But the truth is, when we look at the lives of unbelievers and believers, we see no quantitative difference between the suffering and pain they experience. Believers and unbelievers alike suffer the death of loved ones, sickness, conflict with family and friends, and all sorts of affliction. So what's the difference? How is the experience of a Christian different from the non-Christian? Is it?
Last week at Bible study we were supposed to talk about the doctrine of justification and the doctrine of adoption. Well, we only covered justification. Perhaps the most exhaustive treatment of the doctrine of justification is James Buchanan's Doctrine of Justification (from the 1860s; it's a tome and very difficult to read). While I don't make a habit of recommending it, I often revisit one particular passage which helps me understand suffering in the life of a Christian:
The same afflictions which, in the case of the unbelieving and impenitent, are properly penal inflictions, embittered by the wrath of God, are converted, in the case of His children, into paternal chastisements, and even classed among their chartered privileges, while they are sweetened by a Father's love.
Think of two men living next door to one another somewhere in Oklahoma. Imagine that a tornado sweeps through their town and destroys both of their homes and families. Houses, wives, children have each been taken away from both of these men. Now imagine that one has God as his Father and one does not. What is the difference between the experiences of these two men? Have both suffered? Have both experienced great loss? Absolutely. So what's the difference. The one man despairs; he feels hopeless because everything has been taken away from him, and he feels that he has no reason to continue living; and somewhere deep in his conscience, he senses the truth of Jesus's words: "unless you repent, you will likewise perish" (Luke 13:3).
But the man who has God as his Father has hope. He knows that God works all things together for the good of His children. This man learns to trust God alone and not to put his hope in fleeting earthly blessings. This man becomes more intimately acquainted with the suffering of his Lord and Savior. He suffers the loss of all things, and he learns to count them but rubbish so that he may gain Christ (Philippians 3:8).
A loving father always discipline his children; in fact, teaching, rebuke, and correction are among the clearest signs of a father's love toward his sons and daughters. And God is the Father from whom all fatherhood gets its name; if God is your Father, then He marks you with His discipline.
Do you see your afflictions as God's signs of love toward you? Do you believe that your suffering comes from God? Or are they just bad luck? What is God teaching you through your current hardship? Sickness? Sorrow? Pain? Does the fact that you're suffering mean you're outside the grace of God? No. In fact, it could very well mean that God is chastising you, marking you as His child, and seeking to make you more like Jesus Christ. Are you going to grow? Or will you despair?
If we believe that God is truly in control, and that He loves us, we must realize that He gives us the suffering we experience, and He does so for our good:
It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. (Hebrews 12:7–11)