Finding God at the End of Ourselves
Mountain climbers could save time and energy if they reached the summit in a helicopter, but their ultimate purpose is conquest, not efficiency. Sure, they want to reach a goal, but they desire to do it by testing and deepening their character, discipline, and resolve.
God could create scientists, mathematicians, athletes, and musicians from nothing. He doesn’t. He creates children who take on those roles over a long process. God doesn’t make us fully Christlike the moment we’re born again. He conforms us to the image of Christ gradually. “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
In our spiritual lives, as in our professional lives, and in sports and hobbies, we improve and excel by handling failure and learning from it. Only in cultivating discipline, endurance, and patience do we find satisfaction and reward. And those qualities are most developed through some form of suffering.
God Uses It for Our Good
Instead of just blaming doctors, drunk drivers, and criminals for our suffering, we should look for what God can accomplish through it (Romans 8:28). Why do God’s children undergo pressures, suffering, and deadly peril? Paul answers clearly: “to make us rely not on ourselves but on God” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
A victim of a great evil once told me, “I learned that God wasn’t going to go down my checklist of happiness and fulfill it. I learned what it meant to surrender to his will. Before, I wanted certain gifts from him; now I want him.”
For turning us toward God, sometimes nothing works like suffering. C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (The Problem of Pain). God uses suffering to bring us to the end of ourselves and back to Christ — and that’s worth any cost.
I write these words, not from a lofty philosophical perch, but in the crucible of my precious wife Nanci’s battle against cancer. This is not theory to us; it is life. And we sense not only God’s presence, but also his purposes.
Our Suffering Often Includes Discipline
For us to be transformed increasingly into Christ’s likeness, we need God’s correction: “He disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:10–11).
Of course, God never punishes us to make us atone for our sins. He calls on us to accept, not repeat, Christ’s atonement (Isaiah 53:5). But he does give us a clear reason for disciplining us: “that we may share his holiness.”
C.S. Lewis spoke of God’s discipline this way:
Suppose that what you are up against is a surgeon whose intentions are wholly good. The kinder and more conscientious he is, the more inexorably he will go on cutting. If he yielded to your entreaties, if he stopped before the operation was complete, all the pain up to that point would have been useless. . . . What do people mean when they say, “I am not afraid of God because I know he is good”? Have they never even been to a dentist? (A Grief Observed)
Let Suffering Reveal Your Idols
Suffering also exposes idols in our lives. It uncovers our trust in God-substitutes and declares our need to transfer our trust to the only One who can bear its weight.
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe. A rich man’s wealth is his strong city, and like a high wall in his imagination” (Proverbs 18:10–11). God uses any means necessary to tear down whatever we hide behind. Our job, reputation, accomplishments, or material possessions may be our fortified city or our imaginary high wall. But anything less than God himself will come up short. “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
We may imagine God as our genie who comes to do our bidding. Suffering wakes us up to the fact that we serve him, not he us. Diseases, accidents, and natural disasters remind us of our extreme vulnerability; life is out of our control.
We must relinquish our idol of control that causes us to believe we can prevent all bad things from happening, or correct their byproducts. God reminds us, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). We don’t even belong to ourselves: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
We should repeatedly tell our Lord, “This house is yours. This money, this body, and these children belong to you. You own the title deed; you own the rights; you have the power of life and death.” It becomes much easier to trust God when we understand that whatever he takes away belonged to him in the first place (Job 1:21).
Count It All Joy
We come into this world needy and leave it the same way. Without suffering, we quickly forget our neediness. If suffering seems too high a price for faith, it’s because we underestimate faith’s value.
James 1:2–4 tells us, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
How can we possibly obey this command to welcome difficulties instead of resenting them? By trusting that God tells the truth when he says these make us more like Jesus, increase our endurance, expand our ministry, and prepare us for eternal joy.
Perseverance through suffering, for Christ’s glory, is the sure pathway to godliness. May our God of grace and kindness grant us his peace, and immerse us in his presence, as we walk that road — and may he remind us both that he walked the road before us and walks it with us now.
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is a bestselling author of many books and the director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.
A version of this Op-Ed previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “Finding God at the End of Ourselves”
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