Perfected Through Suffering

Why does God permit suffering in God’s good creation? Everyone from the small child to the career philosopher and theologian has asked this question. But I have answer, which, for me, is the only honest answer. I don’t know. I simply don’t know. Whatever reasons God may have for permitting evil and suffering, I not only don’t know them, I don’t think we can know them. Further, though the story of God does not leave us totally clueless, even if I had some sense of the depth of God’s reasons I would never understand them. My intelligence is too shallow; my perspective too limited; and my heart too self-interested to fully understand God’s rationale. In other words, my brain is too small to accommodate the fullness of God’s wisdom.

At the same time, the theodrama, the story of God, is not silent about suffering. In fact, it provides the most astounding response to suffering the world has ever heard. It is the story of Jesus.

God became a human being; God became flesh. As a human being, subject to the pains and struggles of the present creation because of that flesh, God suffered alongside of us. God suffered with us. Prior to this incarnation, God had never experienced hunger, thirst, or death. God had never experienced the temptations of the flesh. God became one of us so that God might know us from the inside out as one who has walked in our shoes and fully experienced the human condition, particularly our suffering.

But that is only the beginning. The preacher in Hebrews describes this reality with shocking language. Jesus, the incarnate God, was perfected through suffering (Hebrews 2:10; 5:8-10). But what does that mean?

In part, it refers to the process of spiritual formation that matures our character through the trials of life. Jesus certainly experienced this in the wilderness as well as throughout his life. He grew in wisdom, and he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. In this way, God does use suffering to bear the fruit of righteousness in the lives of the disciples of Jesus (Hebrews 12:11).

But I think we can say more. Jesus, as God incarnate, followed us into our suffering not only to share in it but also to lead us out of it. He came to defeat it, overcome it, and liberate us from it. He followed us into death and pursued us into the grave. But Jesus suffered in order to create a path out of suffering so that he might bring others, along with himself, to glory. He led captivity captive and forged a path through suffering into glory. He was perfected through suffering so that he might perfect us.

In this way, Jesus not only shares our suffering, but we also share his. When we suffer, we suffer with Jesus just as he suffered for us. When we follow Jesus into his ministry, our discipleship shares in the affliction of Jesus, and by this we know the fellowship of his suffering. And if we know the fellowship of his suffering, we will also know the power of his resurrection—not just in the future but even in the present (Philippians 3:10). We know if we suffer with him, just as he suffered with us, we will also be glorified with him, just as he was glorified in his resurrection and exaltation (Romans 8:17).

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