“Truly, if there’s one topic every human being can relate to on some level, it’s suffering.”
— Shaped by Suffering: How Temporary Hardships Prepare Us for Our Eternal Home, Kenneth Boa with Jenny Abel, p.14
We are going to suffer.
That is not an easy sentence to write, nor is it an easy sentence to live. It carries with it a pain that comes from acknowledging a truth we often deny. But no matter how much we try to hide from it, the stark reality remains.
Suffering catches us by surprise time and time again, despite Jesus’ warnings in advance (John 16:33; 15:20). And yet, the effect suffering has on us has more to do with our response to it than with the nature of it. In short, whatever form it takes, suffering can make us bitter or it can make us better.
Suffering forges Christlike character
How can we go on day after day when we face trials — for some of us, severe ones? When all we see are the broken shards of our lives, and the pieces are far too many to mend, what do we do with that “broken story”? Although some people, like Job’s friends in the Old Testament, can be quick to offer insights or advice, the reality is that there are no easy answers — no formula — to suffering. Although some suffering has an obvious cause, it’s often as mysterious in its coming as it is in its going.
But one thing is certain: This suffering is by design. Not God’s original design for humanity, but the instrument that God often uses in this fallen world to bring us — and others — into the wholeness of a relationship with Himself.
God uses suffering to shape us, to form Christlike character in us.
Consider the heroes in your life and in the history of the Church. The character we so admire in them was rarely forged in lives of ease but, rather, in the crucible of adversity. That adversity may have been the death of a parent at a young age, chronic illness, external persecution, or some other type of hardship.
Whatever suffering we undergo, God is at work in and through it. Not only that, but “He has a way of allowing the heat to rise just enough in the crucible of affliction to produce a beautifully molded character in us as soon as we’re open to [His] redemptive work in our lives.” (Shaped by Suffering, p. 16)
An eternal perspective on suffering
First Peter was written in the context of increasing suffering. Its author, like his recipients, underwent intense persecution and difficulties at the hands of the Romans. Embedded in a culture hostile to Christianity, Peter — whose letter mentions suffering in every chapter — took an approach that is foreign to many of us today:
After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10 NASB)
Peter’s hopeful words underscore two aspects of suffering:
Its inevitability (“after you have suffered,” not “if you suffer”); and
Its relative brevity in the context of eternity.
These words may sound cheap to the person in the middle of hardship: Who among us doesn’t feel like our difficulties are dragging on forever? Who among us doesn’t wish and pray for our pain to end as quickly as possible? But if you consider the context into which these words were spoken (people’s very lives were being threatened), you realize how remarkable and genuine Peter’s attitude was. His was an eternal perspective.
When we begin to look at suffering in light of God’s character and promises, we can catch sight of its eternal purposes. If we let Him, God can use hardship to “pry our fingers off the tight grip we have on our expectations and turn our attention to a living hope (one that won’t let us down).” (Shaped by Suffering, p. 176)
Training our minds to look at trials with this perspective will not eliminate the pain or sorrow that we experience in the midst of them. But it will mold us to be more like Christ, who Himself suffered at the hands of sinful people despite being sinless. And ultimately, hardships can be the most important way God prepares us for eternal life in His house.
Shaped by Suffering: How Temporary Hardships Prepare Us for Our Eternal Home explores themes of suffering and preparation for eternity. Rooted in 1 Peter as its primary text, the book is based on Ken Boa’s teaching series in 2016–2017 and is the third in his Eternal Perspective Trilogy.
Shaped by Suffering will be released February 4, 2020, and may be preordered before then at kenboa.org or at Amazon.com (paperback and e-book available now; audiobook forthcoming).
This article originated from Dr. Boa’s highly edifying website and specifically at http://kenboa.org/spiritual-formation/how-god-uses-suffering-to-shape-us/; it may be reproduced or preprinted with permission only.
Kenneth Boa is an author, a teacher, a speaker and the president and founder of Reflections Ministries, Omnibus Media Ministries and Trinity House Publishers. Author of more than 50 books, including Shaped by Suffering, Life in the Presence of God, Conformed to His Image, Faith Has Its Reasons and Handbook to Prayer, he resides in Atlanta, where he teaches four weekly Bible studies, leads other regular groups, and serves as a mentor to many.