I know no sweeter way to heaven, than through free grace and hard trials together, and none of these [can] well want another. —Samuel Rutherford
I recently spoke with a younger friend who is battling cancer, which has included a great deal of pain. We had not spoken for a while, and I was struck by the change in his voice when he answered the phone. I understood why when I learned that acute pain prevented him from sleeping more than a few hours each night. It also hurt me—though it didn’t surprise me—to hear that walking with him through this season was taking an emotional toll on his tenderhearted wife. Despite this trial, my friend exuded joy in the Lord and confidence in his goodness. He shared that the Lord was wonderfully ministering to them both as they spent a great deal of time in the book of Job. Our conversation, though brief, had a powerful effect on me. While my friend’s trial grieves me deeply, his faith, joy, peace, and gratitude also challenged and encouraged me. Here was a brother in Christ suffering greatly and yet, by the grace of God, suffering well. In times of suffering, this is what I want for myself as well as for you: that, by the grace of God, we can suffer well.
At some time or another, pain and suffering are part of every life, including every Christian life. But for us it is profoundly meaningful because our gracious God calls us to steward our suffering toward three great ends: to promote his glory and pleasure in us, to help us grow spiritually, and to enable us to bless our neighbors. Sadly, this biblical perspective has been increasingly lost in our day. Contemporary Christians are often surprised, disoriented, discouraged, and defeated by it. But it doesn’t need to be this way—and given the rich resources we have in Christ, it shouldn’t be.
God’s Rich Grace: A Motive for His People to Suffer Well
First Peter 5:10 describes our Lord as the “God of all grace,” whose common grace makes his sun to shine and his rain to fall on sinners and saints alike, giving even his hardened enemies many of the good things of this life (Matt. 5:45). Concerning the redeemed, Scripture is lavish in revealing divine favor toward us from all three persons of the Godhead. By means of election, the Father is the fountainhead of grace to his covenant people, purposing to save his chosen ones, even at the cost of his beloved Son’s suffering, and giving them as a love-gift to his Son (Eph. 1:3–11; John 17:2, 6, 9, 24; Heb. 2:13). The Son, in his grace, agreed to do and to endure everything necessary for the salvation of the elect, and he has. Our justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification are all the fruits of his gracious work in living, dying, rising, interceding, and reigning for us. And the “Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29) not only applies these blessings to us through our effectual calling, but he seals our union with Christ, indwells and consecrates our bodies as his temple, and by means of Christ’s resurrection life, transforms us from within into his lovely image. The Father’s grace has predestined us to everlasting life with him in glory, the Son’s grace has purchased that inheritance and is preparing it for us, and the Spirit’s grace is preparing us for that glory and sustaining us until we possess it.
The apostle John said, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19); and as we contemplate such lavish love and grace, we are provided with a powerful motive to please and glorify God in all that we do, including our suffering. We please and delight the Lord when we trust and submit to him, and we glorify him as we display or affirm his attributes before others, especially in our suffering. It is easy to trust his wisdom, goodness, power, and faithfulness when our prayers are being answered, our needs met, and our hopes fulfilled. But what about the times we are in physical or emotional pain, when our prayers remain unanswered, our needs go unmet, and our hopes appear to be dashed? It’s during those times especially that our faith, our thanks, our praise, our obedience, and our service glorify him more fully and please him more powerfully, and the knowledge of his grace to us is a wonderful incentive and encouragement for us to persevere. Surely, One who has shown such love and care in saving us will never truly abandon us. And even if it sometimes appears and feels that he has, he will ultimately prove himself faithful (Heb. 13:5; Rom. 8:38–39).
This brings us to a second reason for suffering well: spiritual growth. If we define spiritual growth as knowing God better and becoming more like him, then suffering provides a special opportunity and grace a wonderful motivation for both. When in pain, we have a special reason to draw near to him, to seek him with an urgency that we lack when life is comfortable. We pray with a new frequency and fervor, and we read and meditate on Scripture with an eagerness born of desperate need. We seek his strength and comfort in new ways, and when he gives, we rejoice and appreciate his faithfulness all the more. In these and other ways, our suffering provides opportunities to seek our Lord with greater urgency, his gracious character encourages us to do so, and his gracious responses deepen our knowledge of and love for him. He is, after all, the God who is near to and delights to heal the brokenhearted (Pss. 34:18; 147:3; Isa. 61:1).
Finally, experiencing God’s grace motivates (and enables) us to minister to others. Paul said that our experience of God’s comfort equips us to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3–5), and surely the same is true of our experience of his grace. Indeed, his comfort is simply an aspect of his grace, specifically as it relates to sufferers and their needs, and our own experience of comforting and enabling grace moves us to share it with fellow-sufferers, pointing them to the “God of all grace,” who is also the “Father of mercies and God of all comfort,” confident that they, like we, will receive from him the grace and comfort they need.
So, God’s grace to us in Christ should be a wonderful motivation, not just to seek from him relief from our pain but also to please and glorify him in it, to grow in our knowledge of and likeness to him, and to minister his grace to other sufferers as they have need and we opportunity.
God’s Grace as a Means to Suffering Well
God’s grace is not merely our motive for suffering well; it is also the means by which we do so. Scripture is clear that the end of suffering awaits the “not yet” of Christ’s return to make all things new (Rom. 8:20–1; 2 Pet. 3:10–13; Rev. 21–22). But it is equally clear that in this present age when suffering remains a painful and inescapable reality, we are “already” blessed with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). That glorious fact has profound and wonderful implications for us here and now, not least of which is the all-sufficient “grace, in which we stand” (2 Cor. 12:9–10; Rom. 5:2). Pain can alienate us from God rather than draw us closer. Instead of making us more like him, it can have the opposite effect. It can harden rather than soften us toward others. Yet his grace can transform our trials as well as us.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon includes two main New Testament meanings for the word grace (charis): it describes both the free favor that God shows in Christ toward the “ill-deserving” and “the merciful kindness by which God, exerting his holy influence,” works in us all manner of gifts and Christian virtues by his Spirit. These two senses are intimately related, and the second always flows out of the first. God is gracious toward us in suffering, and he works graciously in us through suffering. This twofold grace is epitomized by Christ, who “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake . . . became poor, so that [we] by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9). That grace becomes ours through our union with him (Eph. 1:3, etc.), who calls us to “share in his sufferings” (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 3:10). And that grace enables us to suffer well, as Paul testifies in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
The Spirit and the Means of Grace
This is so important for us to understand as sufferers. Suffering doesn’t help us on its own. By itself, it can leave us hardened, bitter, and despairing. Suffering isn’t a means of grace. Suffering changes us because it drives us to God’s grace, and only grace can change us. Christ promises to comfort and strengthen his suffering people by his Spirit through powerful, effective means of grace. First and foremost, we must acknowledge “the Spirit of grace” himself (Heb. 10:29), the divine Comforter and Helper whom Jesus sent to be the seal and guarantee of our sonship and union with him (2 Cor. 1:22), to live in us and join us to our Lord and one another (John 14–16). He is the Spirit of adoption and of life (Rom. 8:2, 15; 2 Cor. 3:6), who imparts Christ’s resurrection life to us and sustains it in us (2 Cor. 4:7–11). He “strengthens our weakness,” helps us to pray, and intercedes for us (Rom. 8:26–27). He reveals Christ to us and conforms us to his image (2 Cor. 3:18). The supernatural love, joy, and peace that sufferers demonstrate by God’s power are part of the fruit the Spirit produces in the lives of God’s people (Gal. 5:22–23).
Among the Spirit’s other ministries to sufferers is the illumination of Scripture—the “word of his grace” (Acts 20:32)—to sustain our faith and give us comfort, hope, wisdom, and guidance. The Spirit does this by using Scripture to remind us of our heavenly Father’s gracious character and disposition toward us, and of our privileges and security as his children in Christ. By means of Scripture’s commands and examples, the Spirit counsels us concerning the duties we must perform and the dangers we must avoid in our suffering. God’s “precious and magnificent promises” fuel our faith and enable us to persevere when our strength and courage begin to flag. Supremely, the Spirit points us to Christ, in whom “all the promises of God are yea and . . . amen” (2 Cor. 1:20). As we understand more clearly and grasp more fully all that we are and have in God, our faith and other graces grow, thus enabling us to steward well the pain he entrusts to us.
Of the many promises and privileges that are ours through Christ, our sympathetic High Priest, among the most precious is prayer: ready access to the very throne of heaven, now for us a “throne of grace,” where through him we may confidently draw near to our “Abba, Father” (Gal. 4:6) and expect to “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16). If we faithfully claim and act upon it through prayer, that privilege alone is priceless in pleasant circumstances, but it is especially precious and helpful when gripped by pain.
Besides the word and prayer, Christ’s Spirit uses the ministry of the sacraments to bring gospel truths home to our hearts with fresh power and assurance as we worship and fellowship in his church. This suggests that another means of grace for sufferers is the communion of the saints. “But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more” (2 Cor. 7:6–7). Not only was Titus’s personal presence and fellowship an immediate source of comfort to Paul, but the Corinthians comforted him indirectly as he heard Titus’s encouraging report about them. Paul also speaks of the power of our words to “give grace to those who hear” them and of our duty to use them in that way (Eph. 4:29). As we do so, we become yet another means of blessing to our hurting brothers and sisters and, of course, there may also be concrete, practical needs to which we can minister, as the Macedonians did so generously and joyously despite their own “extreme poverty” (2 Cor. 8:1–3). Thus the church can be a vital asset to suffering believers as it provides the combined ministries of word and sacrament, and the communion of the saints.
Grace and Glory
In his loving wisdom, God ordains our suffering as an occasion to bring his grace to bear in the lives of his believing children—not that he delights in our pain, but that he permits and allows it as part of his purposes for our ultimate flourishing. As we “grow in grace” and are increasingly “full of grace” and “strong in grace” (2 Pet. 3:18; Acts 6:8; 2 Tim. 2:1), we please and glorify him, knowing him better, and becoming more like our Savior while ministering to those around us even in our weakness. This reality of suffering as an occasion for God’s grace might help us to appreciate the Puritan practice of referring to the church in this present age as the “Kingdom of grace,” whose subjects often suffer, in connection to the coming “Kingdom of glory,” from which pain will be banished forever. Hear Thomas Watson on that theme:
The Kingdom of grace is nothing . . . but the beginning of the Kingdom of glory; the Kingdom of grace is glory in the seed, and the Kingdom of glory is grace in the flower; the Kingdom of grace is glory in the daybreak, and the Kingdom of glory is grace in the full meridian; the Kingdom of grace is glory militant, and the Kingdom of glory is grace triumphant.
In that new world, everyone and everything will reflect the beauty of our Creator and Redeemer; and his grace to us in our suffering will be among those things he used to beautify and fit his children for glory. Suffering belongs to the “already,” but so does grace—and that means glory is sure to come.
Paul David Tripp, Suffering: Eternity Makes a Difference (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2001), 1–2.Back
Thomas Watson, “The Kingdoms of Grace and Glory,” Bible Hub, https://biblehub.com/sermons/auth/watson/the_kingdoms_of_grace_and_glory.htm.Back