And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.
Whenever I try to make sense of suffering, I end up in the same dilemma. On one hand, I know that my hardships and afflictions are relatively insignificant compared to what I see around me; much less, what I am aware of around the world. On the other hand, I cannot deny that I get sick, stretched, slandered, and snubbed. Privileged as they are, I feel burdened by my circumstances and frustrated with my struggle against sin. It’s dishonest to say I don’t suffer, at least from my perspective.
So how are we to view the various forms of hardship and trial that we face? What is the relationship between our faith and suffering?
Some teach that Jesus suffered so we wouldn’t have to, but an honest assessment is that no one escapes suffering in a fallen world. It is more than physical hardship. It’s also emotional pain, relational woes, soul unrest, and spiritual attack. Jesus’ death does not take away our suffering, but it gives profound meaning and purpose to it.
Consider James’ exhortation to those who suffer: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
I said previously that suffering happens to us. We cannot control our circumstances, but we can control how we think about them. Dan McCartney comments, “Knowing how to interpret events and actions is a large part of wisdom, and the faithful attitude of the Christian is one of joy.”
We can rejoice on two accounts. First, suffering provides a context for our faith to mature. The “trials of various kinds” represent the pressures of life that threaten our sense of well-being. When we are sick or stuck or grieved, we tend to doubt God’s sovereignty and goodness in our lives. Every test of our body or mind or emotion is fundamentally a “testing of our faith” (1:2). In other words, the quality of our faith is proven in suffering, tested and shown to be genuine. In the way that an object is proven to be gold in the fire, the “proof” of our faith is in the “fiery trial” (1 Peter 4:12). Whether we are talking about common adversities or more acute hardships, we can embrace and even rejoice in suffering because we know that it produces character and hope and maturity (Romans 5:3, James 1:2-4).
Second, suffering focuses our hope on the consummation of all things, when God “will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4). Just as Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him (Hebrew 12:2), so too we look to the day when the steadfast will receive the crown of life (James 1:12).
Wisdom, suffering, and maturity are all bound together in the person and work of Christ. He “became to us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30), and he was “made perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10). So then: we are justified by Christ’s suffering and sanctified by ours. By this we are reminded that suffering is not a setback to our agendas, but rather an orientation to God’s agenda, which is to form the character of Christ in us.
Ultimately, God does not ask us to explain suffering. He asks us to rejoice in it and endure it.
How have you questioned God’s sovereignty or goodness in your life?
How does the desire for comfort over character play out in your life?
Are you willing to ask God to purify your faith?
O God Whose will conquers all, there is no comfort in anything apart from enjoying thee and being engaged in thy service; Thou art All in all, and all enjoyments are what to me thou makest them, and no more. I am well pleased with thy will, whatever it is, or should be in all respects, And if thou bidst me decide for myself in any affair, I would choose to refer all to thee, for thou art infinitely wise and cannot do amiss, as I am in danger of doing. I rejoice to think that all things are at thy disposal, and it delights me to leave them there. Then prayer turns wholly into praise, and all I can do is to adore and bless thee.