GOD CAN BRING GOOD OUT OF PAIN AND HARDSHIP
In our present, imperfect world, pain and hardship serve a useful, and even necessary, function. They are like the warning lights on a car, which alert us to things that need attention. This is true physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR OUR CHOICES
If we ignore “natural laws,” then we will suffer painful practical consequences. For example, if we touch something hot, then we will get burned. If we try to ignore the law of gravity by walking off of a roof top, then we will fall to the ground and be injured. (That has probably happened to some people who take LSD.) If we never had to face pain and suffering, then we wouldn’t have to face the consequences of our actions.
The same is true with spiritual laws. There is a spiritual principle called sowing and reaping. The Apostle Paul said,
“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatso¬ever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Gala¬tians 6:7)
If we sow anger, hatred, hostility, bitterness, unforgive¬ness, ingratitude, selfishness and the like, then we shall receive the same from others. If we choose to cause harm to others, then we can expect to receive harm. By the same principle, if we are giving, loving, considerate, thoughtful, and unselfish towards others, then we shall receive many blessings. Jesus said,
“Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.” (Luke 6:38, emphasis added)
This principle does not work perfectly in this life, but it will in Eternity. And even in this imperfect world, those who choose to be giving and loving usually receive love and generosity, while those who choose to give anger and hatred usually receive anger and hatred.
If there were no painful consequences to our negative actions, would we ever learn to give them up? Would we perceive them as harmful and spiritually dangerous if we did not have a pain mechanism to warn us? If there were no unpleasant consequences from violating them, could these even be said to be laws?
The principle applies more broadly. God has given us certain commandments and laws. For them to be meaningful, there need to be consequences from following them or violating them.
In many places, Scripture sets forth blessings and curses. God says, behave in this way and you will be blessed; behave in that way and you will be cursed. For example, in Deuteronomy, chapter 28, God set forth a series of blessings and curses. After describing them in detail for three chapters, God said,
“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
God uses the possibility of intense suffering as a way of bringing His people into obedience. We see this in the New Testament as well as the Old Testament. The Apostle Paul contrasts two ways of life—living by the flesh and living by the Holy Spirit. Living by the flesh results in sexual impurity, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, dissentions, drunkenness, and the like. The results of these are deadly. Paul says,
“…they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:21)
“Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.” (Ephesians 5:6)
In contrast, those who live by the Spirit receive the “fruit of the Spirit.” This is “love, joy, peace, long¬suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” (See Galatians 5:22-23)
One group is miserable and suffers. The other group is blessed. Paul expresses the difference as that between life and death. (Romans 8:5-17)
God has declared that those who believe in Jesus Christ will have eternal life, while those who do not believe in Him are condemned already. (John 3:16-18) He has established a judgment in which the righteous go to “eternal life” and the unrighteous go to “everlasting punishment.” (Matthew 25:46) The righteous “will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” while the wicked will be thrown into a “furnace of fire.” (Matthew 13:42-43, 50; John 5:29)
In all of these, we see the use of pain and suffering as a means of enforcing the laws God has established, and as a consequence of violating those laws.
GOD CAN USE PAIN AND HARDSHIP TO TRAIN AND STRENGTHEN US
God’s priorities are not the same as ours. We tend to want physical health, freedom from physical and emotional pain, and enough material possessions to live comfortably. We may feel deprived and unjustly treated if we don’t have these.
God wants us to have “good” things. (Psalm 84:11) However, His primary concern is not with our physical circumstances. His primary concerns are:
(1) Our eternal salvation
(2) Our growth into Christian maturity and character
(3) Our usefulness (“fruitfulness”) in the Kingdom of God
The early Christians endured a great deal of suffering. They were a persecuted church. What was their reaction to hardship and suffering? Instead of complaining about it or saying that it was more than they could bear, they welcomed it because it taught them and strengthened them. Look at what James, Paul, and Peter said about it:
“My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
“And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; And patience, experience; and experience, hope: And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
“…now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
“Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby. Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees” (Hebrews 12:11-12)
The unanimous voice of the New Testament writers is that pain and suffering teach us and strengthen us and help us to become mature. These were writers who had, themselves, experienced considerable suffering.
There is a principle in athletic training that says, “No pain, no gain.” This same principle applies to our growth into spiritual maturity. Quite often it seems that we grow only in the presence of discomfort or pain that makes us feel the need for change, and forces us to cry out to God.
I want to make one thing clear. These New Testament writers did not seek out pain. They never deliberately inflicted it on themselves. But when it came, then they welcomed it as an opportunity to grow and to learn.
Some people deliberately inflict pain on themselves as a way of showing devotion to God or attempting to achieve holiness. There is no support for such a view in Scripture. Such behavior is unbiblical and far removed from the attitude of the New Testament writers.
GOD USES HARDSHIP AND PAIN TO GET US TO DEPEND ON HIM
God can also use hardship, pain and suffering to get us to depend on Him rather than ourselves. Paul talked about the great pressure that he was under in the province of Asia. It was so great that he despaired of life. Then Paul said,
“…that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raiseth the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9)
Paul asked God to take away his “thorn in the flesh.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-8). God replied,
“My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
How did Paul respond to God’s reply? Was he disappointed? Did he fall into self pity, as we so easily do? Not at all. Paul said,
“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10, emphasis added)
Paul’s weakness made him strong in the sense that it caused him to rely to a much greater degree on God’s incomparably great strength. God used this “thorn in the flesh” (which evidently bothered Paul quite a bit, whatever it was) to cause Paul to depend on God at a deeper level.
This is an important principle. We see it illustrated in a number of ways. For example, Jesus said that it is hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 19:23-24) One reason is that a rich person tends to rely on his own riches rather than on God. More generally, those who are comfortably well off, and successful by this world’s standards, often feel that they do not need God.
People who are in very difficult situations, and do not see how they can get through them, are often much more likely to turn to God for help. When things are going well, we can easily believe that we are self-sufficient. In the face of hardship and suffering, the delusion of self-sufficiency loses credibility.
We can see this in another way. In the relatively affluent West, the Christian church has tended to be weak. Not only are its numbers declining, but many individuals and churches seem to be lacking in strong commitment to God.
In other parts of the world, such as Africa, where many people face hardships, the Christian church is growing and strong. It is striking that in China, where the independent Christian church faces severe persecution, the church has been growing rapidly. The rate of growth has been far greater under Communist persecution than it ever was before.
Another example is what happened when my Dad had to fight the cancer that eventually killed him. Dad said that it increased his faith. It put him in a position where he only had God to depend on, and he became willing to depend on God. He identified and got rid of a number of things that had been weakening his faith. He was praying more consistently and more fervently. He gained a greater appreciation and thankfulness for the many blessings that God had given him. And this difficult experience helped him get his knowledge and understanding of God beyond the intellectual, head level, to a level that reaches the heart.
NOTE: This is a chapter from the book “How to Fight Discouragement” by Maria Kneas. She also wrote “Prepare for Persecution,” which has a Foreword by Douglas Hagmann. Both books are available on Amazon. Just search for the titles.