Dr. Tim Savage is the Senior Pastor at Camelback Bible Church in Paradise Valley, Arizona. He is the author of three books: No Ordinary Marriage; The Church: God's New People; and Power Through Weakness. Dr. Savage received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He is a founding member of The Gospel Coalition and active blogger. Read the first part of this series at The Reason for Christian Suffering. You can follow his personal blog at www.timothybsavage.com.
God has a supernatural use for our suffering. He uses suffering to transform us into the image of Jesus Christ. He uses suffering to make us fit vessels for his limitless power. He uses suffering to mold us into fruitful ambassadors of Christ.
For evidence of this reality, we need only to look at the apostle Paul. Few people in the history of the church of Jesus Christ have suffered more acutely than Paul. The three catalogues of woes in 2 Corinthians (4:8-9; 6:8-10; and especially 11:21-29) provide ample testimony to the painful nature of Paul’s suffering. Significantly, few people in the history of the church of Jesus Christ have ministered as fruitfully as Paul. Acute suffering and fruitful ministry seem to go hand in hand – indeed, Paul sees a direct link between the two. “Death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12), says the apostle, forging a causal link between his “death” and the “life” of his Corinthian converts, between his sufferings and their spiritual transformation (see 2 Corinthians 13:9).
How do we interpret this link? How does suffering produce fruitful ministers of Christ? The link is not unique to Paul. Nor is it even unique to the New Testament. We see it also, for example, in the second century B.C., in the horrific pogroms against God’s people by the notorious Antiochus IV. In the book of Daniel, the persecutions of this cruel tyrant are predicted in grisly detail. “He [Antiochus IV] shall come into the glorious land [Judea]. And tens of thousands shall fall” (Daniel 11:41). The suffering will be excruciating: many will fall “by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder” (verse 33). But good will come of it. “They shall receive a little help” (verse 34). In particular, “some of the wise shall stumble [i.e., suffer] so that they may be refined, purified, and made white, until the time of the end” (emphasis added, verse 35). There is thus a purpose to their suffering – so that they may be made new.
Every one of us wants to be made new. We want to be “refined,” if it means worrisome distractions are deleted from our thinking. We want to be “purified,” if it means tarnished memories are erased from our record. We want to be “made white,” if it means dark spots are removed from our hearts. We want to be made perfect, fresh, and sparkling. We want to be made new. How does it happen? According to Daniel, through suffering. “The wise shall suffer, so that they may be refined, purified, and made white.’
Suffering does what nothing else can do – it knocks out the props from under us. It removes the things we lean on for stability, security, and comfort. It chops a leg off the stool supporting the weight of our lives, so to speak. For instance, when a cherished relationship turns sour, it knocks a leg out from under us. When an alarming diagnosis is delivered by the doctor, it knocks a leg out from under us. When we are passed over at work for a promotion, or for a year-end bonus, it knocks a leg out from under us. When we are subjected to social ostracism for our faith in Jesus Christ, or – is the day coming? – when we are subjected to physical persecution for bowing to Jesus as Lord, it knocks a leg out from under us.
And every time a leg is chopped off, we fall – indeed we crash – to the ground. And the fall hurts; it produces suffering. But something else happens to Christians. If we suffer enough, if enough legs are cut out from under us, if enough of our props are stripped away and there is nothing left to hold us up, if we have no leg to stand on, we have little option but to turn to the One who all along was alone able to hold us up: our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
There is nothing as potent as suffering to remind us that too often we find ourselves perched atop rickety stools, relying on things entirely unfit to sustain the weight of our lives. Suffering chastens erroneous thinking and exposes vain distractions. By removing all the props, suffering leaves us with the only thing worth leaning on – our Lord. Suffering proves the delusion of relying on anything other than Christ. Suffering, therefore, refines us from what distracts us from God, purifies us from burdensome memories and habits, and whitens us from the darkness of self-dependence.
It is therefore hardly surprising that when Paul implores the Lord to put an end to his suffering, asking three times for the removal of a tormenting thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:8), never once does the Lord refer to the thorn, let alone seek to remove it. Instead, he allows the thorn to remain, as if approving this painful affliction. How can this be? How can a good God approve of our affliction? Because in the Lord’s mind there is something more important than being free of pain: that of being dependent on his grace. And it is suffering, more than anything else, that drives us into the waiting arms of that grace. In response to Paul’s repeated request to remove the thorn, the Lord simply said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Not only would Paul’s suffering persist, it would also one day grow so intense that Paul would despair of life itself. “We were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:8-9). So acute was Paul’s pain that he was ready to give up on life itself, even welcoming his own demise. But to God there was a greater end than the end of Paul’s suffering. It was to incline Paul’s heart more fully to himself. As the apostle would learn, suffering would become the means of his inner transformation, given “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
When, through suffering, we are drawn to rely entirely on the Lord, relinquishing the customary props and seeking the strength for life and ministry in the Lord alone, then the Lord finds us vessels fit for an infilling of his limitless power, equipping us to minister the riches of Jesus Christ fruitfully in our world. The people the Lord uses most for his glory are often the people who endure the most hardship. It was the case for Paul, whose suffering rendered him weakest of all (2 Corinthians 11:29). It was the case for Jesus, who was made perfect through suffering (Hebrews 2:10). And it will be the case for other fruitful ministers of the Lord (2 Timothy 3:12).
As followers of Jesus Christ, we must not be surprised by our suffering. We must not shrink from it. We must not be frightened by it. We must not let it throw us off our stride. We must not run from it. But neither should we pursue suffering, as though it were a worthy end in itself. Rather, our end is to be more like Christ, and only God knows how to guide us to that destination. We must leave suffering to God, both in terms of what it looks like and in terms of how and when it arrives. And when it does inevitably arrive, we must not waste it. We must view suffering as a blessing – as a way to drive us deeper into the sufficiently gracious arms of the Lord, arms equipped to help us to weather the storms of suffering and, in greater dependence on his grace, to become people through whom he works fruitfully, using us powerfully to spread in our world the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ, to the praise of his glory.