Does God have a purpose in the suffering of His people? Another way of asking that same question is: does God have any involvement in the suffering of His children? Yet one more similar question might be: doesn’t God only want the best for His people? My answer to the above questions is yes, yes and yes! There are many voices. I have just now added mine. What we need though is a standard from which we can measure things objectively and try to gain real understanding, not as an end in itself but to strengthen our beliefs, our walk with God and usefulness to Him. Experience, church history, Christian writers, these can all be useful but it is to the Bible we must go for the standard we need. The Bible is a big book! I am aware that it is all too easy to just go to selected passages and view them in isolation from the wider context. I will try not to do this but would ask readers also to read around passages that are quoted or referred to. Fundamentally, we must not treat the Bible as an encyclopedia. If we do that we will end up with truncated views which will not be helpful and often lead to all sorts of strange teachings and practices. To try to combat that, I will try to bring something of an overview on this subject and to try to look at this important topic from various angles. If this is useful in some small way for the strengthening of God’s people and the glory of God I shall be even happier.
There is no denying that God’s people suffer, at times. It seems that you do not have to go very far before you meet with a Christian who is suffering in some way. Sometimes you hear of someone who ‘was a Christian’ but has since given up because they were overcome by the trails they experienced. What is true for us in everyday life is also true as we ‘walk through the Bible’. There is not only joy that God’s people express but also, at times, mild, moderate and even severe suffering. It’s also something that non-Christians will speak of and say: if God is so loving, as you claim, then why does He allow suffering? I think that too often we can be embarrassed by that question, look nervous and say, well, God’s ways are higher than our ways and leave it at that. Now, for sure, God’s ways are higher than ours and we must say that, and more. So, why do God’s people suffer? Look closely at 1 Peter below.
1 Peter 1:3-8
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are kept by the power of God through faith for salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen you love.
This is such a glorious passage of Scripture. We (Christians) have been born again by the abundant mercy of God and this is the result of God’s plan to save (election) v2. It’s a living hope with a sure inheritance in Heaven because God’s people are kept by the same limitless power that created the world and all things and the same awesome power that upholds the world and all things. Nothing can get in the way of God’s plans. He has the power, understanding and wisdom to carry it all out perfectly.
Christ’s death was no ‘unfortunate accident’, outside of the plan of God. Far from it! Rather, as the above passage shows, the salvation of God’s people was accomplished by this enormous suffering of Christ and being a sacrifice, acceptable to the Father, lead to His resurrection. In the same way, I hope to show, that the sufferings of God’s people likewise have a very real purpose.
Trials have a purpose
The Apostle Peter goes on: In this (great plan of salvation) you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials… Notice that phrase above: “if need be”. What is the Apostle saying, and what does he connect it to? Simply this: there will or may at times be a need for trials. But he doesn’t stop there. He has already stated that trials produce grief. But the trials have a purpose: the testing of our faith. The testing is to show authenticity and to bring about purity in the people of God. This is the purpose of the illustration that the Apostle uses regarding gold. Gold is not worth much in it’s alloyed state. As a pure element, yes it’s very valuable to the owner. So too the Christian. This is what the Psalmist meant in Psalm 23:3 “He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake”. Righteousness is about purity. Not a purity we try to manufacture but one that is developed in the school of trials. Yes, trials are for our good, our sanctification but more than that, it is for His names sake. There is more that can be said but may we at least see that trials do not take place without a reason. A good reason. God has purpose in the suffering His people go through and He has given them an understanding of this in His word, for their good and to know that sufferings will ultimately benefit all who belong to Him. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. John 8:32. Hence Paul could say: in everything give thanks! This knowledge is for the Christian’s comfort. It means we are not lone. God is with us, who can be against us? He is sovereign. Our duty and privilege is to follow Him. To trust Him. His grace is sufficient for our every need. He is on the throne. He is faithful. We can endure. Be comforted and strengthened.