Keeping this in mind can help us better learn to deal with suffering and accept it.
Sigmund Freud worked as a counselor to deliver people from psychological difficulties. Yet he was honest enough to admit that his ability to help was limited. He confessed that he "cured the miseries of the neurotic only to open him up to the normal misery of life" (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, 1973, p. 271). Freud was right: There is no such thing as a trouble-free life.
Since we cannot avoid all suffering, we must keep in mind that it can and often does produce good results. It's easier to endure suffering and pain when we view them as challenges than when we think of them as unbearable curses.
It has traditionally been a tenet of Western culture, and rightly so, that some difficulties are beneficial in that they can help us mature and become better people. However, author Richard Kyle reminds us that much of Europe, Britain and the United States has entered the post-Christian era, in which "Christianity is no longer the definer of cultural values" (The Last Days Are Here Again, 1998, p. 25).
The post-Christian mind-set rejects the traditional biblical view that hardship and pain—though unpleasant and undesired—can work to ultimate good. Expressions such as "By standing firm you will gain life" (Luke 21:19, NIV) and "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22, NIV), though true, are no longer widely accepted.
The Bible plainly teaches that adversity can produce beneficial results. Even though Christ was the Son of God, He, too, "learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him" (Hebrews 5:8-9). Even secular history provides many examples of individuals and nations that, under conditions of duress, overcame difficult circumstances to achieve greatness. Sometimes one determined individual has provided the spark needed for nations to endure hard times and achieve praiseworthy objectives.
A prime minister powerfully serves his country
Sir John Keegan observed this to be true with Winston Churchill and Britain in World War II. In 1940, during the darkest days of the conflict, Churchill stood valiantly to rally the beleaguered British people. "In a series of magnificent speeches, appealing to his people's courage and historic greatness, he carried Britain with him." Through his powerful words, he imposed his "will and imagination on his countrymen" (U.S. News and World Report, May 29, 2000).
Stiffened by their prime minister's resolve, Britons withstood a horrific pounding by Hitler's bombers in the Battle of Britain and turned a time of trial and impending defeat into triumph in what Churchill called his country's "finest hour."
Keegan writes that the British, under the threat of invasion, "wholly exemplified how a finest hour should be lived. They dug the dead and the living from the rubble, manned their beaches [and] tightened their belts" (ibid.).
In The Lessons of History, Will and Ariel Durant observed that "a challenge successfully met ... raises the temper and level of a nation, and makes it abler to meet further challenges" (1968, p. 91).
The British experience demonstrates the necessity of pulling together and supporting each other during adversity. Dr. Paul Brand tells how he prepares for the worst: "The best single thing I can do to prepare for pain is to surround myself with a loving community who will stand beside me when tragedy strikes" (Brand and Yancey, p. 236). He notes that "suffering is only intolerable when nobody cares" (p. 257).
God reveals that suffering carries with it a noble purpose: It should help us to grow in brotherly love. "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ," writes Paul (Galatians 6:2).
When our concern flows out toward others, suffering, as undesirable and painful as it is, can be a profitable experience. We learn the reality that "no discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11, NIV).
The belief that affliction can yield considerable benefits has almost disappeared in Western culture. It is largely replaced by the idea that suffering or any unpleasantness is unfair and to be avoided at any cost.
Perhaps this notion is partially bequeathed to us by our living in a quick-fix society that teaches us we deserve to have a pill for every ache and a fast solution to every problem. It is also part of a victim mentality—a refusal to take responsibility for one's actions or circumstances—that can weaken a society that succumbs to it. Any society that recognizes that sometimes life is not fair and definitely not always easy—and courageously responds to challenge—grows stronger.
In the modern view, pain is sinister, an enemy that must be avoided. We can view it that way, or we can see it as a warning that we need to change a behavior. If we cannot avoid it, then perhaps we can accept its challenge and become a stronger, better person.
Sometimes we can do little but endure a trial and let it polish our character. Counselor Norman Wright wrote that "crisis is not always bad. It can become a turning point in your life for the better ... [It] carries with it opportunity for growth and change" (How to Have a Creative Crisis, 1986, p. 15).
The Bible reminds us that in trials we should look beyond the present and focus on the potential benefits: "Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:4, NIV).
Don't let trials overwhelm
We are not saying that one should suffer if he can avoid it. But when we cannot avoid it, we need to learn how to deal with suffering and, if necessary, accept it. If we do not learn to do this, our trials can lead to greater problems should we make life-altering choices as a result of the anxiety brought on by the trials.
As Dr. Paul Martin writes in The Healing Mind, "Stress and anxiety ... can prevent us from sleeping properly and make us more inclined to smoke, drink excessive amounts of alcohol, eat too much of the wrong sorts of food, omit to take our medicine, neglect physical exercise, consume harmful recreational drugs, indulge in risky sexual behavior, drive too fast without wearing a seat belt, have a violent accident, or even commit suicide" (p. 55).
The high suicide rate in many nations may in part reflect people's inability to accept that life can be difficult.
A message of good news
The Bible tells us that God allows suffering to serve a divine purpose. Christians know that their Savior, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for them and that they must follow in His steps, which include suffering (1 Peter 2:21). Jesus endured agony and died so God could forgive us of our sins and grant us eternal life, during which we will reign with Christ (Revelation 5:10). Knowing this can enable us to better come to grips with life's struggles.
"If we endure," Paul reminds us, "we shall also reign with Him" (2 Timothy 2:12). Christ will return to earth to rule—and eventually bring an end to sadness and suffering.
Jesus' message was one of fundamentally good news that focused on the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:14-15), which Christ will establish at His return. He will institute a time of worldwide peace and happiness. Through the prophet Isaiah, God foretold the peace and joy of that coming Kingdom: "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
When the knowledge of God is restored to humanity, and Satan's influence is banished (Revelation 20:1-3), the pain that resulted from following the devil rather than God will cease. The earth will at last find enduring peace. (For more details be sure to read our free booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom.)
A marvelous future
God is now calling only a few, relatively speaking, from the masses of humanity to be a part of His Church. He regards them as the firstfruits of His spiritual harvest (James 1:18)—chosen, if they remain faithful, to reign with Christ in His Kingdom. But He does not call everyone now (Romans 11:7-26). "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent Me draws him," said Jesus, "and I will raise him up at the last day" (John 6:44).
When Jesus spoke of raising up His own at the last day, He was talking about His second coming. Paul offers these additional details: "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18).
When we understand and accept God's plan of salvation, we find great comfort in this truth. When Jesus comes, those who have repented and accepted Him as their Savior and yielded their lives in loving obedience will find comfort. Their suffering will be no more. God will give them eternal life in a new body—a spirit body—that will know no suffering (1 Corinthians 15:35-54).
We will then realize something we can understand only in part while alive in the flesh, that "the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18).
Those who come to understand the great purpose and calling of God still find that life at times is painful (Romans 8:23), but they understand why. They look forward to the time when God will give them eternal life and enable them to reign with Christ in the Kingdom of God. Paul encourages us to "comfort one another with these words" (1 Thessalonians 4:18).
Paul notes that Christians, like Christ, must suffer: "To you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake" (Philippians 1:29).
Peter reminds Christians that they should expect to suffer because God can use suffering to help purify us from error: "Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God" (1 Peter 4:1-2).
As Christ explained, His followers can expect to suffer. But God sometimes allows us to suffer because pain teaches us to refrain from sin even under the most difficult circumstances.
When God allows us to suffer because of our wrong choices, He is actually acting mercifully. Why? Because the consequence of continuing in sin when we know better (if not repented of) will be death for all eternity.
"Before I was afflicted," says the writer of Psalm 119, "I went astray, but now I keep Your word" (Psalm 119:67). He reminds us that suffering is a reminder of the consequences of sin, that suffering can produce long-term benefits we may not discern while we deal with our physical or emotional pain.
Pain's important purpose
Dr. Brand worked for years treating leprosy patients in India and America. During his labors he arrived at an astonishing conclusion concerning the pathology of leprosy.
Leprosy victims suffer the curse of having their extremities—fingers, toes, feet and even nose and ears—deteriorate and waste away, but no one knew why. Before Dr. Brand's research, doctors assumed lepers were cursed with "bad flesh." Brand's remarkable discovery was that the problem lies in leprosy bacilli, which attack the nerves of body parts, triggering a process that leads to the death of the nerves. When this occurs, a patient who incurs the slightest wound—even a bruise—to an afflicted area feels absolutely no pain. Consequently he continues to use the damaged body part. This repeated use aggravates the wound. Eventually the tissue becomes so damaged that the flesh actually dies and sloughs off.
Dr. Brand began treating the wounds of lepers by protecting them, sometimes with casts. The wounds would often heal and not suffer further damage. The protected flesh would become sound again, even though the leper did not regain sensation in the affected body part because the neural tissue had permanently deteriorated.
Brand concluded that pain is a gift from God that alerts us to the fact that something has gone wrong.
The doctor's determination applies to most diseases, not just leprosy. When we hurt, we should respond to our body's signals and take measures to relieve the pain and eliminate the underlying cause. "I had no idea how vulnerable the body becomes when it lacks a warning system," he concludes (Brand and Yancey, p. 121).
Spiritual lessons from suffering
We can draw a spiritual parallel to Dr. Brand's discovery. Some suffering is the result of our own sins or foolishness. Sometimes the result is the automatic trigger of negative and painful consequences in our bodies. God sometimes allows such discomfort—and suffering—to cause us to pay attention to what we are doing and change our behavior, attitude or convictions.
Much mental and physical pain is the result of breaking God's commandments, knowingly or unknowingly. As a psychiatrist said, "Half the people who go to clinics with physical complaints are really saying, My life hurts" (ibid., p. 251).
Sometimes we sin but we do not immediately hurt. God may bring the sin to our attention by allowing a subsequent painful trial. "The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts" (Hebrews 12:6, NRSV). The Scriptures contain many examples of men and women whose lives demonstrated this principle.
In allowing discomfort to bring mistakes and character flaws to our attention, God is no different from any other loving parent. Fathers and mothers who love their children invest time and effort teaching and enforcing lessons for their good. God does the same because He wants us to learn (Hebrews 12:5-11).
God sometimes allows us to suffer so we will learn right from wrong and will realize our dependence on Him and His instruction. Therefore we should not be surprised when life, even for a Christian, includes stress and trials (1 Peter 4:12-13).
In other circumstances suffering may occur not as a result of sin per se, but because God sees a need to refine and strengthen a part of our character. As a muscle will atrophy without use, so can our faith and character atrophy if not properly exercised.
Peter writes of the value of trials when he explains: "In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:6-7, NIV).
Learning to depend on God
We should realize that, although God allows trials, He is not indifferent to us when they come. God is a Father. Even more than a loving human father, He finds no joy in seeing His children in pain. How does He feel toward us at such times? "You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, because you are his personal concern" (1 Peter 5:7, New Testament in Modern English). These words let us know that sometimes we must depend entirely on God for the strength to endure.
When we hurt, God wants us to come to Him. He promises He will help us when we do. Paul wrote that God comforts the downcast (2 Corinthians 7:6), but we must ask Him for that help. He promises that He will not allow us to be tested beyond our limits and will provide us either with the relief or the strength we need to endure (1 Corinthians 10:13). We need to take God at His word and go to Him with this promise, especially when we sense we are near our breaking point.
We need to realize that God often protects those who seek Him: "If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand" (Psalm 37:23-24, NIV).
Read the whole of Psalm 91 with this in mind. We should ask God to protect us and our loved ones. He hears the prayers of the righteous (James 5:16; 1 Peter 3:12), and He does protect and bless His people. However, the Bible also makes it clear that God will allow difficult and hurtful circumstances to befall us at times within limits. All of His faithful servants had to endure trials. When those come, we should ask Him to shelter us from suffering that exceeds our ability to endure and to give us the strength to endure what we must.
God remains in control
Studies have shown that a person's ability to endure pain is aided by a sense of control over it. We should do what we can to ease, manage and gain control over our suffering. Then we can realize we are not pawns subjected to the whim of pain, and we can choose to retain control over our attitudes and our responses to our pain.
As God's servants we must learn that ultimately God is in control, and He is merciful. He is willing and able to deliver us. His ears are open to our prayers (1 Peter 3:12).
But He expects us to rely on His judgment and timing and trust Him implicitly. "We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia," wrote Paul. "We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us" (2 Corinthians 1:8-10, NIV).
Life free from pain?
In the meantime, perhaps we can grasp the wisdom of James' words: "When all kinds of trials and temptations crowd into your lives, my brothers, don't resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. But let the process go on until that endurance is fully developed, and you will find you have become men of mature character with the right sort of independence" (James 1:2-4, NTME).
James' words may sound unrealistic to inhabitants of the Western world because so many live with the illusion that we should be able to abolish pain. James lived in a society in which people regularly and frequently confronted suffering. They were more accustomed to the benefits of suffering than we.
A pain-free life is impossible. We need to face the reality that God can teach us valuable lessons through our suffering. This does not mean suffering will ever be pleasant. Even if we consider the prospect of pain in advance and mentally prepare ourselves for it, when it actually arrives we experience a rude awakening. Pain intrudes into our life with stabbing reality. It is the unwelcome enemy, or so it seems.
But suffering and trials can be helpers, in the spiritual sense, in preparing us for God's purpose and His Kingdom. Sometimes our reconciliation to suffering occurs more fully after the fact—after we have endured it and understand the spiritual maturity it can produce in us.
The only ultimate deliverance from pain and difficulty comes from God, from praying to and trusting Him. Just before Jesus suffered the torment of His crucifixion, He prayed, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will" (Matthew 26:39).
Peter reminds us to remember the benefits of facing adversities: "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast" (1 Peter 5:10, NIV).
Focus on the future
When we realize the benefits that can accompany our suffering, we can better endure it. Viktor Frankl, a psychotherapist who survived the Auschwitz death camp in World War II, discovered the importance of finding meaning in life, especially in the worst of circumstances. He observed that prisoners who could focus on a goal were far more likely to survive.
Though we may find it difficult to grasp the spiritual benefits of suffering, we will ultimately be able to fully comprehend them when we receive eternal life in God's Kingdom (2 Peter 1:11).
In that Kingdom we will gain immeasurably more than we ever lost through suffering in this life. We noted earlier what Paul says about this: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (Romans 8:18, NIV). He further reminds us that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (verse 28, New American Standard Bible). God inspired Paul to write this, and can trust it as certain!
Suffering helps us fulfill our potential as children of God (1 John 3:1). With God's help, good can result from it. A poet puts it this way:
You have each been given a bag of tools,
A formless rock and a book of rules;
And each must make, ere life has flown,
A stumbling block or a stepping stone.
That stepping-stone is the way to God's Kingdom.
Preparing for an inheritance
Paul tells us that, in addition to being children of God, we are "heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" (Romans 8:16-17). If we are heirs, then we have an inheritance. The Bible reveals our inheritance not as a future of idleness and leisure but one of great responsibility.
The Scriptures reveal that we will, in a real sense, inherit our Father's property and business. We have much to learn from our Father. He wants to give us time to grow. He wants to teach us what we will need to help us develop the character we must have.
No shortcut to this process exists. Knowledge is not enough. Character cannot develop overnight; it takes time and considerable effort. That is why Paul tells us that "indeed we suffer with Him [Christ], that we may also be glorified together" (Romans 8:17). Even as Christ learned and was perfected by the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:8-9), so we learn and become perfect through our adversities, to the end that we will share an inheritance with Him in the Kingdom of God.
The awesome promise of this shared inheritance—sonship in God's eternal family (Romans 8:14-23)—helps explain why we must suffer. If our future were simply to lie around heaven and gaze upon God for eternity, as some imagine, then He could take us now or leave us here and protect us from any kind of adversity and pain. Such a role would require nothing on our part.
But our future is much greater than that. The greater the responsibility He has in store for us, the greater are the challenges to get there.