There was a popular saying when I was younger: “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” I remember seeing it on t-shirts, bumper stickers, everywhere. Somehow, in the last thirty five years or so, the phrase has fallen out of fashion. But the sentiment is still a popular one.
In the church, we’re not likely to say it exactly like that. But we have our own catch phrases when it comes to suffering. Many of us think that whatever suffering we endure automatically makes us better believers. The road to patience, we’re told, is paved with suffering.
Not exactly. Trials can certainly produce good in us. But they don’t automatically produce good in us. For many, unexplained pain produces doubt and despair. Trials can produce good, but it’s our choice to make. Will we choose to trust in God’s character or to go backwards in doubt? Will suffering make us better or bitter?
This is why James writes that we have to let steadfastness have its full effect (James 1:4). In other words, let God do his work in us.
It makes me think of Paul and Silas in Acts 16, unjustly imprisoned, publicly whipped and humiliated. There they were, sitting in the darkness of a prison cell at midnight, where they started singing their worship. We don’t know what they were singing, but it’s highly possible they were proclaiming God’s goodness and faithfulness.
God seems to like the song, because his foot-tapping gets so intense that it causes an earthquake. (The foot-tapping isn’t in the text, but go with me here.) This earthquake tears the prison walls down and breaks their chains. Their jailer falls on his knees, asking how he can be saved. Quite a moment!
But here’s the thing: The earthquake Paul and Silas experienced was, in a certain way, only an aftershock. It was a physical manifestation of the “soul quake” that they had already gone through in trusting in the good character of God, even in the midst of darkness. Had they responded to their suffering by cursing God, the story would have turned out very differently.
The great biblical figures of Scripture don’t seem to walk easy roads. All of them suffered greatly. But they are not great biblical figures because they suffered. They are heroes of the faith because of what they did with their suffering.
Paul, Silas, Jeremiah, Moses, Ruth, Rahab, Mary—all of them had moments of great suffering when a choice lay before them: Either choose to trust in the good character of God—the character demonstrated in the cross and Resurrection—or let go and think their chaos meant God was absent, distant, uncaring. If we know their names, it’s likely because they chose to trust God. And that made all the difference between suffering … and suffering that lets God do his work in us.
Only when we persevere in suffering can we be made perfect and complete in God. Our anchor has to be in God alone, allowing him to work through our pain, our darkness, and our unanswered questions.