God causes suffering in order to perfect others
Although it’s sometimes very easy to live like it isn’t true (especially in the American cultural context), the fact is that I’m not the only one in the universe God is working on. God is creating a “bride” for His Son, a diverse body from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages (Revelation 7:9). God does His refining work on a global, all-of-history scale, “that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word, so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:26-27). This means that it’s not all about me, and that God may do a sanctifying work in someone else which costs me something to achieve.
I’ll be honest… This is the point in the conversation where I have struggled the most in my life. I remember how frustrated and resentful it used to make me to think that God might “throw me under the bus” for the sake of someone else’s development. I had very little interest in being the flux added to someone else’s gold refining process. Perhaps you’ve felt the same way? Does it make God a sadist to introduce pain into your life for the sake of another? Does it constitute unjust favoritism on God’s part … a callous using and discarding of one person for the benefit of someone He loves more?
These are all very pertinent and emotional questions, but each of them is focused on the wrong thing … me. We can no more expect to avoid all the pain in the process of God’s redeeming and reconciling His bride than we can expect to horde all the blessing. It’s about sharing. It’s about being one body. And if I want to be more like Jesus, if I want to learn to actually love my neighbor, then wouldn’t I rush to help someone or serve someone, even if it cost me something? This concept of God’s withdrawing from your account (so to speak) to purchase something someone else desperately needs is a classic act of love. It’s what Jesus did for you, isn’t it? And it’s what God has every right to require of those who would say they are His children. It doesn’t make God sadistic or callous, it makes Him consistent…
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that rebellious, selfish, profane, God-hating, comfort-loving, goodness-hoarding rebels could be made His family and dwell in intimate communion with Him forever (John 3:16, slightly paraphrased).
This reminds me of the story Jesus told about an unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35, in which one servant owed his master a debt so large that he couldn’t have repaid it in several lifetimes. But the master (representing God) was merciful, and in a moment of compassion, forgave the entire, unimaginably-large debt. Overjoyed, the servant rushes out into the street, only to bump into another servant who owes him a few dollars because the first servant had spotted him a burrito at lunch the week before (or equivalent). The second servant didn’t have the money, so he too begs for a continuance — just as the first servant had done with their master. But instead of showing mercy, the first servant (who had been forgiven much) treats the other servant with harsh contempt and throws him in prison. Remember what happened when the master found out…
He summoned [the unforgiving servant] and said to him, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart. (Matthew 18:32-35)
The price Jesus paid so that you could be reconciled to God and consecrated as His child was quite literally unimaginable … so much so that it required the incarnation and death of the divine, eternal Son. Who could even truly understand the dramatic scope of that statement, let alone replicate it?! In the face of such a high price paid for your glorification, can you not spare the cost of some pain and suffering in this life — perhaps even extremely difficult (though in any eternal sense, brief) pain and suffering — for the sake of God’s work in someone else? Doesn’t it mean something incredibly profoundly valuable that this, in a way little else could, makes you more like Jesus?
And all that says nothing of the price others have perhaps paid for your sanctification! What has your spouse endured, that you might be drawn into God? What have your parents endured for you? Or your kids? What about the countless soldiers who have fought, bled and died for you? What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who’s life and imprisonment and death have taught the church about mission and community? What about Joni Eareckson Tada, who was paralyzed in a tragic accident and now reaches millions? What about the Apostle Paul, whose personal sacrifice for the gospel is likely unsurpassed in all of history? What about childbirth and parenthood? We could go on for days.
Do you think you are alone in suffering so that others might be rescued from hell or grow in godliness or be found more in Christ each day? What if we looked at the insanely difficult and complex work that God is doing to redeem the universe as something we are all in together, and are sharing the load of the brokenness of sin in the universe?
We must learn to love! Not pat-someone-likable-on-the-head kind of love, but sacrifice-a-little-bit-like-Jesus kind of love. I think then we would be slower to fixate on or complain about our own pain (even if it is legitimately severe), and quick to rush to the side of others in need.
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)
Read more about the goodness of God, and how and why God introduces suffering into our lives.