Desiring Joy Not Joyful Suffering
I am deeply concerned about a trend in some Christian circles to glorify suffering, as if suffering is somehow a good thing. Over the past few months, I have heard that suffering should not only be anticipated, but gladly accepted because of its benefits. Of course, this is not exactly a “recent” trend, but one that can be traced back to Catholics in the Middle Ages. To this, I would like to offer an important clarification.
First of all, there is nothing good in suffering itself. God does not delight in the suffering of a person being killed, nor did Jesus find any satisfaction in His crucifixion. Suffering involves suffering, and we know from Scripture that God abhors violence. Simply put, God does not delight in pain.
Errantly, it has been said that “there is nothing inherently evil about suffering,” but this needs to be qualified. Although this is true for an athlete in training or a religious person who fasts from a meal, this is not normally what we mean when talking about “suffering.” Usually, suffering involves physical, emotional, and relational pain. We cannot categorize all suffering as the same. Some sufferings are voluntary or amoral, while other sufferings are involuntary or immoral.
Experiencing this latter kind of suffering, a sufferer undergoes pain, and the reality of that pain should never be diminished. There is nothing good about a child dying. Nothing good about an instance of abuse, murder, rape, or any other horrific evil in the world. Evil is evil, and it would be a tragic error to ever suggest otherwise. As it says in James 1, our good God has nothing to do with causing temptation or evil.
When the Bible speaks of finding joy in the midst of suffering — such as in 1 Peter — joy is not found in the suffering itself. Rather, the joy is found despite the suffering. Joy is found in God — in His steadfastness, in His comfort, in His healing, in His power, etc. — and not in the circumstances that surround us. Trying to find joy in painful circumstances is like trying to cool off in the midst of a heatwave; it is an empty mind trick.
We should never be surprised or be caught off guard by suffering, but at the same time, we should not anticipate or glorify it. Like Jesus, we can pray for the cup of suffering to pass from us. Since Jesus was not a masochist, neither are we as Christians. I would argue that we should pray that suffering passes from us, lest we try to be more holy than Jesus. Following Jesus’ example, we can ask God for another way and for healing from our pain.
The joy that we experience in our suffering is God Himself, not the circumstances of our suffering. For that reason, we should not fear suffering, nor should we exalt personal comfort as the ultimate goal. It is through difficulty that our vision becomes clear. We can see who God is — perfect, faithful, and safe — better than we can during other times in our lives.
God allows for suffering because sometimes suffering is a lesser danger than a false sense of perfection, comfort, and ease. God never delights in pain itself, but like an athlete in training, He can see the benefits beyond the pain.
If suffering were necessary for joy or for God’s glory, we would expect to suffer in heaven. But to the contrary, we know that the ultimate joy lies beyond the suffering of this present world. May our eyes see beyond this pain and look towards the everlasting comfort that is coming…