For clarification, I repeat that this Blog is addressed to those who believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are saved by grace through faith by the finished work of Jesus Christ on the Cross (Ephesians 2:8-9). Apart from His salvation, discussing hope is pointless. We are most miserable without His saving grace!
We return to our discussion this week about suffering. In Part 1, I explained that suffering is not a result of God punishing us. Part 2 discussed the two primary myths surrounding why God doesn’t heal. This week, I will tackle the debate whether God uses suffering to teach us a lesson.
Does God use suffering to teach us a lesson? The answer depends on your perspective of God’s character. Do you view God as a strict disciplinarian seeking ways to harm and correct you? Or do you view God as a loving Father Who desires the best for you, His child? Which leads me to a discussion about Romans 8:28. How do we define “good”? In a previous Blog, I said I would tackle this issue, and now I am going to do just that.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 KJV
First, this verse addresses “them who are the called according to his purpose.” If you are God’s child (believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ), then you are called. He has chosen you before the foundations of the world to be His child and nothing can ever change that.
What does it really mean that “all things will work together for my good?” How do you define “good”? For many, this means no suffering, no loss, no hurt, no disappointment. Although we may not actually say it aloud, many of us think that if we go to church, tithe and do our best, then God will bless us with “good”. We will have good jobs, live in nice neighborhoods and our family will always be healthy. In short, God is a blank check for our definition of “goodness”. We erroneously believe He will grant whatever we desire because after all, He desires our good. I have found this belief predominantly in the USA. We are accustomed to our comfort and convenience. I include myself. Living in Germany, I miss the comforts and conveniences I enjoyed in America. Our attraction to comfort influences our Christian living. We think following Christ should be a life of ease and comfort. When that doesn’t happen, many of us automatically look to God and become angry why He isn’t giving us the “good” we think we deserve.
This mindset is so dangerous as it relates to suffering. When we experience suffering, loss, hurt and disappointments, then we immediately question God, our one true Source of hope and strength. To say it another way—we expect “good” but instead receive “bad”, so we question God’s character, God’s plans and God’s purposes.
I think to understand Romans 8:28, we need to adjust our perspective. The “good” God promises us isn’t a comfortable, easy life answering our demands. I believe the “good” referred to in Romans 8:28 is that no matter what your situation, or how much life seems to be falling apart, God’s perfect, good plans and purposes will come to pass. He is Sovereign. Nothing occurs in this life outside of His control. He will have the final word and His plans/purposes will always come to pass.
God also desires that we reflect the image of His Son and that God is glorified in our lives. I am not referring to being made 100% holy and righteous, fully justified and sanctified, which Jesus Christ did once and for all on the Cross and proved through His resurrection. His righteousness is already ours by imputation and "we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10 KJV). I am referring to maturing in applying our faith to our daily life and learning more of Him and His character. His “good” is that we believe His Gospel and enjoy a personal relationship with Him. He has already accomplished this for us in His death and resurrection. There is nothing we can do to earn this goodness. Nothing can thwart His goodness towards us.
Growth is not easy. It hurts. It is painful. God is not worried about hurting my pride or breaking my self-reliance. Because He hurts my pride or breaks my self-reliance, it does not mean that He no longer desires my “good”. It is better that I know Him as a Father and know His character. I am an extremely independent, self-reliant person. When I am thus, I do not trust Christ and I do not rely on Him. In many ways, I am behaving like a bratty, spoiled little kid. I want all the credit and glory for every accomplishment and for everything that is well-done in my life. I become “works” oriented, and quickly lose sight of His Gospel of grace. Sure, I know I am saved by grace, but I begin priding myself on what a good Christian I am. Look how much I help others, how brave or strong I am, how much I donate….blah, blah, blah. It’s all about me. There is no room for Christ in such an attitude. Is that God’s best for me? Is that the “good” of Romans 8:28? Allow me to paint a different picture. I am a child of God, 100% righteous, justified and sanctified. I will enjoy eternity with Him in heaven when I die. I have an inexhaustible resource of peace, hope, strength and love from God. I can come boldly into His throne room at anytime and plead for help. Anything “good” in my life is a result of His grace and His goodness. If I love another person by helping them, it is only because God created me, saved me and has created me to fulfill HIS purpose in this life. I am His. I belong to Him. Everything “good” flows from Him. He receives all the glory, not me. He is honored and glorified because He has created and saved me.
The process of breaking my self-reliance and independence is painful. Many times, it involves suffering. I now return to our original question, “Does God use suffering to teach us a lesson?” All my life, I answered “yes”. I believed God used suffering to teach me something, maybe to be patient, to be considerate of others or to teach me to let go of something (the past or an expectation). This belief implies that the suffering won’t be removed until I have learned that particular lesson. What do I do if I can't figure out what lesson I am supposed to be learning!!??
Today, after over 20 years of suffering, I answer “no”. God doesn’t use suffering to teach me a lesson on how to be a better person. God uses suffering to lovingly reveal Himself to me. He uses suffering to show me His character; that He is faithful, good, kind and loving. He uses suffering to show me that He is always with me and never forgets me. He uses suffering to allow me to know Him in ways that I never would have understood apart from suffering. My earlier perspective that God used suffering to teach me a lesson focused on myself. It was about me becoming a better Christian. But my current perspective focuses on Christ. It is about Him revealing more of Himself to me for His glory, not mine.
When I am in the agony of pain, yet know beyond any shadow of a doubt, that God is with me in that agony, comforting, encouraging and holding me—that is “good”. To know that God is completely reliable because I have experienced His faithfulness when my life had completely fallen apart—that is “good”.
I know this is a long Blog, but I must quickly make one more comment about Romans 8:28. Does the phrase “to them that love God” indicate that I must perform in order for God’s “good” to come to pass? Absolutely not! God’s Sovereignty and the fulfillment of His plans and purposes are not contingent on my works or behavior. God’s character and goodness don’t change based on how well I perform. It is all God’s grace.
I conclude with my hope for you taking the time to read this article. I hope you are encouraged to know that God’s best will come to pass based on His Sovereign grace and not based on your performance. I hope that you are encouraged you are not required to learn some lesson before God will remove your suffering. I hope you are encouraged that God is always with you no matter what you are enduring.