It was the Spring of 2013, and I was struggling with the myriad of difficult circumstances our family was facing and attempting to reconcile my spiritual beliefs in light of those circumstances.
Gracen and Katie had been diagnosed with ARSACS, a rare and progressive form of muscular dystrophy a year before. Their prognosis was not encouraging. We saw increasing deterioration in Gracen’s health, which seemed to be moving faster than we’d expected based on the limited amount of information available. Bethany had completed her freshman year of college at the University of Central Arkansas and was growing increasingly cynical toward the faith of her youth. And David’s job was in jeopardy. He is the sole breadwinner for our family and we were unsure if he would qualify for unemployment benefits. Needless to say, I was a tad stressed.
Funny how none of the things above was my personal problem. Each one was a battle for those I love most deeply and as a wife and mother, their suffering became my own. The curse of empathy is the ability to personalize another’s suffering as your own and that’s exactly what I did. Every physical setback Gracen and Katie experienced resulted in grieving the lost abilities for my daughters and for myself. Each time Bethany attacked a biblical truth, I ached and feared for her, for her future, for her eternal safety and for myself knowing her choices might lead me to endure painful consequences alongside her. And I was well aware how a man’s job impacts his self-esteem not to mention the burden of financial insecurity.
One morning I sat out on my back patio with my bible and smartphone and began searching the scriptures for what God’s Word said about suffering. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote about his own trials:
7 “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing, I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” — 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (KJV)
When Paul asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh, this was God’s response:
(2 Corinthians 12:9) “My grace is sufficient for thee . . . “
“My strength is made perfect in weakness . . . “ KJV
Or in another translation
“My power is perfected in weakness . . .” NASB
In 2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul tells the reader the purpose of the thorn in his flesh. I find it interesting that Paul knew and understood why he was suffering, just as Christ did in the Garden of Gethsemane, yet both Paul and Christ asked for their suffering to be taken from them. That tells me that understanding God’s purposes doesn’t make suffering any easier to endure. Knowing why doesn’t make the hurt or the fear go away. The truth is that, in our humanity, we are desperate to escape pain in spite of recognizing God’s greater plan.
In this particular case, the purpose of Paul’s thorn in the flesh was to keep him humble. Paul understood that the normal human response to being singled out by the resurrected Lord—and receiving the sheer abundance of revelation he received—would commonly result in pride; a very destructive character trait.
Paul described the thorn in his flesh two ways:
1) As a gift; well he doesn’t actually call it a gift. He simply says it was given to him which implies to me that it was a gift and its purpose implies it was a gift from God (to keep him humble). Funny how a message from the enemy to buffet a believer could be seen as a gift from God when it serves His purpose. And it was a good thing because it saved Paul from the pain and destruction pride brings. Maybe some of our sufferings are considered good from God’s perspective because it saves us from a fate that is far more detrimental to our overall well-being or damaging to our character.
2) As a message from Satan to torment him. It’s as if God allowed Satan to afflict Paul, just like God allowed Satan to afflict Job. The Bible is riddled with such instances. Satan intended this thorn in Paul’s flesh to hurt Paul just as Satan, via the conduit of his brothers, intended harm, even death, for Joseph. Satan was also allowed to bring Christ to the cross, although Jesus laid down his own life in obedience to God. Satan’s intent was to destroy God’s plan of redemption but again, God thwarted Satan through Christ’s resurrection which defeated the power of sin and death in men’s lives. It appears that two plans are being implemented simultaneously with very different goals. Satan’s goals are destructive but God is well aware that Satan has set out to destroy His children and God uses Satan’s own devices not only to thwart Satan’s plans but to triumph over them. Isn’t that the most satisfying form of serving justice and meting out righteous vengeance—to turn your enemy’s own evil plans against him? It’s pretty much the ultimate slap-down.
Although the message Satan wanted to communicate to Paul isn’t directly outlined, we can extrapolate it ourselves based on what we’ve heard other broken believers express through trials. Here’s a reasonable sampling:
1) God doesn’t love you or He wouldn’t have allowed this bad thing in the first place
2) If God really loved you, He would have healed you from this affliction
3) God isn’t as powerful as He claims because He obviously can’t heal you or He would have
4) God can’t protect you from me (Satan) – I’m more powerful than God
Just like Job, when Paul didn’t respond to suffering the way Satan expected, Satan added to Paul’s affliction. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 says that Paul suffered more than any man for the sake of the gospel. Paul:
1) Received 39 stripes on five separate occasions at the hand of the Jews
2) Was beaten with rods three times
3) Was stoned once
4) Was shipwrecked three times
5) Spent a full day and night in the ocean on at least once
Throughout his journeys to spread the gospel, Paul’s life was in danger from robbers, fellow Jews, Gentiles and false Christians wherever he went and however, he got there. He suffered from cold, exposure, manual labor, sleepless nights, hunger & thirst all while shouldering the concerns of the churches he planted.
Satan uses affliction to:
1) Discourage and torment believers
2) Derail efforts to spread the gospel
3) Cause believers to doubt God’s love, kindness, and power
I recently read a very interesting article about John 10:10, “The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill, and to destroy: I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” The article examines the Greek words in this verse to aid in gaining a better understanding of the scripture. Click on the following link for an eye-opening read from the Renner Ministries Blog:
God uses affliction to:
1) To prevent us from becoming prideful — 2 Corinthians 12:7 (See above); Or maybe to prevent us from developing some other trait that damages our character or is personally destructive.
2) To save His chosen people:
“Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” — Genesis 45:5 & 7
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” — Genesis 50:20
3) To provide His children with the assurance of their own salvation:
“The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.” — Romans 8:16
4) Conform us into the image of Christ and share in the fellowship of His suffering, His consolation, and His glory:
“But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” — 2 Corinthians 3:18
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. — Romans 8:28-30
“And if we are children, then we are heirs: heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ—if indeed we suffer with Him, so that we may also be glorified with Him.” — Romans 8:17
“For just as the sufferings of Christ overflow to us, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. . . And our hope of you is stedfast, knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation.” — 2 Corinthians 1:5 & 7
“But rejoice that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed at the revelation of His glory.” — 1 Peter 4:13
5) To produce endurance, develop your faith, and lead to increased spiritual maturity:
Be assured that the testing of your faith [through experience] produces endurance [leading to spiritual maturity, and inner peace]. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result and do a thorough work, so that you may be perfect and completely developed [in your faith], lacking in nothing. — James 1:3-4 AMP
6) Enable us to comfort and encourage others who are suffering:
“Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.” — 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
7) To display the works of God:
“His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus replied: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” — John 9:2-3
8) To earn eternal rewards that will far outweigh the temporal suffering we experience in life:
“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” — 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Why is it important that we understand God’s purpose in allowing His children to suffer?
I think it’s critical that we realize that God uses affliction for a variety of purposes and each trial a believer encounters may serve a completely different purpose.
One thing I have discovered through child loss is that fellow Christians often try to encourage the grieving by reminding them that their current suffering will allow them to comfort another hurting soul somewhere down the road. This may or may not be true. Depending upon the circumstances, the level of trauma involved, or the personality of the bereaved, God may never intend that believer’s suffering to be used to minister to another. The experience may be so negative that the individual may not be able to support and encourage another. The pressure to minister may re-victimize the believer or the individual may not be able to talk about their situation without inciting fear in another thereby doing more damage than good.
I have also discovered that those who are called to minister to others generally are not capable of taking on that role until a significant amount of healing has taken place in their own lives. Discernment is definitely required before encouraging anyone to minister to another as a result of their trial and also required for the tested, the survivor, to know if God is really calling them to this type of ministry or to minister to a specific individual. Ministry is about more than shared experience. Personality and approach matter.
Of all the purposes of suffering I uncovered in my research, all but one can generally be confirmed in hindsight. The one that can’t—when God allows suffering in order to prevent something He deems more damaging to His child. There are some things we will never be able to understand or explain.
Suffering almost always leads to the why question. But ultimately, having a definitive answer doesn’t make the suffering less painful or even lead a believer to embrace the pain for the joy that lies before them. Knowing why is less important than the fruit God produces as a result of affliction. Understanding why may come in hindsight, but even if it doesn’t, I believe there’s always a purpose, whether I approve of it or not, and God allows it for our individual, eternal good.
As Ruth, my grief counselor, pointed out to me recently, at creation, God proclaimed everything He created “good” not “perfect”. Why would Adam be made caretaker of all of creation if there were no problems to resolve? Had there been no problems, Adams job would have been superfluous.
Perfect is a life without problems, without suffering. Good is a life that includes problems, inconveniences, and even suffering. It’s a life that matures through time and experience. It’s a life that includes overcoming adversity, recognizing our dependence upon God, helping our fellow man, bringing glory to God and earning eternal rewards. We don’t earn anything unless we work for it. And God’s grace is sufficient to enable us to live a good life in spite of trials, afflictions, and suffering.