God uses suffering for our sanctification
God uses suffering for our sanctification
I must have first seriously studied this passage about twelve years ago whilst at University. At the time I was rather more focused on justification and glory than I was on suffering and perseverance. Isn’t it interesting how we change? And what a fantastic passage it is, densely packed with wonderful truths! It speaks, amongst other things, of all three members of the Holy Trinity, of our salvation in all three tenses, and of faith, hope and love. The previous four chapters have been explaining “justification by faith” – how we are put right with God. This passage outlines some of the realities that are true for all whose faith is credited to them as righteousness – in other words true for all Christians.
I want to look at two aspects briefly, and then spend a little more time on the third.
Peace with God
The first blessing is that we have peace with God. Once we were God’s enemies, but are now at peace; formerly warring rebels, now God’s friends, reconciled (see verse 10). There is no peace with God apart from through faith in Christ. We have been justified by his blood, and therefore saved from his wrath (verse 9).
And we are not just forgiven but brought into a place of high favour with God. The peace we have with God is not merely a legal abstraction, but a relationship to be lived. We have free access into the throne room of the King, or into the holy sanctuary of the temple. And that access is continuous. Not only can we confidently approach God on an occasional basis, but we can enjoy a continuous audience with the King. The spiritual reality is that we are living in the temple and living in the palace.
Hope of glory
The second blessing to rejoice in is the hope of glory. This glory is God’s unveiling, our transformation into the glorious beings we were designed to be, and of creation to be once again suffused with it’s Creator’s glory. It is certain of fulfilment, as it is based on the promise of God and guaranteed by the Holy Spirit. We have a joyful and confident expectation which rests on the promises of God.
And this hope does not disappoint us because it is based on God’s promise. This God whose love is demonstrated subjectively in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (who has been given to all Christians) and objectively through the historical ministry of God’s Son “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (verse 8). The hope of glory is founded on the ongoing contemporary work of God’s Spirit in our hearts and historical once-only work of God’s Son on the cross.
Joy in suffering
Peace, love, grace, joy, hope and glory. Wow!
And now we have a rude shock – a change of gear: “… we also rejoice in sufferings.” (verse 3a). This is the third great blessing. Now hang on a moment, Paul. You were just talking about all that nice stuff that Christians can expect, now you start talking about suffering. (The word is sometimes translated tribulation, or literally ‘pressure’). So Paul opens a can of rather unpleasant worms.
- Is suffering for an unfortunate few, avoided if at all possible? Or should Christians expect it, or perhaps even go looking out for it, daily donning our hair shirts?
- Is God really in control of suffering, and if so why does he allow it? If he really loved us, surely he would protect us from suffering.
In talking on this issue, I can hardly claim to have experienced a huge amount of suffering in my own life, though I have seen a lot through my work as a GP. Many of you will have gone through, or currently be going through great trials, pressures and pain – and for you I hope you will be reassured and encouraged.
Suffering is genuinely Christian
First of all it is important to state that suffering is part of genuine Christian experience. We must not listen to the lie that Christian’s should know nothing but victory, a prosperity-gospel-type contentment and success. That may well be part of our experience, but we do ourselves and others a disservice to deny the reality of tribulation, affliction, suffering and pain in our lives. Refusing to be honest with one another about difficulties in our lives gives rise to a “conspiracy of competence” which in turn leads to superficial fellowship. It denies believers mutual support and encouragement and we are forced to retreat into a religion where ‘praise and prayer become pain killers instead of a road into the heart of God.’
Jesus himself warned his disciples to expect persecution and suffering. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18-20a) Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23)
God is in control and with us
Not only should we acknowledge it’s presence, but also it’s source. Some people may suggest that suffering only happens when God is not fully in control; that he would rather it didn’t happen, but that it was out of his jurisdiction. But this is surely not true. God is sovereign, everywhere and always. As we are told of the Lord in Deuteronomy 32:39 “I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal”. Suffering is God’s plan and “all things work for the good of those who love the Lord” (Rom 8:28). “God accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:11).
We saw your smoke signal
The only survivor of a shipwreck washed up on a small uninhabited island. He cried out to God to save him, and every day he scanned the horizon for help, but none seemed forthcoming.
Exhausted, he eventually managed to build a rough hut and put his few possessions in it. But then one day, after hunting for food, he arrived home to find his little hut in flames, the smoke rolling up to the sky. The worst had happened; he was stung with grief.
Early the next day, though, a ship drew near the island and rescued him.
“How did you know I was here?” he asked the crew.
“We saw your smoke signal,” they replied.
We can only see a small part – we have a very limited perspective. God of course sees the whole picture. God’s pledge is not that suffering will never afflict us, but that it will never separate us from his love.
God hath not promised
God hath not promised
Skies ever blue,
always for you.
God hath not promised
Sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow,
Peace without pain.
But He hath promised
Strength from above,
Sanctification through suffering
So what is the link between suffering and glory. Is the glory to be seen as compensation for the tough times, the pain and anguish, the sweat and tears? Is the hope of glory despite the suffering that we are subject to? The Bible would seem to suggest that the glory is a product of suffering.
Not only has Christ achieved our justification through the supreme Calvary suffering, becoming sin for us and being forsaken by God so that we would not have to be, but suffering is an essential part of the process of ongoing salvation – of sanctification. The point of our salvation is to make us like Christ – not just to be seen with His righteousness, but to make us like him in character. “God loves you so much that He’ll accept you just the way you are – but he loves you too much to leave you that way”
Our basic state before the Holy Spirit takes up residence with us is one of rebellion and self-centred disobedience, a state that the Bible calls sin. And once we are united to Jesus by faith, his Spirit starts that process of sanctification, by which we are changed from glory to glory, becoming more like Christ. To be a bit Bunyan-esque, the way to our glorification starts at the gateway of justification and follows the road called ‘sanctification’. The Christian life is a package deal: God’s Spirit not only turns us around, but sets us on a new path.
Sanctification by suffering
So how do we become like Christ? It is a work of God’s Spirit, and it is frequently effected through suffering. Suffering is God’s tool. He chips off our rebelliousness by fire, burning into us Christ’s character. Suffering is God’s furnace of affliction to refine us as individuals and bind us together in his family – personal and corporate holiness. How is gold refined apart from by fire? How are diamonds formed apart from under extreme conditions of heat and pressure? It would seem that God’s main tool in our refining, our becoming like Christ, is that of fire – the fire of suffering.
Some time ago, a group of women met to study Malachi, they came upon a remarkable expression in chapter 3, verse 3: “And He [God] shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”
One lady decided to visit a silversmith to learn about the process of refining silver. After the smith had described it to her, she asked, “But Sir, do you sit while the work of refining is going on?”
“Oh yes, Madam,” replied the silversmith; “I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining be exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.”
The lady at once saw the beauty, and comfort too, of the expression, “He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” God sees it needful to put His children into a furnace; His eye is steadily intent on the work of purifying, and His wisdom and love are both engaged in the best manner for us. Our trials do not come at random, and He will not let us be tested beyond what we can endure.
Before she left, the lady asked one final question, “When do you know the process is complete?”
“Why that is quite simple,” replied the silversmith. “When I can see my own image in the silver, the refining process is finished.”
What is love without sacrifice? The essence of loving is giving. Giving is nothing without sacrifice. Sacrifice by definition causes suffering. Love means nothing without suffering. It is costly to witness for Christ or to get close enough to make a difference to those who are hurting. To be effective we must be willing to suffer and to die. We must be prepared to die to popularity, pride, prejudice and material comfort. The servant must suffer if he or she is to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply.
How can we learn endurance without something to endure? “A smooth sea never made a skilful mariner” Sufferings sharpen our reliance on God. In hopeless, helpless situations we are forced to depend on God, deepening our trust and experience of his power to deliver.
Sometimes the struggle is what we need
A man found a cocoon of the emperor moth and took it home to watch it emerge. One day a small opening appeared, and for several hours the moth struggled but couldn’t seem to force its body past a certain point.
Deciding something was wrong, the man took scissors and snipped the remaining bit of cocoon. The moth emerged easily, its body large and swollen, the wings small and shrivelled.
He expected that in a few hours the wings would spread out in their natural beauty, but they did not. Instead of developing into a creature free to fly, the moth spent its life dragging around a swollen body and shrivelled wings.
The constricting cocoon and the struggle necessary to pass through the tiny opening are God’s way of forcing fluid from the body into the wings. The “merciful” snip was, in reality, cruel. Sometimes the struggle is exactly what we need.
Paul is quite convinced that suffering is the one and only path to glory. In chapter eight (verse 17) he tells us “Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Flick a few pages further in the Bible to 2 Corinthians chapter 4, and he tells us “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.” (v.8-11) and later: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (v.16-18).
Responses to suffering
So is suffering always productive? Does suffering produce good fruit in all? It can of course lead to bitterness, anger and cynicism, but as we have read can produce steadfastness and endurance, and this when linked to the Christian faith stimulates the hope of glory.
Oh Lord, let me be a potato
There is the story of the Christian couple living in Pakistan when their six-month-old baby died. An old Punjabi who heard of their grief came to comfort us. “A tragedy like this is similar to being plunged into boiling water,” he explained. “If you are an egg, your affliction will make you hard-boiled and unresponsive. If you are a potato, you will emerge soft and pliable, resilient and adaptable.”
As C S Lewis famously said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God uses suffering to turn us to him and make us like him.
Our attitude to suffering
And so when (and not if) we encounter suffering, how should we respond? Well, we should accept that it is part of God’s plans for those he loves. We should take heart that he is using it for our good, making us more like His Son. We should be open about it with one another, in order that we may support one another. And if at all possible, let us rejoice in our sufferings.
As the apostle James tells us “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4).
St Andrew’s Church, Oxford, UK
8am, Sunday 6 June 2004