When there is pain and suffering in our lives as believers, we shouldn’t be surprised. Suffering is a reality of this fallen world. We must remember that whatever the immediate source of suffering is in our lives, the ultimate source is a loving God who is working for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). God uses “all things” in our lives to conform us to the image of His Son, Jesus. Suffering in sometimes a form of God’s disciplining His children (see Hebrews 12:4-11). Sometimes as parents we can be guilty of disciplining our children for our own convenience or for the sake of our pride, but God only disciplines us for our good (Heb. 12:10-11).
I believe God disciplines His children for corrective, preventative, & educational purposes. Therefore, whenever we experience suffering we should ask the following diagnostic questions:
1. Is God correcting me for some specific sin of which I need to repent?
We must distinguish between God’s corrective discipline and His judgmental punishment. God brings suffering into our lives as Christians because of sin, but He will never judge us fully for our sins. Our sin account has already been settled at Calvary where Jesus Christ took all the punishment for our sins. If you’ve never trusted in Christ there is an eternal day of judgment coming for you which will make the sufferings of this life pale in comparison. Corrective discipline then is God’s loving response of some specific area of disobedience in our lives as Christians. The best way to think of this is in the context of the relationship between a loving parent and their child. God disciplines us in this way because we belong to Him and because He loves us.
2. Am I heading in a dangerous direction that God is warning me about through preventive discipline?
God may also discipline His children to prevent them from putting themselves in danger. Parents do this for their children all the time. We want to protect our children from things that will harm them (eg., electric outlets, roads, knives, etc). God loves us more than we love our own children (Matthew 7:7-11). If He sees us heading in a dangerous direction, He will often bring adversity in our lives to keep us from going down that wrong path. The classic biblical example of this type of discipline is the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12. There Paul says that he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming proud (2 Cor. 12:7). God sometimes uses suffering in our lives to keep us from sin.
3. What is God teaching me through this suffering in my life?
God uses suffering to teach us. I think this is always true, whether or not the other two purposes our true in your specific situation. When we suffer we learn more about ourselves and more about God. In our sufferings, we learn of our weakness and we learn of God’s strength. In our sufferings, we learn of our insufficiency and that God is all-sufficient. In our sufferings, we learn that we are undependable and that God is always faithful.
For the Christian, suffering always has a purpose. There is no meaningless pain for the child of God. Usually, when a Christian faces suffering, the question is asked, “When will it end?” Instead of asking the “when” question, we should ask the “what” question. What is God teaching me through this trial? God’s ultimate desire for us as believers is to conform us to the image of His Son. To grow in Christlikeness is also the ultimate desire of the true child of God. Using the three questions above will help ensure that we receive the benefit that God intends in our suffering.