Grace & Suffering

Note: The following is article #28 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.

“Grace in suffering”— it seems like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Yet experience affirms that people suffer, and the Bible teaches extensively about God’s grace in suffering.

Suffering Comes to Those Who Live By Grace
First, the Bible teaches that people who follow God, living by grace, will suffer in this life:

Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but the Lord delivers him out of them all. (Psalm 34:19)

through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)

If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. (John 15:20)

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12)

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12)

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake (Philippians 1:29)

John Piper in Chapter 28 of Future Grace goes so far as to say that “the way of life that comes from living by faith in future grace will very likely involve more suffering, not less.” That is a very sobering conclusion, but history bears it out. The first 300 years of Christianity were marked by intense persecution, and there are still tens of thousands of people who die every year due solely to their faith in Christ. For many Christians facing death is the ultimate test of what they love more, life & comfort or God & His glory.

The more you are willing to forsake trust in yourself and the things of this world, the more you will open yourself up to situations where you may experience suffering for God. Piper states:

When you know that your future is in the hands of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise God who promises to work all things for your good, you are free to take any risk that love demands— no matter the cost…. In regards to spreading the gospel today, we talk so much about “closed countries” that we have almost lost God’s perspective on missions— as though he ever meant it to be safe. There are no closed countries to those who assume that persecution, imprisonment, and death are the likely results of spreading the gospel. And Jesus in Matthew 24:9 said plainly that these are the likely results.

God Has Purposes in Suffering
Which brings us to the next great truth that the Bible teaches about suffering, namely that God has purposes that he intends to accomplish through suffering. Piper states that we need to see suffering “not merely as a consequence of living by faith in future grace, but as another gift of future grace.”

How is suffering a gift? The Bible teaches us that:

Suffering Shapes an Unshakeable Faith—
There are many stories of amazing faith in the lives of the early church, faith that grew stronger in the face of suffering. Paul recounts one of his experiences in 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, and the purpose that he saw in it:

For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

When we suffer, it turns our eyes away from the world and our own resources and focus on God. When God “comes through” and brings us through the trial or gives us the strength to endure it, then our faith in His love and goodness increases. The key, however, is understanding the nature of God and His purposes. Piper states:

If you think your suffering is pointless, or that God is not in control, or that he is whimsical or cruel, then your suffering will drive you from God, instead of driving you from everything but God.

Suffering Shapes our Character
Paul had learned God’s purposes in suffering well, by both revelation from God and by intense personal experience. In Romans 5:2-4 he states:

Paul mentions that suffering grows our endurance, our character, and our hope. In the Greek the word “character” means “proven character”— when we endure suffering well, we prove that our faith is real.

Although it seems paradoxical at first, suffering infused with God’s grace actually increases our hope. Piper observes:

The people who are most unwavering in their hope are those who have been tested most deeply. The people who look most earnestly and steadfastly and eagerly to the hope of glory are those who have had the comforts of this life stripped away through tribulations. These are the freest of all people. Their love cannot be daunted by threats or calamities.

Suffering Magnifies the Worth of Christ
Lastly, the Bible teaches that suffering magnifies the worth of Christ. Again here, Paul is our teacher:

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9)

Here God directly speaks to Paul and explains His reason for this instance of suffering in Paul’s life, and God specifically says that it is to show His strength on Paul’s behalf. And Paul’s response?

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Let us, then, grow in grace so that we will be able to join Paul in being content in any suffering, knowing that Christ will be glorified as His power rests on us.

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