All of us, at one point or another, face difficulties and trials of various kinds. You may be going through one or more challenges right now. Difficulties in a relationship. Physical illness, perhaps with the added layer of a uncertain diagnosis and prognosis. In different ways, life can feel unstable, precarious, and you long for calmer and more predictable days.
Over the years, I’ve had numerous conversations with believers in the midst of ongoing suffering. They’ve prayed about their situation; they may even have lamented openly to God like a psalmist, pleading for divine help. But the situation goes on, sometimes even getting worse. Again, like the psalmist, they wonder “How long?”
And perhaps more importantly, they want to know why they are suffering and what they have done to deserve it. Often, they make sense of their plight by believing that God must be trying to “teach them a lesson.”
Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the phrase “teaching someone a lesson” has a punitive connotation to it. I find the idea problematic for other reasons. If you’ve ever wondered what God is trying to teach you through your suffering, if you’ve ever heard someone else wonder the same, please read on with an open mind.
The first problem is that the question can tacitly assume that a lack of suffering should be the norm, especially for people who are faithful. The so-called “prosperity gospel” is just one expression of this view. And to be fair, texts like Psalm 1 seem to teach this. But the full biblical picture is more complex, even within the Psalms. Many psalms lament how unfair life seems to be for the faithful, for those who are trying to do things God’s way, and some of these laments are left entirely open-ended, without resolution. Even if we were to assume that all of those situations came out well in the end, we would still be left with the question of why the faithful had to suffer for so long before things were put right.
Moreover, in the New Testament, faithfulness and suffering (though usually in the sense of persecution) are closely associated. Faithfulness can lead to suffering, and the quality of one’s faithfulness is demonstrated through suffering. Both ideas run counter to the assumption that one’s faithfulness should make it possible to avoid suffering.
The second, related problem is that when we ask what God is trying to teach us, we sometimes also assume that once we figure out what the lesson is, the suffering will cease or at least abate. But where the Christian life is concerned, our most important lessons are learned over time and through adversity. “Learning,” in this sense, is not a purely cognitive exercise; it is the fruit of how we handle our experiences. We’ve seen this, for example, in the opening verses of James:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials, consider it all joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance complete its work, so that you may be complete and whole, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, NRSVUE)
We see a similar thought in a well-known passage from Paul:
And not only that, but we also boast in our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:3-5)
Think about it. What if the lesson God wanted us to learn was patience? How would we learn that? Again, it’s not just a cognitive exercise. We can’t just read a book or take a class and suddenly be more patient people. We must take the ideas and practice them in situations that try our patience, over and over. Or what if God wanted us to learn to be more loving? Wouldn’t we find ourselves confronted with people whom we found difficult or impossible to love?
By questioning the question “What is God trying to teach me?” I’m not saying that God doesn’t have things he wants us to learn. What I am saying, however, is that most of what he wants us to learn has already been revealed to us in Scripture, not least of which is the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).
If you agree, then let me propose a more productive line of questioning for our times of suffering. Let’s stop asking, “What is God trying to teach me?” Instead, let’s ask, “What do I already know from Scripture that God wants me to learn? In what areas and character qualities does he want me to grow?” If you need a place to begin, go back through the list of the different manifestations of spiritual fruit above.
Then ask yourself, “How is my present situation an opportunity to learn these things, possibly even in a way that I might not otherwise?”
And pray for God to empower you to be the person he is making you to be.