This past Sunday I preached on the role of suffering in the Christian life. I looked at the part suffering played in the life of Christ, particularly in light of Hebrews 5:7-9 and then asked how can we follow in the footsteps of our Lord and learn obedience during our suffering. In a couple of conversations afterward I could see the need to distinguish between different types of suffering. Not all suffering and pain is the same or comes from the same source. Here are the different types of suffering. Of course, these are not distinct boxes. Sometimes they do overlap, except for the first, which is entirely unique.
Suffering that Atones for Sin
This refers to the once for all sacrifice of Christ upon the cross where he bore in his body the sins of His people and the wrath of God. This cannot be duplicated or supplemented by anyone else.
This refers to the suffering all humans go through simply by being part of a fallen world. Sickness, emotional pain, discouragement, sadness, flat tires, stubbed toes, pain in pregnancy, hard days at work, and such are things all humans experience. Of course, not all go through the same types of suffering or suffer to the same degree, but these are common. You will suffer these types of things on a regular basis. Usually, this has nothing to do with the sin of the individual.
In many ways this is a subspecies of the one above. But some people are given a harder lot in life than others. All get sick. But some get cancer at 35. All cars break down. But some people get in car wrecks. Billions of women give birth. But some almost die or suffer trauma in delivery. All children have sinful fathers. But some fathers abuse their kids. Job in the Bible fits this category. As does Joseph when he is cast into prison or David when he is pursued by Saul. Again, these things have nothing to do with the sin of the individual, though the Lord does use them to sanctify his people.
While common suffering and hard Providences are not the result of individual sin they can be made worse by sin. A flat tire is not caused by sin. But a flat tire will be made worse when an angry man gets one. Cancer is rarely caused by sin. But a bitter woman who gets cancer will find her cancer a greater burden because she is bitter. Sin is not the cause. But sin can make common suffering and hard Providences more difficult.
Suffering for Christ
Some suffering occurs because we are following Jesus. We see this promised by Jesus (Matthew 10:22) and by Paul (II Timothy 3:12). The people of God have always suffered to varying degrees for holding fast to Christ and His Word. It is important to distinguish the common sufferings mentioned above and this type of suffering. Getting a cold is not suffering for Christ. Neither is cancer. Christ can and does use those things in the life of a Christian, but they are not suffering for the gospel. Losing your job because you refuse to lie is. Having your Muslim father disown you because you converted to Christ is. Being raped and killed because you are a Christian is. Being cursed at and spit on while you preach to college students is. Not getting tenure because you take a stand for Christ is. When we treat normal suffering or hard Providences as suffering for the gospel we minimize true gospel suffering.
Suffering for Sinful Choices
All of us suffer to varying degrees in our lives. One of the key lessons in Proverbs is that sinful choices make life harder. Sinners suffer more. We all get sick, but if we are drunkards or smoke like a chimney we will suffer more. We all have money problems from time to time. But if we are sloppy, lazy, or greedy our money problems will usually be worse. We all have marriage difficulties, but people who refuse to communicate well have more marriage difficulties. Sinful choices pile on the pain.
There are two dangers here. First, when we see common suffering or hard Providences in others we assume these come from the personal sin of the individual. John 9 presents just such a situation where a man born blind was assumed to be blind because of a specific sin. However, that was not true. Just because someone is suffering does not mean they are suffering because of a specific sin.
The second danger, when we see the consequences of sinful choices in our own lives we write them off as common suffering or hard Providences. A man loses his job because he is lazy. He says, “Oh that is just the way of the world.” No it is your own sin. Or a woman has disobedient children because of her refusal to spank them. But she says, “Oh all kids disobey.” That is true, but beside the point.
Here are couple of points to remember about suffering. First, use your suffering, whatever kind it is, to grow closer to God, examine yourself for sin, think about death and eternity, and develop compassion for others. As John Piper says, “Don’t waste your suffering.”
Second, don’t assume that the suffering of others is because of their sin. It might be. But don’t assume that unless it is clear.
Third, though you may not be directly suffering for the gospel, the church around the world is. Remember your brothers and sisters who suffer for the gospel.
Fourth, remember the sacrifice of Christ. His suffering on the cross is what transforms our suffering into something good.
Finally, be thankful for your suffering, whatever kind it is. Suffering is God’s way of teaching us obedience, trust, and dependence. Suffering is a grace. That does not make it pleasant. But it does make it profitable.