A few weeks ago, I experienced my first panic attack in over a year. My hand went numb, it felt like someone was sitting on my chest, and I had no idea why I felt this way. This didn’t start happening to me until about a decade ago. Now, this unwelcome friend rears its ugly head without warning and it finds a way to stay for a while.
I don’t think I have ever talked about this in public. Forty-year-old men don’t like to admit that they had to curl up in a ball on the couch for no apparent reason. Yet, this morning as I felt like it was about to happen again, I had the overwhelming sense that I should not despise this trial.
In Romans 8:28, Paul says that God works all things together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. This verse is not just some nice slogan to stick on a coffee mug, but a rock-solid promise that we can build our lives upon.
Verse 29 begins with the word “for,” signaling to us that Paul wants to explain how he knows that this is true. He says, “For those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his son. While this is only the beginning of the “golden chain of salvation,” in it Paul shows us one reason that God takes us through the “all things” of verse 28. “To be conformed to the image of his son.” God takes us through all that he takes us through so that we can become more like his son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
When we begin to view our difficulties and afflictions in light of what God is doing in us for his glory, we begin to see how our afflictions are gifts from God through which he accomplishes things in our lives that would not happen if everything were smooth sailing. In particular, there are four ways that God uses our affliction to make us more like him.
Affliction causes us to depend on the Lord alone
When everything is going well, we tend to forget how desperately we need to depend upon the Lord and his strength. Paul reminds us of this in 2 Corinthians 12. After chronicling his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel in chapter 11, he tells the Corinthian church about his asking the Lord to remove a thorn from his flesh. He doesn’t tell us what the thorn is and frankly, that’s good news for us. Since the Lord’s words to Paul apply to any affliction in general, we are free to receive the grace that God gives in this passage.
Paul says that he asked the Lord to take the thorn away, but the Lord told him three times that his grace is sufficient for him. Then he says that his power is perfected in weakness. By this, the Lord communicates to us that whatever he takes us through, the grace he supplies will be enough to uphold us in it.
We never know how sufficient his grace is until we are in a spot where it is all that we have. Paul realized the same thing in his pain and responded to it by learning to be content in whatever trial he may go through. He came to this realization because he saw that when he was weak in himself, that is when he was truly strong.
In the same way, how often do we confuse health, prosperity, impressiveness, and success with the blessing of God? We fall into a trap of thinking that we are only walking under the smile of God when all of our circumstances are going well. 2 Corinthians 12 stops us in our tracks and reminds us that God is more interested in our holiness and dependence upon his power than he is in our having a smooth road in life. When he throws difficulties in our way, he does so not to punish us, but to point us back to the true source of our strength- him. Our trials cause us to lean on his grace and power. When we do that, we find it is all that we need.
Affliction reminds us what is truly important
Our culture provides endless opportunities for us to distract ourselves with unimportant things. Whether it is endless hours scrolling through social media, binge-watching Netflix, gaming, or shopping, we stay caught up in many things that won’t matter on the last day. Our problem is that we become so engrossed in our distractions that we forget that this is what they are. The foolish becomes important.
There’s an incredible scene in the last season of Breaking Bad where DEA agent Hank Schrader has just discovered that his brother-in-law Walter White is the drug kingpin he has been spent the last year looking for. Hank’s wife Marie, who tends to be petty and self-absorbed, is meeting with her counselor after this revelation. She talks in circles to the counselor and since she won’t speak in specifics, he changes the subject to what they discussed the week before- she was upset over the new parking rules at her job. The gravity of her discovery that her sister and brother-in-law had been lying to her for a year while placing her husband in danger made the thing she had previously been obsessed with seemed small and unimportant.
Pain and difficulty remind us what is truly important in life. When we walk through suffering, what someone is ranting about on Twitter is the last thing on our minds. When we’re in a strained relationship with someone important to us, obtaining the newest gadget doesn’t seem that important anymore. Therefore, we shouldn’t despise pain and pressure in our lives. It narrows our focus in a way that we often need.
Affliction helps us build empathy for others
When I was a young Christian, I struggled reading the lament Psalms. These men groaning about their circumstances and crying out to God for deliverance didn’t resonate with me because I had not walked through intense times of suffering myself. They seemed like whiners. The truth is that I was young, arrogant, glib, and had not lived enough life to know real pain. It shouldn’t surprise you to hear that I also struggled to understand the suffering of other people walking through difficult times. They just needed to deal with it.
Real life has a way of way of helping us develop empathy for those who are suffering. If you live long enough, you will know pain. You will walk through times of want, sickness, death, depression, and betrayal. When these times come, and they will, we start looking for the people who will sympathize with us and help us. As we experience others crying with us, praying with us, and standing with us in our pain, we begin to develop a new perspective towards others in the same situation.
In 2 Corinthians 1, Paul addressed this when he said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” God shows us kindness in difficulties and affliction. This often happens through the kindness, empathy, and compassion of others. Then, what he intends for us to do is to take the kindness we received, and show it to others. We better understand how to do this when we have walked through difficulties and known God’s comfort ourselves. This means that sometimes the suffering we walk through will be designed to better help us to serve others in their affliction.
Affliction allows us to experience God’s love for us
Often, we shift into neutral spiritually when everything seems to be going well. We get comfortable with our comforts and we stop pursuing Jesus. We start seeing every little thing that doesn’t go our way as a sign that God is failing us and take our blessings for granted.
Walking into the fiery furnace gets our attention and reminds us that our blessings should never be taken for granted. In addition, we get to see the love of God in new ways. When others show us an act of kindness when everything is good, we appreciate it, but forget about it soon. If we are suffering and another person shows us the same kindness, it takes on a whole new meaning. We see their kindness as a Godsend; a life raft in the middle of a terrible storm.
Remember, others comfort you in your affliction because they have been comforted by God in their affliction. He shows us his kindness and love through the kindness and love of others. When everything is going great, our eyes are often blind to this. When we are in the middle of affliction, our eyes are open and we see visible reminders of God’s love for us everywhere.
Affliction is always uncomfortable and never enjoyable, but it opens our eyes to the God’s work in our lives in ways that we may not have experienced before. Therefore, we shouldn’t despise our trials but should embrace them as an opportunity to grow into the likeness of the one who went through affliction for us.
For Further Reading:
When the Darkness Will Not Lift by John Piper
Walking with God through Pain and Suffering by Timothy Keller