"Dedicated to strengthening and encouraging the Body of Christ."

The Mystery of Suffering

By Paul E. Billheimer

    God is calling and preparing an Eternal Companion called the Bride, who is to sit with His Son on His throne as His co-regent in the ages to come (Rev. 3:21). In order to qualify for this exalted position the members of the Bridehood must be as nearly like the Son as it is possible for the finite to be like the infinite. If they are to qualify for their lofty duties they must share the character of God Himself which is agape love. This is the norm of the universe, the ideal toward which God is working for the eternal social order. But that quality of character cannot be developed in fallen humanity without suffering.

Glory and Suffering

    This explains Paul’s inspired revelation: "If we suffer, we shall also reign with him" (2 Tim. 2:12). According to Romans 5:3-5 suffering issues in character (agape love), and character is a prerequisite to rulership. Because there is no character development without suffering, suffering is a necessary preparation for rulership.

Massive Damage of the Fall

    God pronounced unfallen Adam "very good," but the Fall brought massive damage to Adam and all of his progeny. It left the race self-centered. Self-centeredness is the very essence of all sin and misery, and it results in self-destruction. It is the core of hostility, and hostility is the core of hell, the hallmark and essence of hell. Self-centeredness is the antithesis of holiness or agape love, the hallmark and essence of heaven.

The Necessity of Decentralization

    In bringing an individual into the likeness of His Son, God must decentralize him. Decentralization begins in the crisis of justification and the new birth and continues in the crisis of sanctification or the filling with the Holy Spirit.

    Of necessity it does not end there. These are only beginning experiences similar to a vestibule, which is a good place to enter but a poor place to stay. The work of sanctification by which the self is decentralized is both instantaneous and progressive. It is both a crisis and a process which continues throughout life. "Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6).

The Work of Tribulation

    If God’s net purpose in saving an individual is just to get him to heaven, He would probably take him to glory immediately. But God wants to prepare him for rulership in an infinite universe that demands character. Progress in sanctification, in the development of Godlike character and agape love, is impossible without tribulation and chastisement.

    "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:3-5 NIV).

    "My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons...For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby" (Heb. 12:5-8,10-11).

I walked a mile with pleasure;
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with sorrow;
And ne’er a word said she;
But, O, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.

Chastisement and Child Training

    It is clear from the foregoing and other similar passages of Scripture that sorrow, suffering, tribulation, and pain which come to the believer are not primarily for punishment but for child training. They are not purposeless. Earthly parents may make mistakes in their chastisement--and often do. But not God. He is preparing the believer for rulership in a universe so vast that it appears infinite. It seems that God cannot fully decentralize fallen man, even though born again, sanctified or filled with the Holy Spirit, without suffering.

    Watchman Nee says that we never learn anything new about God except through adversity. Some consider this an exaggeration, but it does seem that few seek a deeper walk with God except under duress.

Example of Israel

    The history of Israel illustrates this point. In prosperity she forsook pure Jehovah worship for licentious idolatry. Only by chastisement was she constrained to repent and return to Jehovah. For centuries, while God was seeking to obtain a pure remnant through whom He could bring the Messiah, it was the same routine: prosperity, backsliding, and apostasy; chastisement, repentance, and return to God ad infinitum (Judg. 2:11-19; 1 Sam. 12:9-10; 2 Chron. 15:4,33:12; Isa. 26:16).

    The experience of the Psalmist is illustrative: "Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now I have kept thy Word. It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes" (Psalm 119:67,71). Who of us have not known people with Christian background and training who have wandered far from God and have been brought back to Him through heart attack, cancer, tragic accident, or some other severe affliction?

Example of Christ

    One of the most amazing commentaries on the purposefulness of suffering in the economy of God is set forth in Hebrews 2:10: "For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings." "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered" (Heb. 5:8).

    In Christ’s case, according to Maclaren, "His perfecting was not the perfecting of moral character but the completion of His equipment for His work as Leader and Originator of our salvation. Before He suffers He has the pity of God. After He suffers He has the compassion of a man."

    The New Testament and Wycliffe Bible Commentary says: "By suffering His human experience was made complete... Because He suffered He is now fully qualified to serve as captain (archegos, leader) of man’s salvation." If the "many sons" whom Christ was to bring to glory and rulership had to be prepared and perfected for that glory by suffering, their Captain must lead the way by having His human experience perfected in the same way. The fact that Christ’s human experience had to be perfected by suffering proves that no suffering is purposeless, but that it is an essential part of God’s economy.

The Importance of Brokenness

    Christ’s suffering only matured and perfected His human experience. It purged nothing from His moral nature even as a man because He was unfallen. No stain of sin ever marred His humanity. But not so with fallen man. There is no way that Christlike character can be formed in man without suffering because he cannot be decentralized otherwise. If he will not suffer, if he determines to evade it, if he refuses to allow the life of nature and of self to go to the cross, to that extent he will remain hard, self-centered, unbroken, and therefore unChristlike.

    "Whole, unbruised, unbroken men are of little use to God" (J. R. Miller). By his self-will, one may escape a certain quality of pain, that which accompanies voluntary self-sacrifice, but in so doing he becomes the victim of a far greater pain, that of self-worship. He cannot escape both. Someone has said, "There are things which even God cannot do for us unless He allows us to suffer."

    – From Don’t Waste Your Sorrows by Paul E. Billheimer. © Used by permission of the publisher, Christian Literature Crusade, Fort Washington, Pennsylvania.