Compared to Christians around the world, my life has been relatively suffering-free. I have walked through the pain of burying a close friend, I have experienced loss, betrayal, and four years into my dream job suddenly found myself jobless, homeless and alone…but all of that is nothing compared to the hardships most of the persecuted church endure every single day. Our suffering, though less tragic, is not to be considered trite, however. And in processing our trials we have developed a strange habit of coping with pain, loss and tragedy, and that is this bizarre concept of encouragement:
“You will be able to help or encourage someone else who goes through this.”
When a friend or family member dies, when your spouse abandons you, when you find out that you have cancer, and you begin looking down that dark, lonely path ahead of you, is it really a comfort to think, “when I get through this, I’m going to help someone else get through it”. Maybe you are a more honorable person than me and can think about others in those darkest of hours, but that sentiment does little for me. And it was no encouragement to me in my darkest of hours.
Interestingly enough, it was in some of those times that God actually did bring people into my life who were walking through similar situations, and He did allow me to encourage and be encouraged by faithfulness in the midst of tragedy. Yet while we do see in Scripture that God gives us the body to help teach, admonish and hold one another accountable, He is extremely clear about His intention for our suffering and trials:
“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 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 8.1-5
Tribulations bring about perseverance. Perseverance results in proven character. Character establishes in our hearts hope. Scripture argues that we learn and develop hope because of our tribulations. Jesus came to the Earth to be our savior and our example, and He underwent the most severe of any trial and suffering, more than any of us will ever experience. Even if we happen to find ourselves hated, mocked, ridiculed, and killed after hours of torture, none of us will ever have to undergo the mental torment and anguish of offering ourselves to be forsaken by God for the salvation of the world. We cannot ever suffer like He did.
But yet, if He is our example, if God disciplined and proved Him through His sufferings, then we must understand that God will discipline and prove us through our sufferings. God does not save us in order to give us a cushy, easy life here on the Earth. He wants to develop in us perseverance, character and hope! And thus God tests us and proves our faith.
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
– James 1.2-4
Notice in this passage in James that the various trials are understood to be the testing of our faith. Who is the one who does the testing? God. He is the only sovereign power in the universe, He is the one who wants to see our faith purified and refined. He is the one desires to see that we have hope. And it is important to test faith, because there are those who would come for salvation and the easy street, just for the benefit of not having to go to Hell. These are the rocky and thorny soils about which Jesus teaches. The seed of the Gospel will fall on ears who want Heaven without Jesus, and when persecution arises or when pleasures of the world compete with future pleasures, the faith fails. These people do not have true faith, they do not have faith in the likeness of Jesus, and they are proven to not be believers by the testing of their faith.
This is actually a helpful thing to us, as a Church:
They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they wen tout, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.
– 1 John 2.19
People who do not have faith that leads to perseverance, character and hope can lead others astray and contaminate the Church. When they suffer trials, instead of pressing into God, believing His promises and obeying His commandments, they question and blame God, they doubt, and they dwindle. Thus it is better for the health and maturity of the Church that these people, who do not have true faith, would go out from the Church.
So what is the ultimate purpose of trials and suffering? To test our faith and to help us grow into mature Christians. And it is all to the glory of God. Yes, helping others learn, grow and stand firm through suffering and trials is a wonderful and beautiful byproduct of having come through a trial victorious and approved, but it should never be a focal point of our perseverance through a trial. We should look to Jesus, our example, and our hope. We should trust His promises, we should ask for wisdom, and we should persevere. As we do, the ultimate result will be our maturity and hope. Our sufferings unite us to Christ, and in all of these things we can rejoice.
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
– 1 Peter 4.12-14