This column appeared July 3 in The Pathway of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Horatio G. Spafford was a prominent attorney in Chicago in the 1800s and a friend of evangelist Dwight L. Moody. While Spafford was both respected and comfortable, he was not free from severe hardship.
First, he lost his four-year-old son to scarlet fever. Then his real estate investments along Lake Michigan literally went up in flames in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Not long after that, his four daughters drowned in a shipwreck, and his wife Anna survived the ordeal only because the ship’s debris buoyed her as she floated, unconscious, in the Atlantic Ocean.
Crossing the sea to join his bereaved wife, Spafford was called to the captain’s deck as the ship sailed past the foamy deep where his daughters were lost. The captain informed him that the waters there were three miles deep. Returning to his cabin, Spafford penned these words to the now-famous hymn:
When peace like a river attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul
Why did such tragedy befall this godly man? Spafford may have wondered why, but ultimately he rested in the sovereignty of God.
We can better appreciate God’s sovereignty, even in the darkest nights, by observing 10 reasons we suffer, according to scripture.
1. We suffer because we sin. All of us are sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). Unbelievers live lifestyles of independence from God, while believers experience moments, or seasons, of independence. Spiritual discipline is designed to target sin in a believer’s life, and that discipline may be severe, including death (1 Cor. 11:29-32).
2. We suffer because others sin. Children suffer at the hands of an abusive parent. Citizens suffer at the hands of corrupt leaders. Rarely does our sin remain confined to us. King David numbered his troops, and 70,000 people suffered the consequences. Jesus suffered through no fault of His own but gave His life for our sins.
3. We suffer because we live in a sinful and fallen world. Accidents happen. Natural disasters take the lives of millions each year. The apostle Paul writes that the whole world is groaning beneath the weight of sin (Rom. 8:22).
4. We suffer because God allows us to make real choices. The sovereignty of God and the ability of people to make meaningful choices are two Biblical truths. We are not robots; we actually can and do make choices for which God holds us accountable.
5. We suffer to make us long for eternity. This world is not our home; our citizenship is in heaven. The writer of Hebrews records, “These [heroes of the faith] all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed the they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth (11:13).” When we suffer, it helps prevent us from clinging to this world, which is passing away.
6. We suffer to keep us from something worse. A fever sends us to the doctor, where our illness is diagnosed and a remedy prescribed. On a grander scale, suffering tells us there is something wrong with us, and with the world, and often leads us to the all-important search for Christ. Darkness, pain, suffering, loneliness, abandonment — all help us grasp the reality of life, now and eternally, without Christ.
7. We suffer to share in the suffering of Christ, and thus to be more like Him. Christians persecuted for their faith share in what Paul calls “the fellowship of His suffering” (Phil. 3:10). When we suffer, it also enables us to comfort others, who suffer. Paul also writes, “For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
8. We suffer to honor God. Jesus tells us to take heart when we are persecuted for His sake (Matt. 5:10-11). And He warns us the world will hate us because it hated Him first. If Christians had easier lives it would make the gospel more attractive for the wrong reasons; God would become a means to an end rather than the end of all things Himself.
9. We suffer to grow spiritually. Jesus, who was perfect in His humanity, nevertheless “learned” obedience through suffering. Paul writes that he has “learned” in whatsoever state he is, to be content (Phil. 4:11). And Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” is designed to keep him from boasting (2 Cor. 12).
10. We suffer to better anticipate the glories of heaven and the world to come. In Rev. 21:4 we read, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will exist no longer; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.” Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).