The Christian life is not easy. No matter what the rolex-clad television preacher tells you, Jesus makes it perfectly clear that the life of a believer is no walk in the park. (John 16:33) In fact, it’s pretty much impossible to find any instance in the Scriptures of faithful believers living their best life now. A quick perusal of “the hall of faith” in Hebrews 11 shows that believers suffer mightily as they live as pilgrims looking forward to the life to come.
The reason for suffering is something that is often debated among Christian circles. In my estimation, there really shouldn’t be much debating. I believe that God has spoken clearly in the Scriptures that suffering isn’t only expected, but is ordained by God. In his infinite wisdom, God uses suffering in the lives of believers to sanctify them and conform them more into the likeness of Jesus. For example, when Paul penned the letter to the Philippians he told them that they were not only appointed by God to believe, but that they were also appointed to suffer. (Philippians 1:29) Knowing this truth, Christians can live their lives understanding that God is right in the middle of their suffering. Nothing is by chance. All suffering has a divine purpose from a loving heavenly Father.
Now this is not to say that Christians don’t experience joy. Joy is intrinsic to a regenerate soul in-dwelt with the Holy Spirit. In fact, joy is one of the many characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit outlined in Galatians 5. One thing Christians must never do is confuse happiness with joy. A Christian can be very unhappy and yet have an overflowing fountain of joy.
You see, happiness is most always tied to circumstances and events in our lives. For example, give a child a toy and they are happy. Take that toy away from them and they are unhappy. Joy is different. Joy is based not on our circumstances, but on the unchanging and never-failing love of God through the gospel. It’s why a Christian can go through some of the darkest and unhappy moments yet have an almost inexplicable joy as they look to Christ. Let’s face it, as Paul sat in a dreary jail cell writing several of his letters I imagine he would’t post on his Facebook wall, “I sure am happy here in this prison!” But one thing Paul learned was how to have joy and contentment no matter the season of life. He learned to be content (joy) in lack and in plenty. (Philippians 4:11-12) Joy was in the heart of Paul because Christ was living in Him by the Holy Spirit. While happiness comes and goes, joy has its foundation on Jesus who is the same yesterday, today and forever. (Hebrews 13:8)
I believe it requires most believers to experience these truths in their lives before they actually really believe what the Scriptures teach. Yes, many can recite great doctrinal truths, but to actually experience them is where we bring them from our mind into our heart.
Early in my Christian life I soaked up good doctrine. I loved to read theology books and store those wonderful truths in my mind. But it wasn’t until I walked through the valley of the shadow of death that those truths sunk in and became reality to me. My wife would often say, “You can’t sing the blues until you have lived the blues.” I think she stole that line from Ray Charles, but it has some practical truth.
I would venture that if you polled most Christians and asked them at what points in their life they came to know the Lord the most they would tell you that it was in their darkest hours. Trials, tribulations and suffering is often the medicine God uses to teach us about our incredible weakness and his infinite strength. Yes, to put it bluntly (and I pray not sacrilegiously) God sometimes uses his celestial 2X4 to knock us down so we can only look up.
Spiritual pride and complacency are two sicknesses that often require the Great Physician to take drastic measures. Yet let us not forget that God is good and everything he does is perfect, just and right. Everything he does is first and foremost for his glory and secondly for our good. Resting in these great truths helps us to suffer well for his namesake.
I am convinced that Christians should include the request to suffer well and die well in our prayers to God. I know all too well my weakness and my fear of pain and suffering. The last thing I want to do is bring shame to the name of Christ through fits of unbelief in the midst of dark providences of God. Yet how often our lives are plagued with just that — unbelief. God’s amazing grace is seen every moment in the lives of believers as he patiently deals with their fainting fits of unbelief - especially in times of trial and suffering.
I’ve been a Christian since 2005, and as I look back over the years I can honestly say I would not trade the dark times for anything. While I was definitely very unhappy during those times, it was in that darkness where Christ and his grace shined so brightly. It was also in that valley that God taught me more about my sin, my frailty, my weakness and my constant need of him. It was in the deep mire that the Lord showed me my need for fellowship with my family of believers. It was in the darkness that I came to realize that all that really matters is Christ. And it was there in those darkest hours that I came to experientially realize the doctrinal truth that joy is tied to Christ, not my circumstances.
So, turn off the television preachers and put down that best-seller that has pages full of spiritual deception. Instead, turn to the pages of Scripture and soak in the amazing truth that God ordains all things (even the darkest valleys of suffering) to teach us that we are nothing and he is everything. There will come a bright day when suffering is no more, but while we are pilgrims on our way to glory, our righteous Father uses even the darkest things to reveal his glorious Light.
Have a question about this article? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.