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When Job put his finger on the thing he feared most, it caused dread to wash over his soul as he wrestled through the aftermath of God’s sovereign intervention into his life. We know in chapter one that he worried about his children, amping up his legalism in a futile attempt to steer God’s omnipotent hand. It did not work. When you mix mystery and sovereignty with an omnipotent God, all you can do is make your plans, knowing God will order your steps down an unchangeable path. The good Lord led Job into the crucible of suffering, and after things unraveled for him, Job said the quiet part aloud.
For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me (Job 3:25).
Job was a praying man who loved God wholeheartedly. He did not recognize that God’s blessing would come in such an unsuspecting way. He reminds me of my friend, “Mable.” She prayed for 13 years that her marriage would change. Biff was a half-hearted husband as well as a half-hearted Christian. The primary emphasis in his life had been to work hard and long hours. If you asked him, he would say he was a good husband because he provided for his family. The “providing for the family” card is one of the most over-used justifications for the man who chooses to be a lousy husband on the homefront and a rock star vocationally. He filled his love cup by managing his reputation at work.
As the years rolled on, the work hours became longer, and their marital distance grew wider as their mutual pockets of silence metastasized. Mable knew there was more to Biff’s life, but she could not put two and two together. Then finally, her suspicions were validated when a text from Biff inadvertently went to her phone. He meant it for a female colleague three states away. Mable confronted Biff, but her efforts were fruitless as he denied her accusations. Biff was feeling her out, trying to discern how much she knew, so he would know how much to say. When a person’s confession does not transcend what others already know, he’s probably lying.
Once Biff knew the evidence was irrefutable and his protestations were unconvincing, he came clean about his 19-month affair. Though the counseling took several months and many ups and downs, Biff repented genuinely. And Mable came to a sovereign-centered view of suffering that released her to forgive her husband freely and pursue genuine reconciliation. Ironically, Mable received the answers to her prayers for a good marriage through the crucible of extreme suffering. What she feared the most had come upon her, and what she dreaded befell her.
God gave them a great marriage.
God gave them a great marriage.
The remainder of this chapter will speak to a high-level, mature Christian response to personal suffering that comes from the loving hand of God. It’s the type of hardship that God was calling Mable to endure. You may not have come to this place in your theology of suffering. Do not despair. Be prayerful. Ask God to give you the grace to understand what I am saying so you can adequately steward this most feared blessing. No matter the difficulty, your suffering will not come to you without God’s allowance and His mysterious concern for you. You must work through the primary tension between you, the sufferer, and God, the gift-giver.
If you don’t do this well, you’ll be unable to get the proper perspective on what’s happening to you. Suffering is inevitable for every human. For example, we all are going to die. Suffering is an imminent and painful reality, which is why it is all the more important we see suffering through the lens of God’s sovereign plan for us. Before Mable could properly work through what was going on in her marriage, she had to have her heart adjusted by her loving heavenly Father. What you’re about to read are a few verses, with a brief commentary after each. These verses will walk you through a progression that leads you to a safer and more satisfying perspective on God’s mysterious will for our lives. I hope this progression will recalibrate any needed changes in your mind about sovereignty and suffering.
1: It’s Time to Die
Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24).
Jesus told us that death is the only way we can live. It’s gospel irony. Fruit-bearing comes through the door of death. There is no other way if we hope to live a fruitful life. I am not trying to be unsympathetic toward anything that may be happening to anyone. Truths about suffering are hard for fallen ears to hear. Part of the maturing process has to include purifying our perspectives because the truth is that we have many ways, attitudes, and patterns in our lives that need changing. It is mercy from God to love us enough to purify us by removing things from our lives that hinder us from knowing Him more profoundly. I assume what I’m saying is not odd to you, especially if you’re a parent. Loving parents always do hard things for kids with hearts prone to wander.
2: It’s Time to Participate
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:10).
There is an implied question from this verse begging you to answer: Do you want to know Christ? Knowing Christ is a costly, challenging, and painful process that will require your life—do not be deceived about the admission fee. Jesus was a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief. He was despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53). We cannot know Him in a detached and unaffected way. No, never, not in this life. Christianity is not a spectator sport but a call for combatants to enter the arena armed and ready for battle. If you love the Savior and desire to know Him genuinely, there is no choice but to share in the fellowship of His sufferings. It happens in the arena. We cannot participate in the power of His resurrection until we engage in His sufferings.
3: It’s Time to Accept
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Philippians 1:29).
There are two gifts you receive at regeneration. The first is the gift of salvation. When you first encounter God in a salvific way, He grants you the gift of salvation. To be born again is a beautiful new life. But salvation is not the only gift under the “Christmas tree.” Imagine gathering around the tree this Christmas and, to your delight, you discover two gifts with your name on them. You open the first and find out you have been born from above. Joy! Then you ask, “What is the second gift under the tree?” That gift, my friend, is the gift of suffering. This truth is the point of Philippians 1:29. God gives all Christians at least two presents at their new birth: salvation and suffering. I know this is not a good “Evangelism 101” strategy: “Hey, you wanna suffer? Become a Christian.” We typically leave out the suffering part, though we should not. We ought to be more forthright with what it means to become a Christian: the more serious you take your faith, the more you suffer. The Bible could not be more explicit.
4: It’s Time to Follow
For to this, you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).
Have you ever wondered what your calling is in life? Sometimes a young adult will come to me asking about God’s will for them. Of course, I do not know the specifics, but I know this much: He has called us believers to suffer. The word Christian means Christ-follower. Personal, customized suffering is part of the experience of being a Christ follower. Imagine a mature young person who understands, at least in theory, that suffering is the way of Christ. It will help when their specific time comes to step into their “Gethsemane,” the wine press where God produces the best wine from crushed grapes.
5: It’s Time to See
See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are (1 John 3:1).
In 2015, my doctor put stitches on the top of my head. Why did he do this? In part because he loves me. He cares about my health, so he asked if he could cut a slight growth from my head to have it checked to see if it was cancerous. The process was somewhat painful, though not nearly as painful as other procedures that happen to people. My point is that sometimes love means hurt is the pathway to receiving help and healing. You need to know this about our loving heavenly Father. God so loved us that He (executed) His one and only Son (John 3:16). Read the parenthetical word again: executed! Our Father is a radical lover. Sometimes the “manner of love” He bestows upon us is in a package we might not initially understand or appreciate as love.
6: It’s Time to Experience
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief (Isaiah 53:10).
Sometimes the love of God will crush us. If the Father believed it necessary to crush His one and only Son to save you and me, do you think His love for us will always be soft carpet, stocked pantries, and clean beds? The surges of suffering will come over us like the ocean’s billows, and we’ll be so disoriented that the love of God will be the furthest thing from our minds. We must be pre-emptive by recalibrating our minds to the purposes and promises of suffering. I like Samuel Rutherford’s perspective on hardship.
You will not get leave to steal quietly to heaven, in Christ’s company, without a conflict and a cross. – Samuel Rutherford
7: It’s Time to Realize
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding (Job 38:42).
Though Job understood, to a degree, what was happening to him, he did not entirely get it until the end of the book that carries his name. Before the turning (or restoring) of his captivity in the final chapter, God stepped in and gave Job some counsel. You might say it was directive. The Lord was lovingly-hard on His friend as He put Job in his place. Job had become whiny, entitled, and disgruntled about what was happening to him. His response to God is also my danger. At times I forget my place. I think I deserve better than what I have, regardless of what I have. I forget that I was a rebel before God, bound for hell. Sometimes I think I am somebody when I unleash my arrogance and begin to prance around like I deserve better. As painful as it is, it is the mercy of the Lord to put me in my place, as He did with Job. Biblically, I cannot say the unpleasant things that have happened to me were not the mercy of the Lord. Though many harsh, hard, and horrific things have happened to me, I know now that God’s helping and healing hand was in all those disappointing things.
8: Will You Die?
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6).
Job finally got it. He finally understood. God stood on Job’s neck for four chapters, hardly letting up at all, and the scales eventually fell from Job’s eyes. Formerly, he had heard of God, perhaps through Sunday school or well-crafted, well-delivered sermons, but now, in the context of personal suffering and stern counsel from the Lord, he found his place with God. He was rightly and wholly affected by his loving Father. Honestly, what God did appears to be a divine beatdown. The force of God’s words put Job in his place, and Job was like a dead man—he put his hand over his mouth. The grain of wheat had entirely fallen into the ground, and Job was slowly dying to himself. Though he did not know it, he was only a few moments away from an incredible blessing. God was about to turn things around for His friend.
And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before (Job 42:10).
The big word in this text is “when.” God turned Job’s captivity “when” he prayed for his friends. The word “when” is an element of time. God turned Job’s captivity “when” Job came to that “time in his heart” where he could freely intercede for those who had hurt him. Can you do this? Will I? This kind of praying is not intellectual assent to some other-worldly theological nugget. It is purified praying from a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). Maybe you need to ask God to do more work in your heart. Ask Him to give you the grace that will enable you to pray for and serve those who have hurt you. “When” you can do this, you can expect God’s inestimable favor to flood your soul and life.
Initially, Mable could not process, understand, and apply what I have written here. She was too hurt, too angry, and too unforgiving. I also knew she would be too offended if I brought these more profound truths to her attention. This view of suffering is only for prepared and mature audiences. Though Mable was mature, she was not prepared for this teaching. I had to be very patient with Mable. Sometimes the best words are not said at the best times. She could not see that what was happening to her was a carefully prepared blessing from her loving heavenly Father. In time, she did understand. In time, she experienced a more profound grace from God. Think about how difficult it was for the Savior to fully embrace the crushing from His Father, the crushing that God planned in eternity past. We sing about it and call it “amazing love,” but it was tough for Him to walk it out, leading to a death sentence.
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:38-39).
Mable was not initially able to steward God’s most feared blessing. Mable had been praying for a biblical marriage for 13 years, but she could never have a biblical marriage because her husband did not have a heart for God—he had a heart for himself. Though Mable would have been happier if Biff had repented without an affair, she began to understand that God’s method to bring Biff back to Himself and her was needful. Biff was not only dissing Mable but also trashing God’s name. God is a jealous God, and Biff professed to be His son. God would not allow Biff to continue on the path that he was going. Not only did God answer Mable’s prayer by giving her the biblical marriage that she longed for, but He made a significant correction in Biff’s heart.
Biff repented of his sin and began the long process of restoring his relationship with God and his wife. My hope and prayer for the Mables of this world are that they will be able to embrace and appropriate God’s grace in their lives, especially when their time of suffering comes. To do this, they must come to the place of understanding what is happening to them in their horizontal world is not the main issue. What God is doing in their vertical world needs addressing first. The physical suffering we endure due to our weaknesses is mysterious. The pain from others is profound. No matter how hurt or suffering comes our way, we must understand that God’s love works through that pain, creating a transcendent victory.
And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39-40).
Without a doubt, suffering is God’s most feared blessing, and as odd as it may sound, it is a gift that requires our utmost stewardship. How are you stewarding the gift of suffering? If you’re like me, you will say, “He’s still working on me.” Well, buckle up. I’ve got some great news, but it comes with a cross. The remainder of this book will delve into the mystery of Job’s suffering and how God used this gift to bring our old friend into a more in-depth and satisfying relationship with his Maker. Several millennia later, I decided to step into Job’s book, hoping the good Lord would turn my captivity into something transformative and redemptive. I can’t wait to share what I learned from my old friend, Job.
This article is the introduction to my book, Suffering Well.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).