A Peculiar Perspective on Suffering
Editor's Note: This post is adapted from Laughing at the Days to Come: Facing Present Trials and Future Uncertainties with Gospel Hope (RHB, 2019).
My once bright future suddenly seemed dark. The onset of a rare neurological disease was causing me to gradually lose my hearing, and there was no promise that I wouldn’t eventually go completely deaf. My happy, teenaged world was being turned upside-down and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop it.
One night, a family friend handed me a small piece of paper with Proverbs 31:25 written on it: “Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come” (ESV). Surely, I had read this verse before, but my current circumstances caused me to see it with new eyes and I was quite intrigued.
Perhaps the reason why I was so fascinated by this woman was because she had something I greatly lacked. I was not laughing when I thought about the days to come—I was crying when I thought about the days to come. Yes, things could have been worse, but that is one of the reasons I was not laughing—because things likely would get worse.
But here was something valiant. As in every earthly life, there are a host of potential circumstances this woman could set her mind on. But rather than living her life with a fearful prospect of what may be—tomorrow, next week, five years from now—she has chosen to live a life that reflects what is; namely, the present, abiding reality of God. Rather than being controlled by waves of emotion and impulsive assumptions about herself and her Creator, she is governed by a right and prevailing conviction of who God has revealed Himself to be in His word. This was the laughter I needed if I was going to endure a progressive neurological disease in a way that honored God.
For many Christians, the necessity of this laughter does not come as a surprise. We are not afraid to acknowledge the reality of suffering in a fallen world.
But here is the honest dilemma: The Bible lets me in on the uncomfortable fact that I am not in control of my suffering. It shows me the smallness of my understanding, the limitations of my knowledge, and the very sobering fact that I am a lump of clay in the hands of a potter. I may readily acknowledge the necessity of suffering for spiritual growth; I may be sincerely convinced that my suffering will be not only for God’s glory but also for my own joy; I may nod my head in agreement that, yes, this is good for me, and therefore I want to embrace this.
But then I remember that I am submitting not only to God’s delegation of suffering but to His design of suffering—every detail of it. There is no questionnaire asking me my history, preferences, future goals, strengths, weaknesses, and so on. There is no catalog of options to comb through, where I can provide some hints to God by circling the trials that seem doable. God, as father, shepherd, potter, chooses—period. And it is to His lofty, even mysterious system I must humbly submit while steadfastly clinging to whatever truths He has chosen to reveal in His word. He reveals to us the character of the One who ordains the suffering, the truths that define the suffering, and the final, heavenly reward after the suffering, but He does not allow us to choose exactly what it will look like and what specific earthly purposes it will accomplish.
This is the Christian’s peculiar perspective on suffering, and I say peculiar because it is a different perspective from that of the world. It is natural for humans to resist anything that would cause them pain and discomfort. We are creatures who tirelessly seek comfort and ease. The world may readily declare, “No pain, no gain!” But what kind of pain does the world embrace? The pain of its own choosing. The overweight person chooses the pain of a strict diet for the desired gain of weight loss. The aspiring businessman chooses the pain of exhausting overtime for the desired gain of wealth. The insecure teenager chooses the pain of ditching his one loyal friend for the desired gain of popularity with the in-crowd.
When the world chooses pain for the hope of gain, it does so in submission to its own desires. If the pain becomes too costly or unbearable or the desired gain simply loses its luster, there is always the option of changing courses so as to lessen the pain or do away with it altogether.
This is not how we as Christians approach pain and suffering. We do believe there is gain—great gain—at the end of our suffering. And we are told over and over in Scripture to keep our eyes on that eternal gain, to hope for it, to live for it, to wait for it (e.g., 2 Cor. 4:16–18). But when it comes to the suffering we experience on the way to that final reward, we do not live in submission to our own desires and choose our suffering with the aim to serve self. Rather, we submit to the sovereign will of our Father and live with a dominating desire to see Him praised and glorified whether our earthly suffering is little or much, anticipated or one painful surprise after the other. And when we find ourselves walking through a trial that appears pointless, unprofitable, or even harsh, we don’t run around in desperation looking for a way to escape it. Instead, we turn to the unchanging truths in God’s word that tell us who God is and how He graciously and wisely uses the suffering of His choice to make His children holy and happy. We seek heavenly gain—oh yes! But we do so with hearts submissive to our Creator, who Himself has chosen a very specific path for each of His children to obtain that final gain.
God has already chosen His particular means to sanctify us. Some of these means we have already experienced, some we are experiencing now, and others await us in months and years ahead. To the world, this is a frightening reality that flies in the face of people’s natural attempt to control their own lives. That things may get worse (or already are worse) is hard for them to accept, but that they cannot opt out or fashion things to their own liking is simply too much to take.
Not so for the woman who fears the Lord, for she has the great privilege of drawing back the thick curtain of earthly suffering and by faith casting her gaze on “the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:10). There is a work that has been accomplished, a herald of good news that she has believed, and it clothes her in a strength and dignity unknown to the fearful world around her. She knows not what bitter providences await her and all the intricate ways God will use them. But she does know this: By God’s grace she has believed Him, and by God’s grace she will continue to believe, trust, and obey Him until He brings her safely home in that unclouded day of eternity.
Tessa Thompson lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her husband, Nick, and enjoys being a stay-at-home mom to their two boys. She has written articles for the True Woman Blog at Revive Our Hearts and is passionate about biblical womanhood, God-glorifying homemaking, and learning to apply Scripture to everyday life.
"Sticking Your Tongue Out at Suffering" by Aaron Denlinger
"Sharing in Christ's Suffering" by William VanDoodewaard