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Are faith and suffering compatible?

Some people speak as though Christian faith and suffering cannot exist together. They make very clear statements that if you have enough faith you will not suffer – that you will be physically healthy and financially wealthy. They believe that physical healing is ‘in the atonement’ – that is, that Jesus not only bore our sins in his physical body, but he also bore our physical ailments in his physical body - that as he hung on the cross he suffered every physical ailment known to humans. People who believe this believe that no Christian should ever be sick. People who believe this say that when a believer suffers the suffering is caused by some spiritual fault or spiritual lack in the believer.

Such a belief is totally out of sync with the historical narratives of the Bible which indicate that faithful men of God experienced intense and long-term suffering:

Job experienced every kind of human suffering [Job 1 & 2].

Paul suffered a long term physical condition [2Corinthians 12:7-10].

Timothy suffered a chronic stomach problem and on-going weaknesses [1Timothy 5:23].

Epaphroditus suffered a near fatal illness [Philippians 2:19-30].

The belief that God wants every Christian to be exempt from suffering is also out of sync with the Bible’s teaching that suffering is the status quo from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. The Bible teaches that suffering is simply the way it is during this present age. This is true of the created world; this is true of unbelievers; this is true of believers. Even the indwelling Holy Spirit groans in agony because of our suffering [Romans 8:18-27]. The removal of suffering occurs only after the return of Christ and the final judgement. Regardless of what some Christians teach, we are not in heaven yet, and have no biblical grounds for expecting to enjoy in this pen-ultimate era, the freedom from suffering that is clearly promised us as part of the ultimate era - the new heavens and the new earth [Revelation 21:4].

In addition, those who acknowledge allegiance to Christ also suffer directly because of that allegiance. Neither Jesus nor his apostles thought this at all remarkable. Rather, it is to be expected. Those who belong to Jesus suffer the world’s rejection, just like Jesus. The Bible knows nothing of that kind of triumphalism that expects and tries to bring about Christian world dominion.

So Peter, in his first letter, focuses heavily on the suffering his readers were experiencing. While their absolutely certain present and future salvation is the cause of great, inexpressible and glorious joy, this joy is felt not because there is no suffering, but in the context of significant and sometimes intense suffering.

Peter sees no conflict or inconsistency in this. Faith does not somehow rule out suffering, rather faith exists in the midst of suffering. So Peter wrote:

‘In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials’ [1:6].

These few words reveal important truths about Christian suffering:

It is ‘now’ – in contrast to the complete salvation that will be revealed at the return of Christ.

It is ‘for a little while’ – it is limited in duration, in contrast to salvation, which is eternal. Also, it is limited in its size and extent, as Paul points out in 1Corinthians 10:13.

It is distressing. Paul uses the word lupeo – which means to be heavy-hearted, to grieve.

It comes in many forms – ‘all kinds’.

Its common component is pressure. The NIV reads ‘trials’. The KJV has ‘temptations’. The core meaning of the word is ‘pressure’. In the devil’s hand the pressure is aimed at forcing us to give in and give up on Jesus. In God’s hand the pressure proves the integrity of our faith.

Rather than faith in Christ and suffering being incompatible, the survival of our faith in Christ through the suffering confirms its validity.