All things for good? What about disease? What about bereavement? What about injustice? We must not deny nor downplay the agony of these experiences. We shouldn’t expect even the strongest of believers to just brush off these kinds of burdens as if they were feathers. Even Jesus wept over lost cities and dead friends.
If we take just physical suffering for example, there’s no question that it’s much easier to maintain strong faith when our bodies are fit, healthy, and functioning well. Indeed, one of the quickest ways to weaken faith is to abuse the bodies God has given us through overdoing work or underdoing sleep, exercise, and good food.
God has so made us that the body and soul are mysteriously tied together, dependent on one another, and to some degree each determining the health of the other. Many of the depressed people I’ve counseled have ended there through overwork, under-sleeping, and failing to exercise and eat well. A Christian psychologist friend of mine told me once that he always prescribes three pills as a vital part of his treatment plan for depressed patients: good food, good diet, and good sleep!
I know myself that when I’m not sleeping enough, or when I’m not getting daily exercise, that negative thought patterns quickly set in and I start spiraling downwards. My weary body drags down my mind and soul. But a few good nights’ sleep and regular exercise will usually turn me around again so that I can live with a more positive and God-glorifying faith.
But what if health is no longer an option? What if our body is sick, diseased, disabled, and even dying? That will happen to most of us eventually, even to those of us who have cared most for our bodies. God is able to work even the worst of suffering together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
He does this by helping us to find a redemptive perspective, which, Donald Miller explains, is really about creating two lists rather than one.
Normally when something hard happens we start a running mental list of all the negative consequences. And that’s fine and normal. Finding a redemptive perspective, however, is about creating a second list, a list of the benefits of a given tragedy. And there are always benefits.
The “Benefits” of Suffering
Why not go back through the yesterday’s list of “benefits” from the conviction of sin and calculate which of these fruits that suffering has produced in your life. Just like sin, suffering humbles us, sensitizes us, silences us, draws us, makes us dependent, increases carefulness, fans hatred for sin, motivates us to oppose the devil, drives us to the Bible and our knees, stimulates love for the Christ who suffered for us, provokes thankfulness for the good days and for the good God draws out of the bad days, makes us better comforters and encouragers, and above all, makes us long for heaven.
As the Apostle said, “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom. 1:18). But we don’t need to wait until heaven to see and enjoy the fruit of suffering. Though “no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
That’s a beautiful balance, isn’t it. The Apostles do not downplay sin or suffering; they feel both deeply and painfully. However neither do they view them apart from the sovereign power and wisdom of God who is able to make the most and the best of our least and our worst.
The suffering Apostle Paul put it this way: “As dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yetnot killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:9-10). Both sides together at the same time. Sorrowful and rejoicing. Mourning and being comforted.
This is what distinguishes faith from mere optimism and enables faith to trump optimism. We confront the brutal agony of our lives, our families, our churches, and our society. But, at the same time, we also keep steady faith in the Word of God, especially its sure promises of personal perseverance and the ultimate triumph of faith and of the Church of Christ. Optimism is not faith; but faith is optimistic.