It seems common for some to think that hardship in a believer’s life means God is “punishing” that person for some secret (or public) sin. Although this is a possibility as I hope to show, it isn’t the only reason for suffering in the life of a believer.
First it’s important to understand that a “believer,” as I am using the word, is not simply someone who believes God exists. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble…” (James 2:19). I’m referring to someone who understands their sin is an offense to God and has exhausted all hope of “fixing” himself. A “believer” is someone who has, in effect, thrown himself on God’s mercy, trusting fully that God will save him from hell despite his sin. He believes God has given him eternal life simply because God has promised to give it based alone on the sacrifice and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are many posts on this web site which discuss this more fully (here, for example or here).
In this post I’m focusing on the Scriptural reasons I can see that a believer may suffer hardship. In a later post I may continue the topic and discuss the reasons for suffering among those who don’t believe.
To start with, hear what God says to the believer: “… My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Heb 12:5-7). Believers can expect to be disciplined by the Lord as any good father disciplines his children (and I speak of discipline in a sense much broader than just spanking – think how young men learn discipline in the army).
There are at least three reasons that God allows the believer to suffer:
1… As a consequence or penalty for sin. First let’s consider the difference between a consequence and a penalty. A great example I once heard goes like this. I warn my child of punishment if he eats a cookie. Upon coming home, I find that he ate all the cookies from the cookie jar. As he sits there holding his stomach in pain he tells me he’s sorry and I show him mercy by not punishing him. In this case, because of my mercy, he receives no penalty. But I can do nothing about the natural consequences of his actions and he must endure the stomach ache.
A believer practicing sin may face a natural consequence as suggested by 1 Peter 3:17 which says, “For it is better, if the will of God be so, that ye suffer for well doing, than for evil doing.” And he may also face a more serious penalty from the living God if he refuses to repent (see Rev 2:5, 2:16, 3:3, 3:19; etc.). In some cases the Lord may even remove him altogether as taught in 1 Corinthians 11:26-31.
1 Corinthians 11:26-31:
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.
Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.
2… To prevent us from sinning. The Lord knows us far better than we know ourselves and he loves us. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 we’re told, “…God … will not suffer you to be tempted [tested] above that ye are able; but will … also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” God knows what we can handle and what we can’t. And He clearly does not want us to sin. In fact, we’re right now being “conformed to the image of His son” (Rom 8:29) and will one day be “like Him” in all His purity (1 John 3:2). Sometimes in bringing us there, God must allow hardship in our lives to prevent us from sinning as He did to keep Paul, the apostle, from being overtaken in the sin of pride. See the following Scriptures where Paul expresses this.
2 Corinthians 12:7-9
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.
For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 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.
3… For the simple glory of God. There are times when there is no explanation for suffering (in a believer or otherwise) other than it being a means to demonstrate God’s greatness. John 9, about the Lord Jesus healing a man who was born blind, illustrates this point beautifully (see this post about the blind man). As a modern example, there is the story of Nick Vujicic, a man who was born without arms or legs and who has overcome his disability through the power of God. Read about Nick Vujicic at www.lifewithoutlimbs.org.
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
It’s probably not a bad idea to consider these possibilities when it comes time for us to suffer. And an honest and prayerful assessment will help us to know how to respond. If we find we are guilty of sin, we must confess and repent (1 John 1:9). If we find, as Paul did, that the reason for our suffering is God preventing us from sin, we must learn to be thankful for it (James 1:2-4, Rom 5:3-5, Eph 5:20). If we come to understand that our suffering is simply “that the works of God should be made manifest in Him” (John 9:3), then we should seek to accept and fulfill God’s purpose for our condition (Col 4:2-4, Paul in prison prays not for release, but for words).
And if we just can’t figure out why we suffer, may we simply trust in the Lord, as did Abraham when he said, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).