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Hope in suffering

January 2014 | by Ian McNaughton

‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him’ (Job 13:15).

Life is hard for every one, but God’s people too need always to remember that, irrespective of salvation, they live in a fallen world, where everyone suffers. Suffering is part of the fallen order of the universe. It is a given and ordained experience and reality, just as much as love and joy are.

It was not so in the Garden of Eden, but it is so now and will continue to be so until this old order of creation is ended and the new order begun (Romans 8:20-23).

Job

Job was a godly man with a godly way of life. He ‘feared God and shunned evil’ (Job 1:8b) and like Noah had found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Genesis 6:8). Through the process of his trials and the debate set out in the Book of Job he was helped towards a greater understanding of God and of the difficult problem of human suffering.

The answer to the question ‘Why suffering?’ is not dealt with directly in the Book of Job and this is why no obvious reasons are given for Job’s personal sufferings. A fallen creation must always be reckoned with. The process of sanctification of God’s people must go on and the power of original sin is to be understood as a factor in that process.

Suffering is meant to bring us to God through Jesus Christ and to connect us, through repentance and faith, into a prayer life with God. Perhaps this is why so many of Christ Jesus’ greatest saints have suffered more than most.

This is not cruel, as some would contend, but is rather part of God’s grace, calculated to overcome the problem of the old nature and its besetting sins.

Through his trials and pains, Job found what the renewed inner man longs for, namely, a clearer view of God and deeper fellowship with him. Believers often ask God to draw them closer to him or to humble them (not recommended!), or to take them deeper in the Christian life, only to complain when he does so!

Job now knows what he could not have known except in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings: ‘I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes’ (Job 42:5-6).

Job’s religious experience here reminds us that God intends us to ‘move on with him’ and not remain as babes in Christ. ‘Some believers are much surprised when they are called to suffer. They thought they would do some great thing for God; but all that God permits them to do is suffer’ (Robert Murray M’Cheyne, in God makes a path; ed. Stanley Barnes, Ambassador; p.170).

Christ’s fellowship

The finite minds of men are not able to see the big picture and hence understanding the ways of God often escapes us. Believing and trusting in the greatness and goodness of God, however, led to a greater spiritual awareness for Job.

This was a major solution to Job’s anger and lack of inner peace and it continued the work of sanctification in his life. It is only the Christian who can really know what is going on through suffering. Suffering is not useless or without reason, but rather it is the indication of the love of Christ to us (Hebrews 12:5-6). But do we take heed to this?

Surely Job was, in fact, experiencing the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings? This is something the New Testament speaks about: ‘For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ’ (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

This suffering is ordained because of the believer’s mystical union with Jesus Christ through redemption (Galatians 4:5-7).  A believer’s suffering is called by Paul ‘the sufferings of Christ’ (2 Corinthians 2:5).

To suffer on behalf of Christ is to share in reproach, rejection, hostility, hatred, martyrdom for his sake. This flows from our identification with Christ (Matthew 5:10-12). This witness to Christ Jesus is the norm for God’s people.

Christians can and do suffer reproach today simply because they are ‘in Christ’. Martin Luther wrote: ‘There are three things that preserve the church and belong to the church: firstly, to teach faithfully; secondly to pray constantly; thirdly, to suffer reverently’ (Patrick Sookhdeo, Heroes of our faith; Isaac Publishing; p.137).

Thus believers are to look to Christ for sanctification as well as justification. They cannot escape this fellowship of his suffering.

It is not possible to live a godly life and not share with him in this aspect: ‘All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution’ (2 Timothy 3:12). Suffering is part of God’s plan for his people and their mystical union with Christ makes it inevitable.

Joy

Suffering is something that God’s people are to be happy about! Peter makes this plain: ‘But rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings’ (1 Peter 4:13). All that the true people of God go through, put up with and endure on earth comes to them in fellowship with their wonderful Saviour, and it is to be a matter of joy.

It is the Christian’s glory and joy of soul to be united to the Saviour. C. H. Spurgeon says,‘Trials do not come by chance (1 Peter 1:6-7). Trials are sent because God judges them necessary (James 1:2). Trials are weighed out with discretion and are given by cautious wisdom. “Trials” is a beautiful name for affliction’ (Beside still waters, Ed. R. H. Clarke; Thomas Nelson; p.337).

These fiery trials work for us, ‘being much more precious than gold’, for by them God is refining and perfecting his people, in order that they will bring him ‘praise, honour, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Peter 1:7).

Do we benefit from this sanctifying process? Robert Murray M’Cheyne often prayed that God would sanctify his trials to him: ‘I often pray, Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made’ (Quoted in God makes a path, p.147).

Suffering never comes alone, for it is always followed by the consolations of Christ (2 Corinthians 1:5) — comfort from and by the Holy Spirit, through the Word. We need always to look to Christ in times of trouble (Hebrews 12:1ff).

In the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, suffering preceded glory and so it must be in the life of the child of God. The servant is not greater than his master.

Trust

In the midst of trial, grief, persecution or serious illness, the load is made lighter when, united with Jesus Christ by faith, the child of God trusts the promises of the Holy Scriptures (2 Corinthians 1:20).

The work which his goodness began,

The arm of his strength will complete;

His promise is Yea and Amen,

And never was forfeited yet.

Augustus M. Toplady

So, God’s people are able to bear what they thought they could not endure. This is because he promises a lightened burden, ‘My burden is light’ (Matthew 11:28-30). Burdens are made lighter when God’s children accept his help and let the peace of God fill their souls.

‘Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7).

Ian S. McNaughton