Without Clarity Suffering Makes No Sense
Imagine for a moment that Pilgrim’s Progress abruptly ended with Christian and Hopeful trapped in the net of the Flatterer. You turn the page and there is no more writing. The story concludes in a dark moment of bewilderment without any answers regarding whether or not the difficulties of the journey had ultimate purpose or whether the arduous road did in fact lead to a destination. You sit there confused and frustrated, like a traveler who has carefully followed a map only to realize that the path suddenly vanishes in a wasteland.
Sadly, this image is reality for non-Christians living around us. Like us, they suffer, and like us, they experience a difficult road through life filled with unanticipated grief, pain, and disappointment. Yet, whereas for us the Bible reveals a further chapter of the unfolding story, which has the recoil effect of framing tears in laughter and grief in comfort, the non-Christian is trapped in a swamp of despair. Suffering, illness, injustice, and death are not going anywhere. They serve no higher purpose. Man is a blade of grass whose troubles amount to no more than a mere shaking in the wind before a cold and silent universe.
The Hope of a Gospel Perspective
None of the apostles hold their punches when it comes to talking about the afflictions, trials, and suffering that Christians will experience. And yet somehow nearly every passage that zooms in on suffering ends up zooming out on joy or hope. The examples are numerous. Paul tells us to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ because they ultimately lead to glory (Rom. 5:1-5, 8:18-25). Hebrews informs us not to fret the painful discipline of God because the outcome will be ‘the peaceful fruit of righteousness’ (12:3-11). James says, ‘Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kind for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness’ (1:3). Peter encourages new Christians to continue to rejoice in being grieved by ‘various trails’ because the difficulties are a God-appointed fire to purify the hearts of the faithful.
The question every Christian needs to ask is this: how is such alchemy performed? What magic transforms the sediment of suffering to the rich alloy of joyful hope? The answer is clarity. What Paul, Hebrews, James, and Peter all have in common is a clear perspective of the big picture of life. They are not surprised by affliction; they are not unsettled by difficulties. The cross has given them a simple filter by which to understand the most painful of experiences: for those trusting in Christ, suffering leads to glory. This is the path that God has appointed to grow us in character, refine us in faith, and to ignite our faith so that it shines like a lamp in the darkness.
Weeping May Endure for a Night, But Joy Comes in the Morning
As Christians, we cannot judge the goodness and wisdom of God by the middle of the story, but only by the end. Just as Pilgrim’s Progress does not end with Christian and Hopeful trapped in a net, but with their entry into the Celestial City, so our lives will not conclude in dissapointment or frustration, but with the mirth and peace of the kingdom of God. We must believe this, and hope this, even when our circumstances look as impossibly absurd as those of an old man being promised offspring as numerous as the stars in the heaven, or of a suffering people watching their long-awaited Messiah die on a Roman cross. We must incontestably believe that God’s goodness, wisdom, and power will prevail regardless of how obscure the path may be at present. We must allow the great history of the gospel to frame our circumstances so that, in the midst of pitch darkness, we do not fail to look for the dawn of joy on the horizon.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will riden fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
- William Cowper
Questions for Small Groups/Self-Reflection
James 1:2 tells us to ‘count it all joy’ when we experience trials of various kind. How is this possible? How does the hope of the gospel enable us to rejoice in our suffering?
The story of Abraham provides a useful framework for understanding what it means to live by hope. How did the hope of Abraham enable him to endure the challenges of his life?
John Newton wrote a remarkable hymn about suffering that has been put to new music by Indelible Grace. Listen to this song. How does this song change your perspective on what to expect in life?