The question gets phrased in a variety of ways. The rabbi, Harold Kushner, famously asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Many times, during our three-year struggle to build a parking lot I asked, “When we’re trying to do something good, why does it seem as if you’re making it so hard?” A couple of months ago, I was asked how the apostle Paul dealt with so much discouragement in his life. Throughout the summer, I have been mulling over these questions. Let me share what I’ve learned.
I think how people normally approach the problem of suffering is to minimize it. We tell ourselves, ‘Well, it could be a lot worse.’ Often, that’s true. And it may provide a measure of comfort, but often it doesn’t. Other times, we talk about all the things that lessen the pain. This is more helpful. God provides comfort, peace and strength by His Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:4). He trains us through hardship (Hebrews 12:11). And we have the promise that God uses all circumstances for our good (Romans 8:28). It’s because of these things that we can give thanks no matter what we’re going through. This is how I usually think of suffering: it’s hard and unfortunate but God makes it better than it could be. But that’s not the entire picture.
I started another seminary course last week, this one on the book of Romans. For my homework, I was reading a book by Thomas Schreiner on the apostle Paul’s theology and I was taken aback to see that he had devoted one of the sixteen chapters to, “Suffering and the Pauline Mission.” In trying to summarize the key themes that animated Paul’s teaching, he was obviously convinced that suffering was a major focus. In the chapter, Schreiner makes this statement: “Suffering was not a side effect of the Pauline mission; rather it was at the very center of his apostolic evangelism.” What he means is that suffering wasn’t a detraction from Paul’s mission, it was God’s appointed means of spreading the gospel through him.
Paul’s sufferings are famous. He faced imprisonments, riots, beatings, stoning and shipwrecks (2 Corinthians 6:4-10; 11:22-29). He also had to deal with betrayals, defections, criticism and rivalry (2 Timothy 4:10; Acts 15:38; 2 Corinthians 11:6; Philippians 1:15). I had tended to see these as unfortunate setbacks to what God wanted to do through him. I thought, ‘Imagine what Paul could have done if he didn’t face so much hardship.’ Schreiner helped me to see how essential the suffering was to what God accomplished through Paul’s life. And he made me see the importance of suffering in my own life as well.
1. When we suffer well, we point people to salvation in Christ.
Paul believed that he was imprisoned for the sake of those to whom he ministered and he was able to call it a “stewardship of God’s grace” (Ephesians 3:1-2). In other words, suffering was kind of like Paul’s spiritual gift. Often, I just try to see my suffering as it relates to my life but often it is more about what God can do in the lives of others through my suffering.
2. When we suffer well, we give hope to others who suffer.
Paul taught that his affliction was for the “comfort and salvation” of others (2 Corinthians 1:6). He knew that as others saw the comfort that he received from God in suffering, they would seek God for the same comfort as well. With the church in Thessalonica, for example, he could see that they imitated his attitude in suffering and had experienced joy in the Holy Spirit despite their affliction (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7).
3. When we suffer well, we show people the power of God.
I like to think of all the things I can do when I’m at my best. But Paul teaches me that God’s power is “made perfect” in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we’re strong we show people how great we are. When we’re weak we show people how great God is. And God’s strength can accomplish far more than ours ever could.
4. When we suffer well, we prove the genuineness of our faith and calling.
Christians sometimes wear jewellery with a cross or a dove to point to their faith. Other people put bumper stickers and fish icons on their car to show their allegiance to Jesus. Paul had a different way of displaying his faith. He said, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). His grace in suffering was evidence that he really was a follower of the Saviour who died for His people. Every time we show grace in suffering because of our faith in Christ, it shows people the reality of our faith.
I’ve become convinced that suffering wasn’t an obstacle or a detour in what God wanted to do through Paul’s life, but it was one of the primary means God used to minister through him. And I wonder whether the same isn’t true of my life and yours. Let’s lean into the suffering God brings and lay hold of the comfort, hope, strength and peace that only the Holy Spirit can give. Who knows whom God may impact through our weakness?
In awe of Him,