First published 8 October 2012
I have taken recently to reading books by Christians past and present, who suffer and suffered in some way. I guess it’s because I consider myself to be suffering with my illness and the constant battle to stay employed. I know I’m not suffering to the same degree as the people I’m reading about – Joni Eareckson Tada, Corrie Ten Boom, Helen Roseveare, William Tyndale, John G. Paton, Adoniram Judson, C.S. Lewis – but I want to learn from the way they handled their greater suffering, so that I can learn to better bear and understand my own smaller hardships.
One thing I used to think, having a strong view of God’s sovereign providence, was that God uses hardships to prepare us for greater service, for some great ministry, or some great success in the future (a bit like the great examples named above). I then came to wonder what happens when we come to that greater ministry or that great success. What does God do in our lives then? Well, I supposed He must prepare us for even greater things… until the logical conclusion, when we die, are we prepared for heaven? So perhaps the whole of our lives is a preparation for our place in the New Creation.
But what does that mean?
I have come to learn that that means holiness, and that holiness and sanctification are the most important purpose behind all that God does in our lives. Yes, He is working to spread the gospel. Yes, He is using His people, using their suffering, to call attention to the glory of Christ. But what He wants most from us in response to everything that He brings into our lives – hardships and happiness – is holiness.
Sure, God is making things happen. Nothing happens that is not part of His sovereign purpose and plan. But in everything He purposes to happen, His fundamental purpose is for our holiness, so that we may bring Him greater glory.
J.I. Packer said in A Passion for Holiness, ‘We must be clear in our minds that whatever further reasons there may be why God exposes us to the joys and sorrows, fulfillments and frustrations, delights and disappointment, happinesses and hurts, that make up the emotional reality of our lives, all these experiences are part of his curriculum for us in the school of holiness, which is his spiritual gymnasium for our reshaping and rebuilding in the moral likeness of Jesus Christ.’ (1992, Crossway Books, pp16-17)
And that is hard! It’s is the hardest thing I find about the Christian life. I am so incredibly imperfect, more than any human being will hopefully ever fully know – even my wife… and she knows all of my imperfections very well! I don’t give up on my sin easily. But hardships tend to focus the mind somewhat on what really matters.
But even my suffering authors find it difficult too. Helen Roseveare, in Give Me This Mountain, writes of when she first went to be a missionary in Congo in the 1950s. She recalls being told by an experienced colleague, “If you think you have come to the mission field because you are a little better than others, or as the cream of your church, or because of your medical degree, or for the service you can render the African church, or even for the souls you may see saved, you will fail. Remember, the Lord has only one purpose ultimately for each of us, to make us more like Jesus. He is interested in your relationship with Himself. Let Him take you and mould you as He will; all the rest will take its rightful place.”
So God does not just care about getting more people into church. He cares mostly about the way that we follow Him in our day-to-day lives, and how that overflows in love to those around us, whoever they may be.
Now, some may be unconvinced that God has any purpose whatsoever in hardships. They don’t see Him as being in control of everything, so, to me at least, that means there cannot be purpose in anything that happens. In general terms a person can only have a purpose for something that they consciously do. So if we don’t see God causing/allowing things happening in the world, then there cannot be a divine purpose in the things going on in the world.
So I just want to give a couple of examples of where the Bible speaks in that way.
First, 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, “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. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.”
Here Paul is saying that God allowed them to be “utterly burdened” beyond their strength, but that burdening, that despair, had a purpose. And that purpose was “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” I suppose you could argue that Paul doesn’t explicitly say that God purposed their hardship, only that it occurred to make them rely on God. But I don’t buy that! When we say that something has a purpose, or something happened for a reason, then there must be a person behind it. And who else would want the apostles to rely on God more? Satan? Their Roman or Jewish persecutors? No! God is the only one who would have that purpose.
And then, Hebrews 12:7, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father?” This is explicit. God is the one doing the discipline, the training, and the training is in the form of hardship. And what purpose does this training have? Vv10-11, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace…”
And with utmost clarity, Paul tells us in Romans 8:29 that we were “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” That’s what God’s chosen people are for – not firstly to do, but to be – to be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ, who went through the ultimate suffering.
God has a purpose in the hardships of His people, and that purpose is holiness. And that brings me almost to tears.
Firstly to realize that all this difficulty, the emotional turmoil, the seemingly constant unsettling lifestyle adjustments, are purposed by a loving God, my God, my Father. And not just purposed so that I can be part of a church, part of a kingdom, involved in a work. But purposed so that I may share in the holiness of the Creator, the only Real God. This is like a king saying to an adopted son, “I don’t just want to bring you to live in my house. I want you to share in the character of the royal family.” God is infinitely good, perfect, beautiful. And so sharing in His holiness is sharing in all these perfections. It’s like being called to be nestled in God, part of His royal family, sharing not just in His creation, but in God Himself. That is truly wonderful.
Finally, it upsets me to know the corruption of my heart, that I am so resistant to this good purpose. God wants for me to have the best in the world, to share in His holiness. He has, at great cost, adopted me as one of His sons, to make me part of His family. And He is willing to get serious with me, putting me through some tough training, to bring me up to standard. I should be thrilled with that. But I’m not. I continue to cherish my sin and bad habits, like a footballer who knows that the coach just wants to make them a better player but hates the hard training sessions and prefers to continue in laziness and bad practice.
May God give me grace to accept the discipline, and to rise to the training, and to rely more fully on Him, my wonderful God and Father.