The Bible gives a number of reasons why believers suffer. It speaks of common suffering, corrective suffering, constructive suffering, cosmic suffering, and Christ-glorifying suffering.
1. Common suffering. One thing the Bible says is that suffering is often just the common experience of human beings living in a fallen world. Perhaps Job said it best, observing, “Hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6-7).
Years ago one of the deacons of Tenth Presbyterian Church was sold on the value of health foods. His living room was filled with books on health and health diets. There were hundreds and hundreds of books, and they spilled out of the living room into the other rooms of the house. This man thought that if you ate right, drank the right herbal teas and took the right vitamins, probably you would live forever.
As he got older things began to go wrong with him physically in his middle eighties. His body didn’t function as well as it had done when he was forty, sixty, or even seventy. I remember visiting him on one occasion, and he said to me, somewhat plaintively, “I just can’t understand what’s gone wrong.”
I had to explain that as you get older, your health just declines. It is not because you have neglected to take care of yourself. It is not because you have sinned. It is just the natural course of life. This is one important category of human ills and suffering.
2. Corrective suffering. Another explanation that the Bible gives for suffering is that it can be corrective. That is, when we go astray God sometimes brings hard things into our lives to bring us to our senses. That is why I wrote a moment ago that when bad things come, one of the questions we must ask ourselves is whether we have done wrong and whether God is bringing the hardship into our lives to draw us up short so we will get off the wrong path and back onto the right one. Hebrews 12:5-11 describes it this way:
You have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: ‘My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.’ Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
3. Constructive suffering. The third kind of suffering the Bible talks about is constructive. That is, God develops character by what we suffer. Romans 5:3-4 says, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” That is what suffering does. It produces perseverance and other things besides. The hard things that come into our lives build character.