From a human vantage point, it is almost illogical to think of the benefits of suffering. There are certain things that require effort or even pain that have a positive end result. But it does not take much imagination or experience to recognize some elements of our lives are void of benefit, at least from an earthly perspective. A Bible based view however, can give us better insights into every element of suffering. It will not alleviate the very real negativity that is often a part of the human experience. But it may give us a better framework for the context of difficulties.
Suffering can come from various sources. Sometimes we suffer because of our own poor decisions. For example, stress is created by shortsighted decisions; or illness occurs due to poor substance or food choices; or injury happens as a result of unwise risk taking. Sometimes suffering is the result of another person’s actions. A drunk driver hits the innocent; a building collapses because of poor engineering; relationships are destroyed because of another’s unfaithfulness. But finally, there is the category of suffering that emboldens the atheist and at times troubles the Christian. Bad things happen for no apparent cause. Weather events or “natural” disasters, such as a tsunami that kills thousands, or unexplained accidents, or terminal illnesses that strike a child, often have such devastating impact they crumble the faith of some. Can one rationally speak of a benefit in these kinds of circumstances?
From a biblical view we can gain several perspectives on the benefits of suffering. One is the concept of chastening or discipline. In Hebrews chapter 12 we are encouraged to put suffering in context, both as to its relationship to the suffering of Christ, but specifically, that it may do us some good. In verse 6 we read a quotation from Proverbs 3, “For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.”
That is, just like with children, there is some suffering that occurs in our lives that are for the purpose of making us better people. We know from experience that some people turn or return to God when they have had a “wake up call” enter into their lives. These are often not pleasant, but may well cause someone to reconsider his or her spiritual path. God may well be directing suffering into our life for our long-term benefit. (It is important to acknowledge that we know this happens by faith, not by a specific experience, as we do not know in individual cases the intention of God; we only know that He works in our lives for our ultimate good.)
Another benefit of suffering is it allows us to model Christ to others and position us for better service. Paul in Colossians 1 was describing his prayer for the saints and among other things, he asks that they may have “patience and longsuffering with joy” (Col 1:11). Patience means to stand up under a difficult load. Longsuffering has the additional elements of time without retaliation. Both of these are characteristics that are exercised when we are under duress; that is suffering. When we can show the world and our fellow Christians that we can face suffering with the steadfastness of Christ, and not break down under the load, we not only strengthen ourselves but also everyone who sees. In James, reference is made to the patient enduring of the prophets and of Job, and these serve as an example.
“My brethren, take the prophets, who spoke in the name of the Lord, as an example of suffering and patience. Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord—that the Lord is very compassionate” (Jas 5:10-11).
The suffering Christian today can well serve as an example to all that see. The obstacles are often overwhelming, but the opportunity is real.
For those that have passed through suffering there is another benefit. We become uniquely able to serve with empathy. The widow can better comfort the new widow. The cancer survivor can comfort the one who is enduring cancer. The parent of a deceased child can better comfort the parent of a dying child. These are talents; perhaps talents we would have preferred to avoid, and yet gifts nonetheless.
But finally, there is suffering so great or so unconscionable that it seems completely void of value. How do we deal with tragic birth defects, freak fatal accidents, the horrors of war crimes, the violence of tornadoes, and such like? The Christian cries out “Why Lord?” The atheist proclaims the “Epicurean” problem of evil: Does your God not know, is He not able, or does He not love? (The simple answer to this is love defined by whom?) Is there any real benefit in such things?
The chief benefit of all suffering is to remind us of the effects of sin on a fallen world. In Genesis we read about the perfection of the creation. “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).
There was no suffering, no tragedy, and no “natural” disasters. When God calls something very good, there are no imperfections. But in the epistle to the Romans Paul says: “For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Rom. 8:22). What caused this change from “very good” to “the whole creation groans”? Of course the answer is the ravages of sin from the Fall in the Garden of Eden, the corruption and change of this natural world from the flood, as well as the deterioration of mankind as demonstrated in Romans 1 and 2. Much could be written about this change, but this is sufficient to illustrate that the world is not what it could have been for us. Still, where is the benefit in this? First, it reminds us this is not our home. The scriptures are filled with enjoiners to not get too comfortable here. John said, “Do not love the world” (1 John 2:15). Paul helps us get to the right perspective in 2 Corinthians, when he says:
“For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, … For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven… So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. …. pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:1, 2, 6, 7) .
Notice the principles that are to be in the mind of Christians. We groan in this body. We earnestly desire Heaven. In the body we are absent from the Lord. If we have this mindset, we can better serve. Suffering, whether our own, or that which we see in others, helps us get to the spiritual maturity of Paul when he said, “having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Phil 1:23).
But there is yet another benefit of unexplainable suffering; suffering helps us put a face to sin. When we recognize that all suffering is the result of sin in this world, whether direct or indirect, it helps us break through the appealing nature of temptations. Every Christian struggles with sin. One of the ways to submit ourselves to God, so that Satan will flee from us (Jas 4:7), is to see suffering when we are confronted with sin.
Do you struggle with a pet sin, or even an addiction? The next time you feel tempted, think of the worst tragedy you know, whether personal or well known. Acknowledge to yourself, that this is what sin, my sin does. It may well help us to be shocked with the reality of the horrors of sin. If a by-product of suffering is living more Holy lives, it will indeed have had a benefit.
Suffering in this world cannot be minimized. We will all endure it to some extent. But it is not evenly distributed, which may seem, as it did to Job, grossly unfair. In the end however, speaking eternally, “…we know that all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).
Building our faith and trust throughout our lives, will make us better equipped to endure any suffering that comes our way with patience and longsuffering. We must be able to declare the trust of Habakkuk: “Though the fig tree may not blossom, Nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, And the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, And there be no herd in the stalls—Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, And He will make me walk on my high hills” (Hab 3:17-19). May God help us to that end.