Since God is the source of all goodness, his glory is the wellspring of all joy. What God does for his own sake benefits us. Therefore whatever glorifies him is good for us.
And that includes the suffering he allows or brings (biblically, either or both terms can apply) into our lives.
God refines us in our suffering and graciously explains why: “See, I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this” (Isaiah 48:10). For emphasis, God repeats this reason.
If you don’t understand that the universe is about God and his glory—and that whatever exalts God’s glory also works for your ultimate good—then you will misunderstand this passage and countless others. Some consider God egotistical or cruel to test us for his sake. But the testing he does for his sake accrues to our eternal benefit.
How often have you heard people say, “I grew closest to God when my life was free from pain and suffering”?
Suffering can help us grow and mature.
Josef Tson, who faced much evil in communist Romania, told me, “This world, with all its evil, is God’s deliberately chosen environment for people to grow in their characters. The character and trustworthiness we form here, we take with us there, to Heaven. Romans and 1 Peter 4:19 make clear that suffering is a grace from God. It is a grace given us now to prepare us for living forever.”
Mountain climbers could save time and energy if they reached the summit in a helicopter, but their ultimate purpose is conquest, not efficiency. Sure, they want to reach a goal, but they want to do so the hard way by testing their character and resolve.
God could create scientists, mathematicians, athletes, and musicians. He doesn’t. He creates children who take on those roles over a long process. We learn to excel by handling failure. Only in cultivating discipline, endurance, and patience do we find satisfaction and reward.
As dentists, physicians, parents, and pet owners regularly demonstrate, suffering may be lovingly inflicted for a higher good.
We think to “love” means to “do no harm,” when it really means “to be willing to do short-term harm for a redemptive purpose.” A physician who re-breaks an arm in order for it to heal properly harms his patient in order to heal him. In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wrote,
But suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. … What do people mean when they say “I am not afraid of God because I know He is good”? Have they never even been to a dentist?
If cancer or paralysis or a car accident prompts us to draw on God’s strength to become more conformed to Christ, then regardless of the human, demonic, or natural forces involved, God will be glorified in it. A friend whose husband died wrote,
One thing that I’ve become convinced of is that God has different definitions for words than I do. For example, He does work all things for my eternal good and His eternal glory. But his definition of good is different than mine. My “good” would never include cancer and young widowhood. My “good” would include healing and dying together in our sleep when we are in our nineties. But cancer was good because of what God did that He couldn’t do any other way. Cancer was, in fact, necessary to make Bob and me look more like Jesus. So in love, God allowed what was best for us … in light of eternity.
God sometimes uses suffering to punish evil.
While personal suffering doesn’t always come as punishment for sin, this doesn’t mean it never does. God speaks of bringing judgment on his children for participating in the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-32). David knew he’d suffered because of his sin (see Psalm 32:3-4). Christ said, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline” (Revelation 3:19).
God’s occasional direct punishment in this life reminds us of judgment to come, just as his . occasional direct rewards in this life remind us of coming reward. But we should never assume we know God’s reasons when he hasn’t made them plain.
God can use suffering to display his work in you.
When Christ’s disciples asked whose sin lay behind a man born blind, Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned” (John 9:3). Jesus then redirected his disciples from thinking about the cause of the man’s disability to considering the purpose for it. He said, “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Eugene Peterson paraphrases Christ’s words this way: “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do” (The Message).
Nick Vujicic entered this world without arms or legs. As told in his life story on his website, www.lifewithout limbs.org, both his mom and his dad, an Australian pastor, felt devastated by their firstborn son’s condition. “If God is a God of love,” they said, “then why would he let something like this happen, and especially to committed Christians?” But they chose to trust God despite their questions.
Nick struggled at school where other students bullied and rejected him. “At that stage in my childhood,” he said, “I could understand His love to a point. But … I still got hung up on the fact that if God really loved me, why did He make me like this? I wondered if I’d done something wrong and began to feel certain that this must be true.
Thoughts of suicide plagued Nick until one day the fifteen-year-old read the story in John 9 about the man born blind: “but that the works of God should be revealed in him” (New King James Version). He surrendered his life to Christ. Now, at age twenty-six, he’s earned a bachelor’s degree and encourages others as a motivational speaker.
“Due to the emotional struggles I had experienced with bullying, self-esteem and loneliness,” Nick says, “God began to instill a passion of sharing my story and experiences to help others cope with whatever challenge they might have in their lives. Turning my struggles into something that would glorify God and bless others, I realized my purpose! The Lord was going to use me to encouarage and inspire others to live to their fullest potential and not let anything get in the way of accomplishing their hopes and dreams. God’s purpose became clearer to me and now I’m fully convinced and understand that His glory is revealed as He uses me just the way I am. And even more wonderful, He can use me in ways others can’t be used.”
As Michelangelo used his chisel to form David from a marble block, so God may use suffering to form us into the image of Christ.
When Nanci and I saw David in Florence, it took our breath away. To produce his masterpiece, Michelangelo chose a stone that all other artists had rejected. Seeing that huge marble block’s hidden potential, he chipped away everything that wasn’t David. The master worked daily to transform it into something surpassingly beautiful.
Now, if marble had feelings, it wouldn’t like the chiseling process. It might resent the sculptor.
While Michelangelo may not have called upon the stone to cooperate with him, God has called us to yield ourselves by submitting to his chisel. Because we fail to see the person God intends to form through our adversity, we too may resent the chiseling. The Master Artist chose us, the flawed and unusable, to be crafted into the image of Christ to fulfill our destiny in displaying Jesus to the watching universe.
We ask God to remove the chisel because it hurts, but it’s a means of transformation: “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In her book When God Weeps, Joni Eareckson Tada writes, “Before my paralysis, my hands reached for a lot of wrong things, and my feet took me into some bad places. After my paralysis, tempting choices were scaled down considerably. My particular affliction is divinely hand-tailored expressly for me. Nobody has to suffer ‘transverse spinal lesion at the fourth-fifth cervical’ exactly as I did to be conformed to his image.”
God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to him, force us to depend on his grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, impart wisdom, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in times of sorrow, increase our faith, and strengthen our character. And once he accomplishes such great things, often we can see that our suffering has been worth it.
God doesn’t simply want us to feel good. He wants us to be good. And very often the road to being good involves not feeling good.
Adapted from If God Is Good by Randy Alcorn Copyright © 2009 by Randy Alcorn. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Randy Alcorn is the founder and director of Eternal Perspectives Ministries and a best-selling author. Randy and his wife, Nanci, live in Oregon and have two married daughters.