Is suffering part of God’s plan for us?

A couple of recent tweets from The Gospel Coalition raise the question of the place of suffering both in the New Testament narrative and in Christian experience. The first is an unattributed quotation, though I’m betting it’s John Piper: “Suffering is actually part of God’s plan (and so necessary) in order to bring about these shining riches of praise and glory and honor.” I presume it was from the recent TGC Women’s Conference, which was called “Resurrection life in a world of suffering”.

The second tweet links to a video clip in which Piper offers an animated exposition of this passage from 1 Peter:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet. 1:6–7)

Piper wants us to rejoice in suffering because it tests our faith so that we will have glory, etc., at the revelation of Christ. Without the hope of the revelation of Christ it would be “insane” to rejoice in suffering.

I have no context for the statements, but the impression is given that they are meant to apply to all believers at all times. The conference title suggests a very general understanding of suffering as part of the human condition, and Piper clearly thinks that he is asserting a universal Christian truth. So even if it sounds perverse, we should rejoice in all and any suffering because it will result in glory at the second coming of Jesus.

If we flatten out the New Testament so that it has no narrative shape, then Piper is undoubtedly correct. Suffering is central to New Testament faith. Pretty much everything is predicated on the experience and expectation of affliction. If we are going to base our discipleship on this flattened New Testament, then suffering is a sine qua non if we want to get something out of being a Christian in the long run.

But if we remove the crushing weight of universal application and allow the New Testament slowly to recover its narrative-historical shape, a more nuanced argument about suffering emerges—one that makes much better sense, I think, of the exhortation to rejoice in it. And we may still be left with a way to talk about own experience of weakness and pain.

He healed the sick

Everywhere Jesus went, he proclaimed the coming kingdom of God, he healed the sick, and he cast out demons. This is where we first encounter human suffering in the New Testament. I take it that in the narrative the healings and exorcisms are associated so closely with the preaching because they are a concrete prophetic sign of the coming restoration of Israel. Nevertheless, we can make the observation here that it is never suggested that these people who flock to Jesus ought to rejoice in their sufferings or that they would ultimately be glorified because of their afflictions. On the contrary, the expectation is that they would be healed or saved from their afflictions, and they would give thanks and praise to God because he has had mercy on them.

Eschatological suffering

The story, however, moves on. Jesus suffered and was glorified. His suffering did not consist in illness or accident or economic deprivation or some other manner of personal setback. He suffered at the hands of the leaders of Israel and their Gentile overlords because he claimed for himself the authority to determine Israel’s destiny, even if it meant dying for it.

From a Jewish-Christian perspective this is the highpoint of a tradition that goes back through John the Baptist, the stories of the Maccabean martyrs, who are also both the “wise” who “stumble by sword and flame, by captivity and plunder” (Dan. 11:33) and the suffering saints of the Most High represented by the “son of man” who comes with the clouds of heaven to be vindicated (Dan. 7:13-27), the persecuted “divine sons” in the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis. 2:12-20), Isaiah’s suffering servant, and the righteous in the Psalms who suffer at the hands of the wicked.

If we are going to base our discipleship on this flattened New Testament, then suffering is a sine qua non if we want to get something out of being a Christian in the long run.

But Jesus’s suffering and vindication also sets the pattern for his followers and for the churches.

As Son of Man at the right hand of God he represents or embodies his persecuted followers (Acts 7:56; 9:4-5).

Paul sets himself the personal ambition of sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death in the hope of sharing in his resurrection and vindication (Phil. 3:10-11; cf. Col. 1:24).

He tells the Philippians that it has been granted to them not only to believe in Christ but also to “suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have” (Phil. 1:29-30).

He makes being glorified with Christ directly conditional upon suffering with him (Rom. 8:17). To be conformed to the image of Christ is to be conformed to the pattern of his suffering, death, resurrection and vindication. In this way the persecuted and vindicated Christ becomes the “firstborn” among many persecuted and resurrected brothers (Rom. 8:29).

Jesus is the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith” who “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, so the Jewish-Christian believers addressed should likewise suffer reproach outside the camp (Heb. 12:2; 13:12-13).

In the passage that Piper comments on from 1 Peter, believers whose faith is tested by trials will inherit (the kingdom) when their salvation is “revealed in the last time”. Later Peter urges his readers not to be “surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you”. He doesn’t mean cancer or unemployment or the death of a child. He means persecution. Rejoice, he says, “insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

So there is a suffering through which the believer is glorified, but this is inseparable from the eschatological narrative. The churches in the first century were called to take a stand, in a hostile pagan world, for God’s new future, when Christ would be confessed as Lord by the nations. They would inevitably face persecution, but in their suffering their were imitating Christ and could expect to share in his vindication and glory when the pagan system was eventually discarded and the exalted Christ was revealed to nations.

This was how God’s people would get from A to B, from oppression to kingdom, from humiliation to honour—by following Jesus down a difficult, narrow, and painful path leading to the life of the age to come.

It’s a story about persecution and martyrdom.

We are not part of that story. John Piper is not part of that story. The long-suffering women at the conference were not part of that story. Even the persecuted church today is not strictly part of that story, though they may have some claim to be included in it by analogy.

Non-eschatological weakness

But perhaps there is another theme in the New Testament that is more relevant for the church today. We don’t know exactly what Paul was referring to when he spoke of a thorn “given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Cor. 12:7). When he prayed that the affliction might be removed, he was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

The wider argument highlights the sufferings that went with his apostolic ministry as the main form of his “weakness” (“insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities”), but the thorn seems to be a reference to something incidental, a physical condition or sickness, perhaps—failing eyesight, malaria, who knows?

It is also a factor in Christian weakness that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the wise… so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27, 29). Yes, this corresponds to the weakness of the cross, but what Paul has in mind is not the suffering that comes with persecution but the underlying socio-economic condition, the human condition, of the Corinthians believers.

When the church lives and acts out of its weakness, which includes the weakness that comes from ordinary, non-eschatological human suffering, the grace of God is disclosed, the power of God is made perfect, and we humans are put in our place. God does not choose the powerful to bring about his purposes—including the supreme “political” purpose of gaining supremacy in the ancient world—but the weak.

This is a very different type of argument.

In the eschatological narrative which dominates the New Testament the persecuted believer will share in the glory that Son of God has when he is revealed to the oikoumenē—to the Greek-Roman world. The weakness argument in the New Testament cannot be fully disentangled from this, but I think that it gives us a basis for talking positively about suffering as part of the experience of the church today.

We need to drop the specific eschatological expectation—we have no right to it. But we should be acutely aware that we serve the creator God not as a strong people—empowered by votes, money, arms, glamour, status—but as a weak people, and our human suffering is an integral part of that experience.

I completely agree. I’ve even heard Christians pray for more suffering so they could be more Christlike.

I do think you probably want to omit the word “not” in this sentence: “Nevertheless, we can make the observation here that it is never suggested that these people who flock to Jesus are not told to rejoice in their suffering or that they will ultimately be glorified because of their afflictions.”

Thanks for this, Andrew. These are things I’ve been trying to work through, myself, especially with regard to today’s persecuted church.

Because I agree that the NT story of suffering is not their story. At the same time, I think we have reason to believe from both OT and NT narratives that God deals with the oppression of His people in certain ways that have some overarching consistencies. In addition, the NT writers have no qualms about explaining their current experience (or theologically retrospecting on it) in light of similar events in their past.

Ultimately, I think comfort and meaning of the present suffering of the persecuted church ought to come from their prophets, but I also think it’s legit to look at the past experience of God’s people with God in those times of suffering and martyrdom and use them to give meaning to your present experience of those same things. There’s reason to hope in deliverance and vindication because of our history.

I’m broadly sympathetic to the argument. I guess the big question that I’m left with is whether, in biblical terms, it makes any sense to speak of the same sort of historical vindication that was expected in the New Testament, which has to be understood (I think) with reference either to AD 70 or the conversion of the Greek-Roman world. Historical outcomes are not incidental to the biblical narrative, they are what it’s all about. Should “prophets” be saying to the persecuted church in Iran or China that they will sooner or later be publically vindicated for their faith? Can we predict a turn of events comparable to the conversion of the empire? In a post-imperial and globalised world, I’m not sure it’s possible to speak quite so clearly about the significance of “political” events. Should the focus now perhaps be more on the creational context—and therefore on a final vindication of God’s new creation people at a final “judgment”?

I would say that their vindication may only be in the sense of being in the new creation. I don’t think anyone should announce to believers in China that God will vindicate them politically before their oppressors on the basis of the Bible. Although it’s entirely possible that God could do that, there’s not a biblical reason for assuming that will be the case. I’m not suggesting that, since Jerusalem was destroyed and Rome converted that Christians in China should expect the overthrow of their government or a national conversion.

However, I do think those past events give us indicators of what God is like and what He cares about. For example, His fidelity to the promises made to the Patriarchs is a reason to believe that this whole people of God / new creation project is ultimately going to succeed. It may be that the only vindication the persecuted church in China has is the renewal of creation — which will be a historical outcome — but they have reason to be confident in that outcome on the basis of God’s past commitments and behaviors.

The other thing is, whatever historical outcomes do materialize for the persecuted church, it is not inappropriate to understand those circumstances and find meaning in them in light of the past.

When Emmanuel is born signifying that God will deliver Israel from her enemies at the time, that is not a guarantee that God will deliver Israel from any future enemies, and it’s especially not a guarantee that God will herald that deliverance with the birth of a special child. However, when these things happen, the NT writers don’t seem to have any issue with looking back on Israel’s history and saying, “Yeah, this thing that happened here is basically just like that thing that happened there,” and importing the meaning for their present circumstances.

Hi Andrew,

On a few occasions in the OT a thorn, or thorn in the side, refers to people or nations (see Judges 2:3 for example, or Numbers 33:55). I can’t think of an example where a thorn refers to a physical ailment. Paul also seems to qualify what the thorn is when he says “a messenger from Satan” so I think he means a person rather than a physical ailment. What do you think?

It’s an interesting suggestion. Those two passages (and Josh. 23:13) refer to the continuing presence of the Canaanites in the land. Is it likely that Paul would have used that specific analogy to speak of a troublesome person? It’s not found in any other context in the Old Testament. The context in 2 Corinthians 12 may also suggest a more commonplace idiomatic usage, in which case the Canaanite allusion may not be relevant. I also rather think that “weakness/weaknesses” in verses 9-10 is a reference to the thorn in the flesh, which would point to something internal or personal rather than a hostile individual.

And why would a “messenger (angelos) of Satan” be a person and not an evil spirit—particularly given the reference to ecstatic spiritual experiences in the preceding passage? Perhaps Paul suffered from epilepsy, which he interpreted as a sign of demonic interference in his ministry.