People close to me have died at every stage of my life. Together with biblical teaching and the global realities of suffering, this has shaped my life and ministry.
In high school, a friend drove his go-cart at full speed into the back of a car. In college, two fellow students died of cancer. In seminary, my systematic theology teacher died at age 36. In Germany, my Doktorvater died of a heart attack at 63. During my six years teaching at Bethel, my mother was killed in a bus accident, and seven members of that academic community died before their three score and ten. Then I came to Bethlehem and performed a funeral every three weeks for eighteen months.
The inevitability of suffering and death was so clear to Noël and me at age 20 and 22 that we chose Habakkuk 3:17–18 as our wedding text.
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
In 1977, when I officiated at the wedding of Tom and Julie Steller, now my 40-year-long partners in ministry, the text I chose was John 16:33:
In the world you will have tribulation.
But take heart;
I have overcome the world.
Three propositions. Three points. Welcome to the hard and hope-filled “world” of marriage!
One Calling of Desiring God
Now, here I am as founder of Desiring God (and one of its senior teachers), and we just crafted a new mission statement which contains these lines:
We exist to move people to live for the glory of God
— by helping them be satisfied in God above all else, especially in their suffering . . .
When Desiring God came into existence 25 years ago, no one said, “A central part of our calling is going to be: help people suffer.” But in fact, judging from years of steady feedback, that is central to how God has used this ministry. If you wonder why there are so many articles that deal with the countless kinds of sorrow and pain in this world, this is the reason. God has given us this calling: help people be ready to suffer in a way that magnifies Christ.
The aim of this article is to welcome you into this same calling. That is, I would like to encourage you to be prepared to help others suffer with faith in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the glory of God.
My assumption is that rock-solid, unshakable biblical truth is profoundly important if we are to endure through suffering to the end (Mark 13:13). But I also assume that this truth is better taught before suffering than in it. Wise Christians know that, in the shock and crush of pain and loss, our minds are not usually in a state suitable for instruction. Underneath our feet, we need unshakable truth, but face to face we need a friend’s embrace.
So, as I write this, I am assuming that you are not, at the moment, in a disorienting season of overwhelming loss or pain. I am assuming that you have seen your fiery trial, and that you would like to help others be ready for theirs.
Five Foundation Stones
Before the storms of suffering blow against a person’s soul, we should try to put five foundation stones under their faith.
1. God is sovereign, wise, just, and merciful. He governs all things, making no mistakes, doing no one wrong, and making all things serve the everlasting joy of those who trust him.
2. Suffering and hardships are divinely appointed for all Christians.
3. These sufferings and hardships include both persecutions, because of Christ, and afflictions that come in the normal course of this fallen world.
4. Though we cannot know all of the thousands of purposes God has in our afflictions, he has revealed at least five purposes for all Christian affliction which he intends for us to know before the affliction comes.
5. Joyfully trusting Christ in our affliction glorifies his (God’s!) greatness, wisdom, justice, and mercy.
We will spend a lifetime probing the riches of the biblical revelation concerning these five foundational stones. What I offer here, therefore, is simply some biblical pointers that I hope will serve the trajectory of your meditation.
1. God Mercifully Governs Our Suffering
God is sovereign, wise, just, and merciful. He governs all things, making no mistakes, doing no one wrong, and making all things serve the everlasting joy of undeserving persons who trust him.
These are some of the texts that have brought me a settled conviction that for God to be God is to be sovereign — governing all things, perfectly wise, just in all his ways, and merciful to all who trust him.
I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9–10)
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. (Matthew 10:29)
Even winds and sea obey him. (Matthew 8:27)
Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6)
I form light and create darkness;
I make well-being and create calamity;
I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7)
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:38)
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:21–22)
But [Job] said to [his wife] . . . “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips. (Job 2:10)
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33)
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. (Psalm 104:24)
Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen. (Revelation 7:12)
Through the church the manifold wisdom of God [will] be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 3:10)
The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. (Deuteronomy 32:4)
Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just. (Daniel 4:37)
They sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, “Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!” (Revelation 15:3)
The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)
“I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:15–16)
God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, made us alive. (Ephesians 2:4–5)
Keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. (Jude 21)
You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (James 5:11)
We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28)
2. Sufferings Are Appointed by Christ
Suffering and hardships are divinely appointed for all Christians.
[Paul returned to the newly established churches in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch] strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
[We sent Timothy to establish you in your faith] that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. (1 Thessalonians 3:3)
A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)
All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Timothy 3:12)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15)
3. Our Sufferings Include Persecutions and Afflictions
These sufferings and hardships include both persecutions, because of Christ, and afflictions that come in the normal course of this fallen world.
Jesus repeatedly promises the persecution of his people (Matthew 10:16–18; 24:9–10; Luke 21:12; John 16:2). Paul says God sees it as “righteous” to appoint that Christians pass through afflictions like Jesus (2 Thessalonians 1:4–5).
But what about disease or disaster — “afflictions that come in the normal course of this fallen world”? Are these also appointed by God? Yes, they are. “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Exodus 4:11).
To say this does not deny the role of Satan in afflicting God’s people. But it does deny that he is ultimate. Jesus healed a woman “whom Satan bound for eighteen years” (Luke 13:16). Peter said that “Jesus . . . went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38). But the Bible never portrays Satan as ultimate, nor as a being able to do something without God’s permission.
For example, in Job 2:6 God says to Satan, “Behold, [Job] is in your hand; only spare his life.” Then the inspired writer says, “So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and struck Job with loathsome sores” (Job 2:7). But when Job’s wife urges him to curse God, Job answers, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” And the writer adds, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). In other words, Satan is a real tormenter, but he is not ultimate. God is. What Satan means for evil to God’s children, God means for good (Genesis 50:20).
“The Normal Course of This Fallen World”
In Romans 8:17, Paul says believers will be “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” What kind of suffering is in view here, as the precondition of being a fellow heir with Christ?
No doubt it includes persecution, but that is not the way Paul’s thought develops as it moves forward from verse 17 to 25. The argument he gives in verse 18 for what he just said in verse 17 is this: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He makes no distinction between the sufferings that lead to glory with Christ (Romans 8:17), and “the sufferings of this present time” (Romans 8:18). In fact, for his argument to work, they must be the same, or at least overlap.
What then are “the sufferings of this present time”? Paul does not focus on persecution here. He focuses on the sufferings that come from the fact that “the creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20), and that God put the creation in “bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21), so that “the whole creation has been groaning” (Romans 8:22).
Then Paul makes the explicit connection to our participation in these “sufferings of this present time.” This is the all-important sentence: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). Spirit-filled (not disobedient) Christians groan. Why? Because we are awaiting the redemption of our bodies. In other words, we are feeling the pain of the afflictions that come in the normal course of this fallen world.
The healing power of God does not always, or even usually, deliver Christians from participation in the diseases and disasters of this world. We share in the curse of the fall — the “subjection to futility,” the “bondage to corruption.” “Our outer self is wasting away” (2 Corinthians 4:16), just like everyone else’s. As our bodies move from birth to death, they are increasingly marked, as Paul said, by “corruption,” “dishonor,” and “weakness” (1 Corinthians 15:42–44).
To be sure, Christ bore our curse (Romans 8:3; Galatians 3:13). There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). We are not destined for wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9). But God has not chosen to snatch us, at the moment of our conversion, from this world of persecution, disease, disaster, and death. He could have. But he didn’t. We are appointed to suffer and die.
What has changed is not that we suffer less physically than unbelievers, but that the suffering and death is not punishment. It is not condemnation. The sting of unforgiven sin has been removed (1 Corinthians 15:56). Punishment has become purification. Death has become a door to paradise with Christ (Philippians 1:20–23).
4. Five Purposes for Our Suffering
Though we cannot know all of the thousands of purposes God has in our afflictions, he has revealed at least five purposes for all Christian affliction which he intends for us to know before the affliction comes.
1. To summon all people to repentance.
When Jesus was asked about the seemingly pointless deaths of people in an act of violence and in an act of accidental disaster, he answered in both cases: These events are not pointless; they are occasions to hear God’s universal call to repentance.
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1–5)
I said this to an NPR correspondent who called me after the tsunami on December 26, 2004. The disaster had killed 230,000 people, including whole churches gathered the day after Christmas. It was Sunday. I told her: “One of the things God was doing in that disaster was to summon the whole world to repent from treasuring anything in this world above Jesus Christ.”
Given the way Jesus argues in Luke 13:1–5, I believe we can generalize from that text to say: all human suffering is in part a summons to repent, and turn away from trusting or treasuring anything above Christ.
2. To replace self-reliance with God-reliance.
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9)
Suffering knocks from under us the life-sustaining, joy-sustaining props of this world. Thus, suffering tests us to see if we will shift our reliance from this world onto God. Or will we become embittered that our trusted and treasured prop has been taken away? God’s aim is “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” That is why the trials may bring us to the very brink of death.
3. To bring about in us greater righteousness.
The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. (Proverbs 3:12)
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. . . . For [our fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7, 10–11).
I have never met a Christian who said, “My easiest, most pleasant days were the ones in which I learned my deepest lessons about God or experienced most powerfully the weakening of my besetting sins.” It rarely works that way. So, since there is a “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14), God’s love moves him to take us through painful, holiness-producing discipline. “The Lord disciplines the one he loves” (Hebrews 12:6).
4. To increase our reward — our joy — in the age to come.
Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing [producing, bringing about] for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:16–17)
What is remarkable about this text is that the verb “preparing” (κατεργάζεται) does not describe a mere result following suffering, but an effect brought about by suffering. (See the uses of κατεργάζομαι in Romans 4:15; 5:3; 7:8, 13; 2 Corinthians 7:11; 9:11; James 1:3). And what is the suffering of disease and aging “producing”? An eternal weight of glory.
This is tremendously important in helping people get ready to endure suffering that leads not to a life of greater righteousness on earth (#3 above), but to death. It often feels utterly pointless to suffer so much in the last weeks and hours of dying. This text says, it is not pointless. The wasting away of our bodies, endured through faith in Christ, is producing something glorious beyond death. None of us who suffered less in this life will begrudge some greater reward, and joy, to those who suffered more here. No suffering is wasted.
5. To deepen our treasuring of Christ in his sufferings for us.
Whether our suffering is owing to persecution for the sake of Christ’s name, or is owing to natural processes of disease, disaster, or loss, in either case we feel in suffering something of what Christ willingly embraced because he loved us (Galatians 2:20). In this sense, all suffering of a Christian may be experienced as sharing Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10).
If we bear our cancer, or our disability, or our imprisonment with the consciousness that we are tasting the kind of horror that Christ willingly embraced for our salvation, then we can enjoy a profound fellowship with him in his suffering. In some modest measure it will be true that we bear in our body the marks of Jesus (Galatians 6:17), and carry in our body the death of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:10). Our sense of wonder and thankfulness and joy at being loved this much, will deepen our treasuring of Christ in his sufferings for us.
5. Our Trust in Suffering Glorifies God
Joyfully trusting Christ in our affliction glorifies his (God’s!) greatness, wisdom, justice, and mercy.
Paul said that the great aim of his existence was to glorify Christ not only in life but also in death. He explained that Christ would be glorified in his body in death because for him “to die is gain . . . [because] to depart and be with Christ . . . is far better [than life and ministry here]” (Philippians 1:20–21, 23).
In other words, Christ is glorified in Paul’s death, because Paul is more satisfied in Christ than in life. He would paraphrase Psalm 63:3 (“Your steadfast love is better than life) as “To enter the fullness of the love of Christ through death, is better than all that life can offer.”
This means that joyfully trusting Christ in death, is what magnifies all that God is for us in Jesus — his greatness, wisdom, justice, and mercy. It was Paul’s gladness at leaving this life for the presence of Christ, which made Christ look greater than the greatness of this world. This is how Christ is glorified in our suffering and death.
It does not cancel out tears and groans. Absolutely essential to Paul’s life of pain were the words, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Not one, then the other. But both together. The sorrow shows that Paul is real. The joy shows that Christ is great.
Don’t Wait Till You Suffer
My aim has been to encourage you in your calling to help people suffer with faith in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, for the glory of God. My main point has been that there are at least five foundation stones that we can put under the feet of our people before the wave of suffering breaks over their heads.
This is not the only aim of ministry. It is also essential that we pray and work to reduce the suffering of this world. But all efforts to reduce suffering notwithstanding, God has told us, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom” (Acts 14:22). Therefore, the ministry of preparation is essential, if we want our people to gladly glorify Christ in their suffering.