Often Christians think that hard equals good. If a decision is super hard, then it must really right. Because people disagree with us and criticize us, we assume we are on God’s side. After all, there is a correlation between suffering and holiness or so we think.
And while it is true that we will suffer hardship when we follow Christ, not all suffering is the result of good works. The Scriptures clearly say, “But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler” (I Peter 4:15). At times, Christians suffer hardship not because of their Christian witness but because of their selfish hearts.
As a kid I experienced that type of suffering over and over again. One fall semester, I had to do an extra hour of homework most every night because I kind of ‘forgot’ to read my summer reading list. I missed pickup baseball games, bike riding, and a whole host of other fun things. I was suffering at the hands of my parents (or so I thought). But I was not extra holy. I was suffering for because I was extra sinful.
Many times as adults, we suffer for the same reason. We have broken relationships, we are gossiped about, and we are in and out of drama because we sinned. And while our poor decisions do not justify the sins of others, we must realize that our sins have consequences. As Paul says in Galatians 6:7 “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” If we steal, lie, and attack others with our words, we will reap destruction, hurt, and broken relationships. We will experience many hard things because we are being foolish. “The way of the treacherous is their ruin” (Prov. 13:15).
As the great pastor D. Martin Lloyd-Jones said,
If you break God’s laws and violate His rules you will not be happy. If you think that you can be a Christian and exert your own will and follow your own likes and dislikes, your Christian life is going to be a miserable one. – P114 SD
So how do we know if we are suffering for our sin or if we are going through a trial like Job? Consider these three questions:
1. Is there unconfessed sin in my heart?
If we are living in sin, our lives will not go well. There is no blessing apart from Christ. The Christian trying to find comfort, hope, and peace while refusing to obey Christ will only find sorrow, despair, and anger. If you have unconfessed sin and are a believer, God will discipline you. You will feel miserable (Psalm 32:3). The solution is to return to Christ. We must pray the words of Psalm 123:23-24 which says:
Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!
We must examine our hearts and quickly repent of any and all confessed sin.
2. Is this a direct consequence of my sin?
For example if you get fired from your job for looking at pornography, you are not being punished for being godly. You are suffering because you have sinned. The firing and the ensuing suffering is a direct consequence of your sin. Recall Galatians 6:7. The solution is to repent of your sins. And as you draw near to God, he will draw near to you. You will once again experience his blessing.
But if you get liver cancer the next month, I would not assume that the cancer is related to lust or some other sin you recently committed. Suffering is not always a direct consequence of our personal sin. God brings trials into our lives for all kinds of reasons. If the suffering is not a direct consequence of sin, we should not assume that we are being punished. This was the mistake Job’s friends made. They could not understand suffering apart from the presence of personal sin. But we can. When we suffer and there is no direct link back to a personal sin, we should stop fishing for a cause and place our hope and trust in the one who delivers us from the valley of the shadow of death.
3. Is God Getting Glory?
Often this can be hard to tell in the immediacy of the situation. We cannot directly see how God is getting glory. But if we can pull back and see that our sickness, our financially loss, and our other situations are helping us or others more resemble Christ, then we can be sure that our suffering is not only because of our sin. God is using it for our good. When we confess our sins and repent of our actions, God will turn our trials into good. As Llyod-Jones wrote, “God’s greatest concern for us is not primarily our happiness but our holiness. In His love to us He is determined to bring us to that, and He employs many differing means to that end.” Suffering is not always a result of our sin. Often it an evidence of God’s love for us.
When we take our suffering to Christ, our hardships will always refine our hearts. It helps us shift our hope away from earthly measures to heavenly treasures. If we are becoming perfect and complete, our trial, our hardship, our struggle is a great thing.
My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. – James 1:2
In short, not every hardship or struggle is a result of our faithfulness. Our life may very well be difficult because we have sin deeply embedded in our souls. But regardless of the reason for our suffering, it is never pointless. And if we responding to suffering by seeking Christ, we will find abundant life. Are you ready to suffer for the right reasons?