A friend asked me an interesting question recently. He said that we parents usually warn our children when we know they are going to face a problem or crisis. Then why does God not warn His children of impending problems and dangers?
He does warn us sometimes through different means like a prophecy, the words of another person, listening to a message or reading the Word. But that is not His usual method. Often, trials hit us out of the blue, at a time when we feel quite unprepared. James 1:2 talks of numerous trials suddenly hitting us — that is what the Greek there implies. Why doesn’t God always warn us beforehand like a good father usually does?
An even more basic question is, “Why does our loving Father allow us to go through problems and hardships?” Any father would do all he can to save his child from facing suffering. But often they have to helplessly watch as their children suffer, unable to do anything to stop the suffering. But God can stop our suffering. Why doesn’t He do so?
Our knowledge is incomplete. We parents act immediately to help our struggling children when we know of impending danger or problems. God, on the other hand, knows perfectly what is best for us, and He sometimes chooses to let us go through difficulties without intervening directly. Instead, He gives us the strength and the necessary guidance for each moment, and does something wonderful in our lives through the problems.
God makes us patient people
One reason why God allows us to go through problems and suffering is that He wants us to be patient people! We need to have patience in our relationships with people and the world, as there is much that is not ideal in the people we relate to and in the world around us. People who have not learned patience are unhappy people, because they do not know how to face difficulties they encounter from people and the world.
There are two Greek word groups for “patience” in the New Testament, and they appear more than 60 times, referring to the need for Christians to be patient. More than 60 times! That is how important patience is to the Christian life. And God’s way to make us patient is to let us go through hardships.
A man asked a pastor to pray for him, that he would have more patience. In the pastor’s prayer, he kept praying, “Lord, send my brother tribulation.” The man tapped the pastor on his shoulder and said, “Pastor, I need patience, not tribulation.” The pastor replied, “The Bible says, ‘tribulation produces patience’.” (Romans 5:3, MEV)
Patience is the ability to persevere with difficult people and under difficult circumstances. God does not promise ease and the solving of all our problems; but the Word says that we can rejoice in our trials because He is teaching us patience through them (Romans 5:3; James 1:2-3).
But why should we rejoice over the fact that our hardships make us more patient? Patience is usually viewed as an undesired necessity in our lives, not something to be happy about. Actually, it is something to be happy about! Learning patience is key to a joyous life, and patience is learned through difficulties and hardships. So God will allow us to “suddenly encounter all kinds of trials” (James 1:2) to teach us to be patient.
The happiest people in the world are not those who do not have problems. They are those who are not afraid of problems. Those who have learned to trust God and patiently face trials, knowing that God will turn everything to good, are not afraid of all the supposed misfortunes they face. They can be joyous in the middle of trials. So we can rejoice when we have problems because we know that God will use them to make us patient – that is, joyous – people.
God deepens our relationship with Christ
In the midst of all this, another thing is sure: Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Paul says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?” (Romans 8:35) Experiencing Christ’s love is the most precious wealth and the most joyous experience in our lives. And we can experience that even in the midst of suffering.
John Stam and his wife Betty were young missionaries who were martyred by the Communists in China in 1934. John once said, “Take away everything I have, but do not take away the sweetness of walking and talking with the King of glory.” That is the most glorious thing in our lives, and it is not touched by suffering.
Suffering actually deepens our relationship with God. Paul says that one way in which we know Christ deeper is by “[sharing] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Suffering makes us look to God with desperation, and that deepens our relationship with Him — the sweetest thing in our lives.
But that is not all. When we look to God during our problems, God comforts us. Paul says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:5). The suffering becomes an opportunity for God to touch us with His comfort, and by so doing to increase our joy in Him.
When we know that God has comforted us, it gives us a great joy that is deeper than the pain we experience. We are so happy that God reached out to us personally and lovingly ministered to us. He has pampered us like a loving father pampers his struggling child. God loves to do that. Paul calls Him “God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). Suffering then increases the most beautiful thing in our lives: our love relationship with Jesus.
We become like Jesus
In Philippians 3:10, Paul says that when we share in Christ’s sufferings, we also become “like [Jesus] in his death”. Jesus is a suffering Saviour, and if we want to be like Him, we too must suffer. Becoming like Jesus is to become like what God made us to be. Henry Clay Morrison, who founded Asbury Seminary where I studied, once said, “God did not fix me up so that I couldn’t sin. He fixed me up so that I couldn’t sin and enjoy it.” We were created in the image of God. That means the only way we can be fulfilled, complete and happy people is by being loving and holy like Jesus is. For Jesus, that meant suffering.
A few years ago, I did a study of all the times Jesus is presented in the New Testament as a model for us to follow. I found 29 passages. Three texts were general calls to be like Jesus. One text was a call to be obedient like Jesus. Two texts were calls to follow Christ’s example in forgiving others.
The rest — 23 texts — dealt with suffering and servanthood, and patient perseverance. Actually, most of the servanthood passages in the Bible are about suffering. So 23 out of 29 passages where we are asked to follow Christ have to do with suffering! When we are like Jesus we become fulfilled, complete and happy people. If this is so we should welcome suffering!
We parents act according to our limited knowledge and try to shield our children from trouble. But God wants to do a deeper work in our lives. He wants us to be joyous, contented individuals. We cannot be joyful in an imperfect world unless we know how to be patient. So God lets us experience “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” in order to teach us patience. And through these hardships He also gives us an experience of deep intimacy with Him, which is the happiest thing in life. But that is not all. The suffering helps make us into the kind of people we were made to be. We become like Jesus, and in the process we become fulfilled and contented with life.
Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) Now that is a good description of a truly joyous person. And that was written from a dark, dreary Roman prison!
Ajith Fernando –
serves as Teaching Director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, having served as its National Director for 35 years. He and his wife Nelun are parents of two married children and grandparents of three grandsons. Among his 17 books is The Family Life of a Christian Leader (Crossway).