Pain and Suffering in the Christian Life (Carson)

How Long, O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil, 2nd ed. Carson, D. A. cover image

Some people do almost anything they can to avoid any kind of pain and suffering. If there’s any risk of pain or suffering some people will not take the risk no matter what. This is what has been called the great untruth of fragility: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker (Lukianoff/Haidt). If a person believes this “untruth,” that person will believe he or she is fragile.

To be sure, we should not go looking for pain and suffering. If you have a migraine it’s OK to take medicine to help ease the pain. If the roads are super icy, it’s not wrong to stay off the roads. And there are more than a few accounts in the Bible of God’s people fleeing persecution.

However, we also have to understand that in God’s sovereign wisdom, he uses pain and suffering in the lives of his people to grow them in their faith. Here’s how Don Carson explains this reality:

There are at least three ways in which our pain and suffering, rightly received in faith, will contribute to our growth as Christians.

First, in the words of Richard Baxter, “suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word hath easier entrance.” We can be so busy working, enjoying life, pursuing our careers, even ‘serving the Lord,’ that we no longer really reflect on his Word, or take time to pray, or sort out our priorities before him. The popular song, ‘He washed my eyes with tears, that I might see,” may indulge in too much sentimental doggerel, but it expresses an important truth….

Second, illness, bereavement, and suffering actually shape us; they temper us; they mold us. We may not enjoy the process; but they transform us. …That truth is explicitly taught in Romans 5:1-5. Rightly accepted, pain cleanses us from self-centeredness, gives us insight into the nature of this fallen world, prepares us for death, makes us remember the suffering of Christ and of others.

Third, as a corollary to the previous point, experiences of suffering, illness, and bereavement engender compassion and empathy in us, and therefore make us better able to help others.

For the Christian, then, suffering and pain are not the worst things in the world. They are not to be avoided at all costs. God in his loving sovereignty can use pain and suffering in our lives to shape and form us more into the image of Christ. The world might see pain as pointless. We see it as productive: “Suffering produces perseverance…” (Rom. 5:3 NIV)!

The above quote is found in How Long, O Lord? by D. A. Carson, p. 108.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015