Grace and Suffering
“You are born, you suffer, you die.”
– Old proverb of uncertain origin
Suffering seems to be the lot of the human race and has been with us, to some degree, from the beginning. History and the Bible are filled with it and philosophers have pondered it. Most of us do our best to avoid it and not even think about it until it hits us, as it inevitably does in one form or another. And we usually do not accept it as matter-of-factly as the proverb seems to do.
In fact, it seems to me that we who are followers of the suffering Savior are often those who have a difficult time resolving ourselves to suffering.
And yet, Jesus warned us that we would suffer. He predicted His own sufferings and death and warned His followers they could expect the same. Usually the sufferings He spoke of are those that accompany discipleship – insults, persecutions, hatred, strained relationships. The New Testament writings, especially those of Paul, are filled with similar warnings.
But we’re not told that all of our sufferings are caused by direct persecutions related to our discipleship. In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the “narrow” or restricted road. The Greek word used to describe the road is thlibo, which is often translated “afflict” (Matthew 7:14). The road of discipleship is a road of affliction. Paul gives a similar warning in Acts 14:22, where he tells the new disciples “…through many afflictions we must enter the “Kingdom of God.” In neither passage is the manner given as to how these afflictions take place.
Perhaps one thing that bothers us about suffering is that most of our sufferings seem unrelated to our discipleship. Most American Christians are not being persecuted for our faith (despite much rhetoric by preachers and politicians). We suffer pain and illness and loss – both our own and that of our loved ones. We suffer broken relationships. Our suffering seems pointless and this pointlessness only serves to intensify our pain. And as we look around, we must admit that most, if not all of the suffering in the world seems pointless.
Isn’t this what Paul was talking about when he said “…the creation was subjected to futility” (Romans 8:20a), and “…the whole creation groans and suffers birth pains together until now” (verse 22)?
The entire passage reads: “For I consider that the sufferings of the present time aren’t worth comparing to the glory that is going to be revealed in us. For the anxious longing of the creation eagerly awaits the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility – not willingly, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from the slavery of corruption into the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that all the creation groans and suffers birth pains together until now. And not only that, but also we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly awaiting the redemption of our body!” (Romans 8:18-22)
Our suffering, says Paul, has purpose; it is something that we share with all creation – a fallen creation. It is anticipatory – there’s something better coming. And it is preparatory for that something better.
And this is where we must see grace. It is grace that permits the sufferings in our lives and it is grace that carries us through those sufferings.
In Philippians 1:29, Paul has some strange counsel to give to a church that was undergoing persecution of some sort. “…to you it has been given on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him but also to suffer for Him.”
The Greek word translated “given” here is charizomai, which is related to our word charis – grace or favor. We could translate it “given as a favor” or “graciously given.” What? Is Paul telling these folks that not only is their faith something that they receive graciously from God, but that their suffering is as well?
Without getting too deep in a discussion about the sovereignty of God, it seems that we’d have to admit this to be true. Suffering is part of God’s plan for us. It is of His grace. This also appears to be what Paul means in 1:7, where he says that even in his imprisonment his readers are “partakers of grace” with him.
But it is also grace that carries us through suffering, when we pray for relief and it doesn’t come. We see this in Paul’s account of his “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
I am not here going to attempt to determine what Paul’s “thorn” was. I have read too many commentaries and graded too many inane papers on this subject. All we know for sure is what is given in the text. Paul tells us that it was “a messenger of Satan,” that it “buffeted” him (literally the idea is of beating with the fist – cf. Matthew 26:67). So we can conclude that this thorn was an affliction – whether physical, mental, emotional, relational or whatever. And Paul tells us that it had a purpose – “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Corinthians 12:7).
Then he tells us “I entreated the Lord three times concerning this, that it might go away from me” (verse 8). And he received an answer, though not what he had asked for. “And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness’” (verse 9a).
I believe we can conclude from Paul’s experience that while God does not always answer our prayers for relief, He always gives His grace to see us through.
There are numerous passages that reinforce this idea. Hebrews 4:15, 16; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5 all speak of the supply of grace in our time of need.
God’s purpose in our lives is that we should be “conformed to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29) – to make us like Christ. And since Christ suffered, we suffer as well. We may pray for relief – Jesus Himself did. God may choose to answer our prayer in a different manner. But He always provides grace. And grace, as Paul says “is sufficient.”