READ : Hebrews 12:7-8
I don’t know anyone who enjoys suffering, but I do know at least one reason it’s necessary.
Suffering—that’s right, suffering, pain, grief, persecution—is indispensable to salvation. According to the Bible, this is a necessary part of the Christian life.
Here is how the writer to the Hebrews explains it:
Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.
Hebrews 12:7-8 nrsv
The Problem of Pain
Why do people suffer? Why do so many terrible things happen to innocent people in a world supposedly run by a God who is both infinitely powerful and infinitely good? We have all tried to answer that one. Sometimes we may even try too hard—especially those of us who are Christian teachers or pastors. Eugene Peterson has described ministers as “clerks in the world’s complaint department.” We’re often called upon to respond to the questions of life’s dissatisfied customers. We sometimes try to patch things up by apologizing on behalf of the management and trying to explain company policy. But God doesn’t need anyone to defend him. We are usually much wiser simply to suffer along with others in silence and love, rather than offering easy answers to the mysteries of life, the ways of God’s providence and the reasons for suffering.
I don’t want to do that now. I don’t want to try to offer any easy answers or defend God or explain exactly what I think he may be doing in your suffering. Instead, let me just draw your attention to two noteworthy things the 12th chapter of the letter to the Hebrews says about suffering for Christians.
Suffering Is Discipline
The first thing Hebrews does is to teach us that as Christians we should think of our suffering as a form of discipline, of God’s discipline in our lives. The word discipline occurs nine times in as many verses in Hebrews 12, and its root meaning is “teaching” or “instruction.” Discipline is the use of sometimes painful means to encourage growth in the proper direction. When you discipline your young child for doing something wrong, you don’t do it to hurt them but to correct them. And this, says Hebrews, is what all the trouble and suffering we as Christians experience in the course of our lives is. It is discipline.
The great thing about discipline is that it has a purpose. Now that doesn’t necessarily make it easy, pleasant or something we enjoy, but it does give meaning to suffering that would otherwise be meaningless. No one likes the disappointments, humiliations, losses, griefs and sorrows that we all go through. But though discipline is painful, it is also meaningful. It leads somewhere. And because it is purposeful, it can also be bearable.
What is the purpose of God’s discipline in our lives? In a word, it is our holiness.
For they [our human parents] disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he [God] disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.
v. 10, esv
We must always keep in mind God’s ultimate goal for our lives. His purpose is not merely to save us; he wants to make us perfect, whole, complete, holy. God intends to turn every person who belongs to him into an exact replica of Jesus Christ. This has been his purpose all along. God predestined us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). It is knowing this that gives us assurance that “in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose,” as Romans 8:28 says.
There’s a memorable illustration of this point in C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity:
Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.
This is the point, the purpose of God’s discipline. To say that suffering is indispensable for Christians is to say that character, maturity and holiness are indispensable, for these are the ends for which God allows suffering to shape our lives. But not everyone accepts this view. I said that discipline is what Christians call suffering. Many others disagree. They think suffering has no meaning or purpose, that it literally is a senseless tragedy. The problem is that apart from the good news of the gospel (the Christian message that faith in Jesus Christ brings eternal life), there is no real hope. And if there is no hope of a life to come, then there can be no ultimate meaning in this life. If this life is all there is, then it really is impossible to make any sense of all the horrible things that happen, all the pain and the death. Life seems to be a terrible joke, and the best we can expect is to get through it with as little trouble as possible and hope that the good times outnumber the bad.
But Christians know that in our trials God is working on us, “remodeling” us so that we will eventually become just like Jesus Christ. We know, too, that this job won’t be finished during our lives here on earth, but only when we get to heaven. As Christians we know that the “slight momentary affliction” of this life—as Paul says—”is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Cor. 4:17).
Discipline Is Encouraging
The second thing that Hebrews tells us about suffering is that Christians accept it with encouragement. Discipline is encouraging. I use that word encouragement intentionally. We don’t just face suffering with a stoic sort of courage or patient endurance. Nobody welcomes suffering. I think of Tevya’s wry line in Fiddler on the Roof: “Lord, if this is how you treat your chosen people, couldn’t you choose someone else for a while?” But suffering of any kind can actually be a source of assurance to us. How? Because God’s discipline is a token of his fatherly love and care. It is proof that you are a genuine child of God. When you can accept suffering from your Father’s hand, taking it as coming from a God who loves you, that is solid evidence that you truly do belong to God’s family and are God’s beloved daughter or son.
Two things tell us this. First, the scriptures say it. Discipline is the family mark of the child of God, according to Hebrews. “God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?” (v. 7). So true is this, that if you experience no discipline, you are no real child of God. “Without discipline you are illegitimate and not his children,” says Hebrews 12:8. There’s another one of those indispensables. Without discipline, you cannot be the child of God.
Here’s the second thing that proves how important and indispensable suffering is for every daughter or son of God. The life of Jesus shows it. Jesus is the great model for faith. He’s the supreme example of what it means to live a life of faith and obedience to God. And of course, he is uniquely God’s Son.
But think how much he suffered! “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself” (Heb. 12:3), our writer urges. Discipline is the way God treats his children, including his only begotten and beloved Son. “Consider him,” urges our writer. Have you suffered the way he did? “What will you do now?” Hebrews might ask us when we are faced with bad things in our lives. Will I complain about how unfair it all is, how I just don’t deserve what has happened to me? Will I conclude that God must not be real, that believing in him doesn’t make any difference, that he can’t help even his most devoted followers? Will I condemn God as weak or wicked because children develop cancer and good folks get killed in car crashes in the world as it is? Or will I consider the Lord Jesus, God’s only Son, who had to endure even the cross as part of his Father’s plan. We can be encouraged by remembering that our suffering too is part of our Father’s plan for our lives.
Understanding God’s discipline in this way gives us a realistic view of God. God is not a jolly grandfather who spoils us rotten by giving us everything we want. In J. I. Packer’s phrase, his priority is our character, not our kicks. But neither is God a monstrous tyrant who enjoys hurting us. No, God is our loving Father who always does for us what is best, even when we cannot clearly see what that best might be, or understand how present evil can result in future good.
Understanding God’s discipline will also give us a realistic approach to whatever suffering we may be called upon to endure. This will determine how we view each setback, each loss, or grief, or pain. It will lead us to look for the Lord’s hand in these things. “What might God be teaching me in this experience?” we’ll ask. “What can I learn from this? How can I look behind God’s frowning providence to see a smiling face? We may not be able to draw specific conclusions about the purpose of specific troubles, for God’s ways are always beyond our comprehension, but we can look to see how he is drawing us by means of his discipline onwards to himself and to the goal of Christlikeness. And we can always ask him for the grace and strength to go on.