What Should My Response to Suffering Be?

2 Thessalonians 1:3-8 NRSV
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t address the persecutions of the Thessalonians in the same way that we often address persecutions. If you think about it, most pastors tell us that our faith is exemplified when we take authority over Satan and believe that our trials will disappear based on God’s love. But Paul, rather than preaching that, says that faith is based on persevering through afflictions.

We need to ask ourselves what we believe.

I think that many American Christians live in a state of fear, in a state of doubt, because we have come to expect that Christians who have faith won’t have trials. To the contrary, there are at least three reasons why we do have trials, some of which we can avoid, some of which we can’t.

We experience the trials that are the consequences of our bad choices.
We experience the trials that are God’s discipline.
We experience the trials that are a result of living in a sinful world.

We experience the trials that are the consequences of our bad choices.

When we sin — when we make unrighteous choices — we usually suffer because of it. Driving too fast in a car often brings a ticket. Demanding our own way at work can lead to getting fired. Spending too much money on our wants can results in our having too little for our needs. The problem with many believers today is that we have failed to understand that self-discipline is one of the foundations of the Christian faith. And this isn’t a self-discipline that is put on us, but rather a self-discipline that we embrace in order to bring glory to God Who has forgiven us all.

The apostle Peter encouraged believers not to bring suffering upon themselves that was a result of their own choices.

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. . . . But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, a criminal, or even as a mischief maker. Yet if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name. 1 Peter 4:12, 15-16 NRSV

Suffering for our choices is suffering that is easily avoided by simply making better choices. Don’t overeat (or eat wrongly) and you won’t gain weight and will likely be more healthy. (You won’t suffer from bodily pains and illness). Don’t overspend (or spend wrongly) and you won’t suffer anxiety about not being able to pay for the necessities of life. Tend to the tasks of life set before you (rather than indulging in recreation) and you won’t be called to task when something important has been left undone. Live a life that always seeks to bring glory to God and we won’t have to suffer the consequences of bad choices.

We experience the trials that are God’s discipline.

David was king of all Israel. He could have any unmarried woman he wanted for a wife (and indeed had several already). But he took, instead, the wife of Uriah in an adulterous affair and got her pregnant. Then, to cover his sin, he had Uriah, a soldier, sent to the front lines of the battle where Uriah was killed. David thought that his problems were over, that his sins were hidden and thus gone. But Nathan the prophet exposed David’s sin to the entire Jewish royal court and then pronounced God’s judgment on him.

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die. 2 Samuel 12:13-14 NRSV

God doesn’t hold believers accountable for their sin in the sense that we don’t have to suffer His holy judgment for sin (which is death). In 2 Samuel, Nathan assures David that his sin won’t be held against him: The Lord has put away your sin. However, God’s discipline included the fact that the child born to Bathsheba and David would die.

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Hebrews 12:7-11 NRSV

Father God disciplines us — His children — in order to teach us how to live in such a way that glorifies Him and avoids sin. As scripture teaches, discipline is painful, but it will yield the fruit of righteousness if we allow ourselves to be trained by it.

We experience the trials that are a result of living in a sinful world

These trials are two-fold. Some are simply because we live here: physical death, the difficult interactions with each other, the toil of growing old, the loss of things. Sin is a destroyer; consequently, nothing here can be permanent due to the effect of sin upon it. Everything and everyone is in the process of decay. And as much as our society would like to ignore the death and dying process that surrounds it, sin has wrecked havoc on this world and will continue to do so. That is why God will destroy this world and replace it with a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1). Meanwhile, we live in a world where things (and people) wear out, break, and are destroyed. Even having the best, more careful habits, we can still get sick. We will (unless the Lord comes) still die. We often suffer consequences of the bad choices of those around us.

We live in a sinful, dying, hurting (and hurtful) world.

And so, what should be our response to the pain and suffering that we must bear? Scripture tells us that we should cast all of our cares on Him! (1 Peter 5:7). It is the Father’s responsibility to take care of us (Romans 8:28), to bring judgment and vengeance where He would and for us to simply continue to trust Him in the darkness. It pains the Lord Jesus when we are persecuted for His sake; He will bring judgment against those who deliberately harm us. And His judgment — and vengeance — is far greater (and more appropriate) than anything we could do. Meanwhile, it is our responsibility to forgive those who would hurt us and to trust Him to take care of us.