms, such as tribulation, sickness, setbacks, disasters and even death. The Scriptures define it as a necessary part of Christian life.  It is always there, and we are required to go through suffering in order to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

Although perplexing at the time, suffering is good for Christians. In order to understand the significance of suffering, we need to fine-tune our mindset with the word of God. This will ease the stresses related to suffering and enable us to perceive God’s purpose for us during trials. In addition, it will help us to reach spiritual maturity.

Reasons for suffering

There are two main reasons for a Christian’s suffering: suffering for righteousness’ sake and suffering for sin.

Suffering for sin

Peter warns us not to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or a busybody in other people’s matters (1 Pet 4:15), since God is righteous and will not allow a sinner to go unpunished (Nah 1:3; Ex 34:7; Num 14:18).
If we sin, there are two possible prospects: punishment during our lifetime or everlasting condemnation.

No credit can be given for suffering patiently in punishment for our wrongdoings (1 Pet 2:20a). Instead, this kind of suffering simply serves to underline the fact that every single choice of ours has a consequence. This echoes Paul’s message: “he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal 6:8a; Prov 22:8). The result of this corruption is to suffer punishment. This is a divine principle that we cannot ignore. Consequently, if we persistently satisfy the desires of our flesh, we do not only commit grave sin, but also mock God and despise His grace.

Once we have sinned, repentance is the only way forward. If we cover or hide our sins, we will not prosper, but if we confess and forsake them, we will receive mercy (Prov 28:13). Therefore, we can only obtain God’s forgiveness if we truly confess with our actions. No matter how painful it may be, we must resolutely humble ourselves to suffer the shame of our transgression (Ps 38:18). If we do not, the weight of sin will become more and more unbearable (Ps 38:17) and eventually drain out every ounce of energy needed to live a normal life in the Lord.

In addition, we must stop repeating the same wrong. The more we indulge in the same sin, the heavier the punishment and the harder it will be for us to shake off sin. Subsequently, we may develop a rebellious resistance to change.
Thus, our acts of repentance must be genuine and from the heart. Any change of heart must reflect the teachings of the prophet Joel: “Turn to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning” (Joel 2:12–13).

Suffering for righteousness’ sake

In this world of sin, suffering for righteousness’ sake is not only unavoidable but is on the increase—the world can no longer tolerate deeds of the light. What was once deemed good is now offensive and unacceptable. Sins have been legalized in many societies, which has blurred and often erased distinctions between right and wrong. Some genuine Christians are labeled as scum of the earth, ‘of whom the world is not worthy’ (Heb 11:38) and are not welcome anywhere: “Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12).

Quite often this type of persecution comes from within the community of faith. The ancient saints, for example, were persecuted for proclaiming the truth to their people. Some were hated as a result. Jesus’ reprimand to the scribes and Pharisees underlines their brutality, which they practiced against those who came into their synagogues in the name of the Lord. They persecuted them from city to city, scourged them in the synagogues and even killed and crucified some of them (Mt 23:34–35).

It is, therefore, not much of a surprise when Christians are reviled when they speak up for a righteous cause. We may well be criticized if we provide reminders for the good of the church, for the Bible has already foretold that a time will come when sound advice will no longer be tolerated. The situation will only continue to deteriorate. Evil men (believers) and imposters (false prophets) will grow worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived (2 Tim 3:13; cf. Dan 12:10; Rev 22:11). They will neither respect anyone, nor revere God. Instead, they will view criticism as hate crime.

Living a life in Christ after conversion is more often than not full of tribulations and trials. Sometimes, we find ourselves in difficult circumstances for no apparent reason; life may become tumultuous—this is another form of suffering. These episodes in our life can affect our interaction and relationship with others, building up tension and hostility. We may also feel that no one is able to sympathize with our plight. Continuing our journey of faith and offering services to God may become an increasingly heavy burden. Eventually we may even reach a point where we are totally absorbed by the problem itself (cf. Ps 77:3).

Benefits of suffering

At times, it is hard for us, who have existed in our comfort zones for so long, to fully realize the value of suffering to our spirituality. The tendency is to stay where we are and increase the level of comfort, so that we can enjoy life to the full. It is very difficult to imagine anyone in that position wanting any part with suffering. In most cases, the need to delve truthfully into our spiritual existence ends up being eclipsed by the hurly-burly of everyday, material life. The strong sense of pursuing God slowly disintegrates because we do not fully understand the good of exercising godliness.

For this reason, we find it particularly tough to comprehend suffering when it does occur. However, we need to remember that the grace of God fills every aspect of our lives, whether in times of prosperity or adversity. Moreover, we have received the Holy Spirit to help us understand why we suffer—“that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God” (1 Cor 2:12). Sometimes it takes suffering to achieve what we could not have done by our own will; suffering ushers us into an understanding that puts our spiritual growth above everything else.

A Humbling Process

When the going gets tough in life, we have to learn to pull ourselves out from this vortex of negative feelings and depression. In order to do so, we must take a crucial step back to refocus on the Spirit’s guidance. We will then realize we have been lacking the basic motivation to trust in God. Our relationship with God may not have been as good as we thought it was. To re-align our trust in God, then, becomes an exercise that we need to embrace with gratefulness and thanksgiving. Each time we suffer, we are actually given a chance to grow in faith.

At this point, coming from suffering to the realization of God’s grace reminds us that we cannot do anything without Christ. We then begin to see our worthlessness and start to trust in God more than anything else. Instead of relying on ourselves, we count on the Lord in whatever we endeavor to do, putting Him first in our life. Carefully following His principles and accomplishing His purpose for us will then be at the forefront of our Christian living and servitude. This mindset will, in turn, reinforce the importance of walking humbly with the Lord (Mic 6:8).

A Refining Process

Sometimes we are well aware of our shortcomings and we desire to change for the better as well as to conduct ourselves appropriately before God and man. However, as much as we have this determination, we often do what we actually abhor and fail miserably to control ourselves. Initially, this may prove to be very tormenting to our sense of justice and moral conscience. However, as time goes by and through repeated action, we end up feeling numb to our wrongdoings and eventually accept our behavior as ‘normal’.

In all honesty, this is an ongoing battle that we will have to fight until we reach perfection. In order to overcome such dilemmas and to rid ourselves of sin, suffering must play its part. This is a painful process. Yet, no matter how difficult it may be, drastic action must be taken to stop stubbornly repeating the same sin. Otherwise, this kind of stubbornness will always remain a stumbling block that stifles personal spiritual growth and hinders the progress of the church. In the worst-case scenario, it may cause others to fall and drive truth-seeking friends away from believing in Christ.

Isaiah vividly describes the refinement of the house of God; his description shows that Israel was purged quite radically. Since the severity of their sins was such that they could not be cleansed through mere warnings from the prophets, the children of Zion had to be delivered into the hands of their enemy, which is likened to passing through fire (Isa 4:3–5). This was the only way to create willingness in them to return to God in repentance and to transform their sinful nature.

Peter picks up the same theme as he reminds the scattered believers about the benefits of suffering. His teaching clearly shows that it is always hard for us, in the flesh, to respond positively to God’s word without fail. Yet, if Christ learned to obey the Father through His suffering (Heb 5:7–9), shouldn’t we also prepare ourselves to suffer? In fact, if we want to stop sinning, our flesh has to suffer. We have to curb and put to death its desire, stopping it from enticing us (1 Pet 4:1). In this way, suffering helps us to do what our strength alone cannot do: it turns us away from sin.

Living the rest of our lives for the will of God is definitely impossible without the aid of suffering (1 Pet 4:2). Therefore, we have to arm ourselves with the mind to suffer—otherwise we will be fighting a losing battle, in danger of forfeiting even our spiritual lives. A notable example is Paul’s confession of the wearing-away of his body, which served to renew his inner man (2 Cor 4:16).

Once we have equipped ourselves with this mindset, it will lead us to perfection.

A Faith-building Process

To many of us, the realization of an eventual heavenly kingdom may be a far-fetched dream beyond our reach and concrete understanding. However, the saints were capable of seeing the heavenly city that God has prepared for them (Heb 11:14–16). The writer of Hebrews concludes that they were able to see afar because of their faith in God. For this reason, they called God their God, with whom they walked in faith.

Their lives on earth were characterized by continual suffering. These tribulations were intended to purify and strengthen their faith in the Lord. Recognizing the fact that they were merely sojourners and pilgrims in this world, they decided to live a life of wandering. Their faith can be likened to a window, which opened up to a view of their eventual home, away from this world of toil and sadness (Heb 11:13). The stronger their faith grew through suffering, the clearer they were able to visualize their heavenly home, and the greater their urgency to gain access to this inheritance.

In 1 Peter 1:4, apostle Peter does not give any clues as to how the suffering saints can escape the brunt of pain in times of persecution. Instead he points them to the reality of an incorruptible and undefiled inheritance, which is reserved for them alone. For this reason, the believers of Peter’s time rejoiced and, as a natural result of faith (2 Thess 1:4), exhibited a continual love for God in their suffering (1 Pet 1:8).

Suffering trains our faith and patience, deepening our yearning for the kingdom of God. This connection between faith and suffering is therefore crucial for our salvation.

However, danger is always real when our faith is superficial. Without genuine faith, God lifts His protection away from us, exposing us to the fearsome devises of the evil one. So, our pursuit in life should be to strive for the genuineness of faith. Instead of being wrapped up in pretences, polishing our faith in trials should be a matter of utmost importance, and each suffering moment should be taken as a chance to better ourselves. When we are purged by suffering (Rev 7:14), our faith is refined and becomes more precious than ever before, qualifying us for the crown of life (Jas 1:12).

A Testing Process

Since God is Spirit, we may, at times, find it difficult to fathom Him fully. If, in addition, we do not have any real encounters with Him, we will easily start to think of God as only a form of knowledge. This is especially so when life is smooth and relaxed. During those times, life becomes very much entangled with materialism and worldly entertainment. Such an existence creates a distance between God and us. We know about God but, in reality, do not give substance to that knowledge. If we remain in such a situation for a prolonged period of time, we will lose sight of God altogether.

We must be brought back to our senses and perceive God in a real sense through trials. The Exodus Generation, who wandered forty years in the wilderness, is a notable example. Their suffering was designed to help them know who the Lord God really was (Deut 29:4–6). It not only revealed to the people what God had provided for them in their daily lives, but also reminded them of His constant care. For forty years, their sandals and clothes did not wear out, and, although there were countless occasions where grave dangers arose in their lives, God never failed to aid them.

When we live a life of ease, we become undisciplined in keeping the word of God. Suffering, however, increases our willingness to abide by the truth. The Exodus Generation’s wandering in the wilderness was intended to test their hearts and to find out if they would keep the commandments or not (Deut 8:2–3). Similarly, we do not truly know whether we can resolve to follow the Lord unless we are put to the test in tribulations. Such testing also helps us to understand ourselves deeper and provide a better idea of what we need to improve.

Although testing is never pleasant, the benefits it produces are tremendous. These benefits include establishing a healthy relationship with the Lord and remembering His providence and grace. Suffering will erase the desire to drift away from the Lord and follow idols, visible or invisible. We will realize that everything comes from the Lord, our provider. It will spark our resolve to honor God wherever we are (Deut 8:16–18). Without suffering, our talents and strength would prove too big an obstacle to overcome, hindering us from remaining faithful to God.

BE READY TO SUFFER

Since it is beneficial for us to go through suffering, Peter tells us that we are to expect tribulations in our lives (1 Pet 4:17). If we suffer according to the will of God, we become partakers of Christ’s sufferings. In fact, Jesus was exalted through His sufferings. In like manner, when we suffer, we enter into the sufferings of Christ, through which we shall be exalted together with Him when He comes again.

Being able to suffer for Christ is commendable, but we may still find it hard to bear. Although the way forward may not be readily recognizable in times of suffering, we ought to be patient and believe that the Spirit of God rests upon us (1 Pet 4:14). This attitude will direct our hearts into the love and patience of Christ (2 Thess 3:5). We will focus on committing ourselves to Him in doing good (1 Pet 4:19). In this way, we will follow Christ’s example when He was severely reviled (1 Pet 2:23) and, at the same time, free ourselves from the burden of anxiety.

If we fall into various trials for the sake of Christ, we must count it as joy as we shall receive tremendous blessings (Jas 1:2; 1 Pet 4:14). We will become vessels of God to magnify His power in these trials. Most importantly, we will be instruments of God’s glory (1 Pet 4:14, 16), which is the ultimate aim of every Christian who loves the Lord. For this reason, we should always give thanks to God for being able to suffer for Him (1 Pet 4:16)—a glorious task that not everyone is privileged to undertake.

 

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Author: FF Chong
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