I heard recently that the Jewish and (East) Indian mentalities expect life to be full of difficulties and pain as a matter of course. The American mentality expects the opposite: a happy life overall, and usually an improvement over the previous generation. Americanism includes the idea that we may, through hard work, ingenuity, and divine blessing, avoid pain and lack that others suffer. Some American Christians have even preached that material prosperity in this life, including healing of all physical ills, is God’s will for His people. Reality, however, counts against the so-called prosperity gospel.
I think the prosperity gospel gains appeal for Christians because of the uncommon affluence of modern America and the West, combined with a general lack of attention to the Bible. “This I know” in the Bible is not a story of pain-free and long-lived biographies, but a sometimes terrifying chronicle of heavy hammering for those who follow God. Oftentimes, the greater the faithfulness, the more severe the suffering is (as for Jesus and Paul).
As I read it, the Bible presents pain and difficulty as the normal course for the person who follows God. For all the prosperity that is obviously bestowed upon various Old Testament people (Abraham and Sarah, Job and his wife, Joseph, Solomon) everyone seems to share in a great deal of suffering and adversity of various kinds. Sickness, famine, enemy attacks, family strife, and even divine retributions for personal sins seem to be a matter of course for God’s people.
The New Testament sharpens this pattern. Paul quotes Psalm 44:2 as explanatory of current Christian experience in afflictions, “Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36, HCSB). Here the context is Paul’s assurance of God’s care to the believer by means of suffering of various kinds (he lists affliction, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and sword).
Because the Christian is totally clear from judgment for sin (Rom 8:1), the certain assurance is that when these adversities come to us, we must count them not as divine punishments (as we may be tempted to count them), but as divine gifts to conform us to the likeness of Jesus Christ. Such adversities and suffering are in a mysterious way our training to become like Jesus. Paul assures us that since we are children of God and co-heirs with Jesus, we will grow up into glory by means of the same path to glory that He completed, through suffering (Rom 8:17). Moreover, just as Jesus identified with us in suffering (Heb 2:10-11), we become increasingly identified with Him by means of occasional adversities and sufferings.
It’s hard for us to consider these sufferings as allowed or provided by our heavenly Father’s hand for our good. His assurance by Romans 8:28-29 to the Christian is that “We know that God works together in all things for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son” (HCSB marg.). The good that God works for is clearly defined as conformity to Jesus (and not simply what we might like the good to be, such as the pursuit of happiness).
This assurance is why Paul can discount the sufferings of the present time as nothing to be compared with the glory that is coming (Rom 8:18). In a way that astonishes us, Paul can go further and welcome such pains as the instrumental means of bringing believers to transformation into the likeness of Jesus (see 2 Cor 12:7-10). He says that through such pains God changes us: “in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us” (Rom 8:37, HCSB). I’m sure this does not mean we are merely enabled to tolerate pain and adversity by God’s help (though He does that bit, and I'm grateful for sustaining grace), but I think rather that God helps us in progressive sanctification by means of pain and adversity. The difficulties we experience are often the gifts of God to advance us in sanctification. This cuts across Americanism and the prosperity gospel sharply. But we don't always know for sure what God is doing, and there are many possibilities of what purposes He is working out in a particular event of adversity or pain. This makes things hard for us.
Other New Testament authors give the same paradoxical report that, for the Christian, pain and difficulty of various kinds are God’s program to work on us specially for our good. James urges us that we must count it joy when we suffer things of various kinds (Jas 1:2-5). This only makes sense if we are sure that God is doing something worthwhile and valuable for us in the pain, and not merely in spite of it, as if these troubles are some sort of spiritual hurdles to be suffered. The writer of Hebrews counts persecution as divine discipline, comparable to parental discipline, though much better since God’s purpose is to disciple us as training in righteousness, that we would become like Him (Heb 12:1-13). I would add that persecution is not the only kind of adversity used by God for our discipleship to Jesus (persecution was the likely scare for the audience of Hebrews).
One caveat here is that the adversity and suffering mentioned in these passages is much broader than explicit suffering for Christ, as in persecution as a Christian for testimony to the gospel or some other aspect of religious faithfulness. Certainly there is that kind of suffering in Paul’s experience: he was beaten, imprisoned, and executed for telling the unpopular truth about Jesus. But persecution is not the only trial that is effective in God’s toolbox for bringing His children into conformity with the character of Jesus Christ. Paul’s reminder that God works all things together in that program of conforming people to Jesus should extend the range of what we count as beneficial pain and adversity to encompass everything that happens to us and those we care for (Rom 8:28, cf. Eph 1:11). Paul writes that we are God's workmanship (Eph 2:10).
Pain and suffering are a matter of course for human life, but for the Christian we must be confident that our Father is arranging them as causes for the great effect of our sanctification (when He chooses not to heal us or deliver us immediately). We may not understand the connection of cause and effect in a specific instance of adversity or pain, but we can receive it as a blessing in disguise, a gift from our wise and caring Father nonetheless. Moreover, the bearing of pains may be easier when we see them this way, as therapeutic in some mysterious way on analogy with surgery, chemotherapy, antibiotics, or another such remedy for our sinful weaknesses. The remedy itself is not pleasant (Heb 12:11), but the cure is worthwhile. And we certainly need the cure for our abiding twisted perceptions, corrupt desires, and waywardness from God to live on our own power instead of abiding in Jesus in a constant way.
By analogy, it is normal for endurance athletes to embrace pain in training and competition because they have a clear sense of the purpose for which they voluntarily suffer. They want to improve their strength, perform at a higher level, or accomplish a competitive result. The pain is worth it for them. The pain reminds them that the struggle calls for their full attention and exertion to persist in action and not be waylaid by concerns merely to avoid the pain. No one likes the pain, but athletes do like the results that come by means of the exertion that sometimes causes pains. Adversity presents a challenge that tests our mettle and calls for the maximum response. (That is, so long as the pain is not an injury that will be worsened by continuing to run!)
Similarly, for the Christian, since we are assured God has definite beneficial purposes in the pains and adversities of various kinds that we may encounter, we may look through them to the goal of progress and nearness to Jesus. For example, I have been sick with an irritating head and chest cold for over a week. I can try to ignore it. I can hate it and wish it away. I can be healed by God. I can endure it patiently. I can wonder and pray about what possibilities God is working by means of it. Whatever I do, my distress about being is reduced by degrees when I assume there is some good purpose here. So help me God.
The most beneficial question for the Christian in pain is not “Why am I suffering?” or “Why does a good God allow this to happen?” or even “What did I do to deserve this pain?” The most fruitful question to ask in times of adversity is this: Where’s the gift? What is the good thing God is doing for me and others in this experience? We need to remind ourselves that somehow, paradoxically and mysteriously in a way we might not see or understand, this negative and very painful experience is bringing us into conformity with Jesus Christ.
As with the pain of surgery, there is a good goal of healing in view for the Surgeon, and we would do best to share His viewpoint. With that in mind, we may pray, “Father, do Your work quickly, and help me to respond to the changes You are making in me.” We may further ask: “How do You want me to respond here?” Yes, God may heal, as James urges us to try. But sometimes this is not best for us, as Paul experienced when God used affliction to equip Paul with humility (2 Cor 12:7-10).
This perspective and theological attitude does not take the pain away, but it may give us help to enable us to bear it by knowing there is a purpose by it. And we have the certainty that God is nearer to us (relationally) in these times than during the times when everything goes well. Adversity certainly provokes us to pray more. Maybe that’s what we need most while we wait for Jesus to return.