Look for God's Purpose in Your Suffering
Updated: Jan 5, 2020
Part 4 of Why Did God Let This Happen?
In a fallen world, suffering, disappointment, and discouragement are an unfortunate but ever-present part of life. It is a sad fact that bad things happen to good people. Everyday Christians across the country lose loved ones, experience financial hardship, endure the slow decline of aging parents, deal with family members who have turned to drugs or alcohol, incur debilitating injuries, experience miscarriages, see family members drift away from the church, suffer through a divorce, grieve over someone who has committed suicide, and on and on.
The list of unwelcome circumstances that can intrude on our lives is a long one, and even the most righteous Christians encounter hard time. This is the bad news. The good news is that God is neither random nor haphazard in His actions. He always has a purpose for what He does. Further, He can use even the worst of circumstances to further that purpose. Consequently, when life hurts it is important to try to discover God’s purpose in your suffering.
The key to discovering God’s purpose in your suffering is to look past your struggles to how God might be using it them for good. As you begin to look for God’s purpose in your suffering, be reassured that His overall purpose in our lives is to make us more like Him; more Christ-like in everything we think, do, and say. Further, God can see right into our hearts. He knows our inner-most thoughts, weaknesses, and transgressions. Consequently, He knows how far we have come and how far we yet have to go on our journey to be more like Him. When He sees areas in our lives or character in need of improvement, He sometimes uses the suffering we are enduring to make those improvements.
Before continuing, a caveat is in order here. The fact that God can use our suffering for good does not mean He causes our suffering just so He can do good things. God using our suffering to make improvements is not the same thing as God causing our suffering. We suffer because we live in a fallen world where bad things can happen and often do. It is important to understand this because Christians who are suffering sometimes wonder if they are being punished by God.
In a fallen world where suffering is part of life God uses your grief, disappointment, and discouragement to satisfy some purpose He has for you; to make you better in some way. He knows you even better than you know yourself, and He knows what you need to become more Christ-like. Your suffering can be a tool He uses to accomplish this purpose. Consequently, when life hurts it is important to be open to learning how God might use your suffering to make you more Christ-like.
Finding God’s purpose in your suffering can be difficult because it can require soul-searching and self-examination. This is hard enough to do on a good day, but it can be especially difficult when you are struggling with adversity. To find God’s purpose in your suffering, you may have to look deeply into yourself and ask, “How do I need to change to be more like Christ?”
Recognizing and honestly admitting our shortcomings is never easy. As human beings our motto might be summarized in these words: emphasize the best and downplay the rest. The problem with this approach is that God sees right through us to the core of our hearts and souls. We may be able to hide our shortcomings from others and even ourselves, but we cannot hide them from God.
TO FIND GOD’S PURPOSE IN YOUR SUFFERING LOOK IN THE MIRROR
Christians who are hurting sometimes need help in finding God’s purpose in their suffering. Because this is often the case with those who approach me for counseling, I developed a self-assessment that makes probing the possibilities of God’s purpose in your suffering into a systematic and objective process (or as objective as people who are hurting can be). My self-assessment is based on the following questions:
Could God be using your suffering to increase your faith?
Could God be using your suffering to improve your Christian character?
Could God be using your suffering to prepare you to better serve Him?
Answering these questions will require prayer coupled with honest introspection. In asking these questions, you seek to discover things God already knows about you, but you may not yet know about yourself. In pursuing answers to these questions you should come to know yourself better. This is a good thing, but it can be a hard thing. What can make the process especially challenging is that you may find it difficult to admit to yourself and God some of the answers you discover.
This looking-honestly-in-the-mirror aspect of the process can cause discomfort and even emotional distress, at least in the beginning. This is why prayer is such an integral part of your introspective journey to discover God’s purpose in your suffering. You probably won’t be able to forthrightly answer these questions or acknowledge what you discover about yourself without the help of God, and that help is sought through prayer. Thankfully, I have found in working with Christians who are mired in grief, disappointment, or discouragement that these three questions—when answered forthrightly—can be effective in helping them identify God’s purpose in their suffering.
COULD GOD BE USING YOUR SUFFERING TO INCREASE YOUR FAITH?
As Christians, it is not enough to just cope when suffering. Rather, God wants us to respond to suffering by running to Him, becoming more dependent on Him, and, in the process, growing in our faith. This is the message in Philippians 3:10 where we read: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in death.” Becoming more like Christ should be the goal of every Christian, and we do this by drawing ever closer to him throughout our lives.
When times are good, when we are enjoying success, and when our lives are not burdened by sorrow, it is easy to forget how dependent we are on God and that He is the source of our good fortune. It is easy to drift away from God and begin to think we are self-sufficient. In fact, we can drift way from God without even realizing we are doing it. Then, when trouble comes, we are left without the kind of support only God can provide. I have seen this happen many times. To determine if God might be using suffering to increase your faith, ask yourself these questions:
Are you disobeying the First Commandment? Are you putting other gods such as money, power, status, security, comfort, fame, recognition, self-gratification, or anything else before the only true and living God? Are you becoming your own god? Are you living your life separate and apart from God?
When life hurts, is prayer the first option you resort to for help or the last? When your faith is strong, prayer is so much a part of your life you are reluctant to make decisions or take action without it. When your faith is weak, you try to solve problems and face challenges without God’s help. You resort to prayer—if at all—only when it becomes obvious that nothing else is working. Are you trying to live your life without enlisting God’s help through prayer? When life hurts prayer should be your first option, not your last. In fact, at all times—good and bad—pray continually. This is the message in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 where we are told to “pray without ceasing…” If prayer is not an imbedded part of your life day in and day out, your faith may be faltering, a condition that will leave you vulnerable when adversity intrudes.
When life hurts, do you look first to Scripture for guidance or go to other sources? When your faith is strong, the Bible is your primary source of guidance for navigating the sometimes stormy seas of life. Are you trying to live your life without the continual guidance of Scripture? The answers to life’s quandaries are found in the Bible. If reading the Bible regularly is not part of your normal daily routine, your faith may not be sufficient to sustain you when the storms clouds of life gather around you.
COULD GOD BE USING YOUR SUFFERING TO IMPROVE YOUR CHARACTER?
The Bible is replete with guidance concerning Christian character. In 1 Corinthians 13 we are encouraged to have a loving character that is patient, truthful, and kind, that is not arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful, or insistent on getting its own way. Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the spirit is manifested in “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 2 Peter 1:5-7 encourages you to “supplement your faith with” virtue, knowledge, self-control, and steadfastness. To determine if God might be using your suffering to improve some aspect of your Christian character, ask yourself how you measure up when it comes to the fruit of the spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 and the character traits in 1 Corinthians 13.
COULD GOD BE USING YOUR SUFFERING TO PREPARE YOU FOR SERVICE
Christ told the Apostle Peter not once but three times, if you love me feed my sheep—care for my lambs (John 21:15-17). If we love Christ, we serve Him and we serve Him by caring for His children. Service is an important part of the Christian life. Therefore, one of the ways God might use your suffering is to prepare you to better serve his children.
It’s not difficult to determine if you are caring for Christ’s lambs as He would have you do. Just ask yourself what you are doing for widows, orphans, the poor, the homeless, prisoners, displaced people, the families of military personnel who are deployed, neighbors who are hurting, elderly people confined to nursing homes, or members of your church who are suffering. In a fallen world, there is never any shortage of people who need help. If you aren’t reaching out to those in need, God might use your suffering to change this—to prepare you for more and better service to Him.
No matter how badly you are suffering, remember that God’s overall purpose is to help you become more like Christ. This is the message in Jeremiah 29:11 where we are told God has a plan for us and it is a plan for hope not harm, good not suffering. No matter how much life hurts right now, God understands and He will use your present suffering for good in some way.
It might be to bring you closer to him and increase your faith, improve some aspect of your Christian character, or prepare you for better service. Look for God’s purpose in your suffering. Doing so may not take the pain away, at least not immediately, but it will give you a sense of hope. It may not show you the light at the end of the tunnel, but it will show you there is one.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com