Scripture is clear, that God uses times of trouble and pain in our lives to sanctify us- making us more like Jesus. As Romans 5:3-4 says “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” But sometimes that truth gets presented as if suffering is a magic pill you swallow, making you grow at rapid fire speed.
It is also clear that suffering can cause us to rely on God more wholly, and draw closer to Him. As one of my favorite psalms says: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18).” People often experience that God’s presence seems nearer to them, and their fellowship with Him is sweetened, during times of great pain. But is that always the case? Do sufferers live on a perpetual mountaintop experience of closeness to God?
It’s not a super hard question really. I mean, have you ever had a stomach flu? Or even a bad head cold? Did you feel super close to God all day, every day, while you walked through that? When your head was hung over the toilet, were you amazed with the godly attitude that just seemed to rush over you the more you vomited? Probably not, right?
Because suffering is still suffering, and it feels like suffering. It doesn’t often feel like magic and mountaintops.
I’m sharing this because I’ve wrestled with it. Christians, myself included, talk a lot about the deep things they have learned through suffering, but sometimes our talk might leave people with a sanitized view, like suffering draws a tidy straight line towards Jesus and holiness, and those who walk the path are always glowing. During the most challenging year of my life, when I felt anything but glowing, my number one question was: Why doesn’t it feel like God is bringing anything good out of this?
I was reading my bible, praying, singing hymns, and seeking to please God in the middle of suffering, probably more than at any other time, but rarely did I feel like I was actually growing. And rarely did I feel super-close to God. I felt my sin more desperately and painfully. I felt my need for God to sustain me at a far deeper level than other times. But I was still broken in my heart, and neither the physical or emotional pain I felt would leave me often. Sometimes I felt like God must not see me or really understand how shattered and lost I felt, because if He did, wouldn’t He see that He needed to remove His stroke from me?
There were a few “mountain top” moments, but mostly clinging to the edge of the cliff. Mostly pleading for water in the desert. Mostly seeking a way out of the wilderness.
And so it was grating at times when people assumed I was experiencing this fantastic spiritual growth and a constant heightened spiritual experience, because it wasn’t reality.
It wasn’t reality because no one transforms overnight. No one reflects Jesus more closely because suffering seeped into their life and they were changed by mere osmosis. Sanctification is a lot of hard work, and it is crazy hard work when it seems all of life is against you. It is supernatural, and Holy Spirit empowered, but we all know it takes human effort. It takes submission, dependence, surrender, tears and a grit you have to dig for. Those things might come more naturally to people who are being broken by circumstances, and that is grace, and a beautiful thing, but it is not magic and mountain tops.
It also isn’t reality, because no one feels close to God all the time. We don’t put our faith in our feelings do we? And anyone who lives, knows that those moments where we feel close to God, and perhaps have a “spiritual high” are fleeting. We can’t base our relationship with God on fluctuating feelings or experiences, and we shouldn’t assume that all suffering people are thriving spiritually more than we would assume it of anybody else. Job struggled for a long time before God answered him didn’t he? God didn’t owe Job an explanation, or immediate reprieve, or anything really. God acts on His own terms, in His own time, and sometimes He lets His children wrestle for a while. We don’t like that, but we’re not God.
Sometimes believers go through suffering and God feels near, and they realize that God must have done some work in them, because how else would it be possible that they are responding in such strong faith and with sincere praise? Suffering can also throw a believer into incredible turmoil, and suddenly they realize their faith is not as strong as they had imagined it was. I think of Job, and sympathize with him when he said: “For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me. I am not at ease, nor am I quiet; I have no rest, but trouble comes (Job 3:25-26),” or when he said: “He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, and my hope He has pulled up like a tree (Job 19:10).”
Those words sound familiar to me. So many times, I have said (in my doubt) “God is not making me better spiritually. He isn’t making me stronger. He is tearing me apart, and I don’t understand why.”
I really struggled with that for a time. I couldn’t see or feel that God was doing any amazing kind of work in me. It wasn’t until recently, over a year later, that I got to have the experience of realizing that God indeed had done good work in me, and that previous days of trouble had not been in vain. I have learned so many things over the years that I have been able to apply to trouble now, and it has made my heart rejoice to see that I have grown in trusting God, and in patience, character, endurance, and hope.
Suffering Christians sometimes don’t see what God is doing. You’re growing, and you don’t even know you’re growing, because all you feel is the struggle. We are all like that, to some degree aren’t we? And suffering Christians are certainly not exempt.
This is the life application I want to leave you with: Don’t assume that your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in times of trouble are feeling super-close to God and encouraged by their newfound turbo-speed spiritual growth. They might feel that way. It is possible. Or they might be discovering they are more sinful than they ever knew, and weaker than they had imagined (which is just as much a work of God as anything else). They might feel like God has forgotten about them, or doesn’t hear them. You really don’t know if you don’t ask. And you should ask. Ask specific questions, not just “How are you doing?” Ask “How are you doing with your faith right now? Is it hard to trust God with what you’re dealing with? Are you getting discouraged? Can I share scripture with you to encourage you? Can I pray with you?” There are a lot of things you could say. But suffering people need to know they can be safe to struggle alongside other believers, and not have to pretend they are on a mountaintop perpetually. They can say: “This is hard, and right now I am barely getting by.” We need to get comfortable with that.
David recalled “I had said in my alarm, ‘I am cut off from Your sight.’ But You have heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to You for help (Psalm 31:22),” and we can be there to remind each other where to turn when we fear God has turned His eyes away from us.
1 Corinthians 12:26 says “If one member suffers, all suffer together…” We need honesty and empathy to get there, and just imagine how beautiful that would look in Christ’s church.
A closely related poem I have written called “The Unveiling is Not Cruel” can be found here.