The Means of Growth: Suffering

By James M. Rochford

No Christian who fails to understand the role of suffering and breaking will go far in their walk with Christ. New Christians should hear about this means of growth as soon as possible, so that they are not surprised when suffering and breaking occur in their lives. When Christians are adequately equipped in this area, they watch for the hand of God in suffering, notice the fruit being borne, and are able to be thankful and content during times of suffering.

Cling to the truths that God has revealed

Paul writes that we are “perplexed, but not despairing” when we suffer (2 Cor. 4:8). The Greek term for “perplexed” is aporeo, which means, “to be in a confused state of mind, be at a loss, be in doubt, be uncertain.”[1] In other words, sometimes Paul even questioned God’s plan to allow him to suffer. And yet, we don’t need to despair. We would only despair if we didn’t have any ultimate answers from God.

When going through suffering, never trade what you don’t know, for what you do know. We might not know why we’re suffering, but what do we know? God will use it for the good (Rom. 8:28), God will comfort us (2 Cor. 1:4), God will right every wrong (Rom. 12:19), God is grieved over this (Jn. 11:35), God will never forsake us (2 Cor. 4:9; Heb. 13:5), and God will wipe away every tear (Rev. 21:4).

When my son, Jack, was first born, he hated getting his diaper changed. He might have had a full mess in his pants, but he hated the process of getting cleaned up by his father. He would go from smiling and cooing, to screaming like a young Axel Rose the second the diaper came off! He would look up at me, with tears in his eyes, as if to say, “How could you do this to me? I thought you loved me! Why would you put me through this?” Of course, I knew better than Jack. If I didn’t change his diaper, he would be in more discomfort and pain, getting a rash. It was easy for me to feel infinitely more intelligent than this newborn baby.

Let’s relate this to God. While I seem to be far more intelligent than my newborn son, I must seem no more intelligent than a termite compared to God! And here’s a good question to ponder as a result of this: If I can know something about my son’s suffering which he cannot conceive of, is it possible (or even probable) that God knows something about my suffering that I cannot fathom? This is certainly the case (Gen. 50:20).

Recognize God’s sovereignty in suffering

When we are stuck in suffering, we believe that it must be a mistake. But is it? No, suffering is never a cosmic accident. Of course, God doesn’t cause suffering to happen, but he does permit it. He must deem it necessary for us to suffer for some purpose. Unfortunately, when believers are caught in suffering, they erroneously believe that their issue is simply circumstantial or accidental, and they miss seeing the hand of God at work.

Remember, the Holy Spirit intentionally led Jesus into suffering. Matthew writes, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Mt. 4:1). When Paul sat in house arrest, it would have been easy for him to believe that this was just the result of Satan, sinners, or circumstances. But instead, he concluded that the chains of his imprisonment were given to him from Jesus Christ himself (Eph. 3:1). Charles Spurgeon suffered from intense depression (sometimes bursting into tears every hour or so), and his wife was an invalid for 27 years of his marriage. Yet he wrote,

I am afraid that all the grace that I have got of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable… Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library.[2]

Those who are honoured of their Lord in public have usually to endure a secret chastening, or to carry a peculiar cross, lest by any means they exalt themselves, and fall into the snare of the devil.[3]

Every Christian worker carries a “peculiar cross” that is unique to them—a besetting sin, baggage from their past, or even temperamental sins. Have you been able to rejoice for this, knowing that God is using this to show his transforming power in your life? Paul writes, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10). The term for “content” is eudokeo, which means, “to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, take delight.”[4] When Paul encountered suffering, he had actually learned that this was an opportunity to see Christ work powerfully. Far from wanting to manipulate or elude the difficulty, he learned to take pleasure in expectantly seeing God move.

Learn to give thanks during suffering

It isn’t enough to tolerate suffering. We need to rejoice during it. This must have been a key to Paul’s ability to finding joy in the midst of suffering. He says that he was “always giving thanks” (Eph. 5:20), and we should give thanks “in everything” (1 Thess. 5:18). He tells us that this isn’t just an action, but we should develop “an attitude of thanksgiving” in prayer (Col. 4:2). As children of God and inheritors of eternal life, is it really all that difficult to always find something for which to give thanks?

Paul teaches that those who refuse to give thanks have their “hearts darkened” (Rom. 1:21). A refusal to give thanks to God has a poisoning effect on the mind. Psychologists Wehrenberg and Prinz write, “People who have difficulty recognizing positives are more prone to anxiety, depression, and addiction.”[5] Likewise, psychologist Robert Emmons (professor of psychology at the University of California) has found that giving thanks results in a number of positive “side-effects” in his subjects:[6]

-more positive and optimistic appraisals of one’s life

-more time spent exercising

-fewer reported physical symptoms

-more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another

-more sleep

-better sleep quality

-a sense of connectedness to others

Peter counsels, “Cast all your anxiety (merimnaō) on God because he cares (melei) for you” (1 Pet. 5:7). Did you notice the play on words in the Greek? The same word is used for our “anxiety” and God’s “care” for the anxious. Literally, this passage reads: “Give your anxiety to God, because he is anxious for you.” It’s God’s job to worry about our needs and problems—not ours. Our job is to trust that he is worrying about us.

This would include learning to be content with our circumstances (Phil. 4:10; 2 Cor. 12:10; 1 Tim. 6:6) and waiting expectantly to see the unseen purpose behind trials (2 Cor. 4:8, 18; Rom. 8:28-29; Gen. 50:20). The act of thanksgiving isn’t for God’s benefit, but for ours. Thanksgiving is the medicine that we take to alleviate the anxiety and depression of our suffering.

Remember that you’re not alone

When we fall into sin, Satan wants us to feel like we are peculiar and abnormal, and no one would understand. But what does the word of God say? Paul writes, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13). The NLT states, “The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience.” When we open up about our failings, temptations, and false beliefs, we quickly find others who are battling through the same problems.

Similarly, when we’re suffering, Satan wants to intimidate us (1 Pet. 5:8), making us feel alone. We think, “No one else is going through what I’m going through.” Yet Peter writes that we should “resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world” (1 Pet. 5:9). Once we open up about our suffering to others, we discover that everyone else is suffering too. The old maxim is certainly true: “All good Christian workers walk with a limp.”

Allow suffering to break your pride

The Bible uses the concept of breaking to refer to the testing of suffering. Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). Suffering purifies our motives and faith in a unique way. James writes, “The testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas. 1:3-4). When we witness God carrying us through suffering, we begin to redefine what we really need in life: God alone.

Most of our anxiety in life is what Jesus called “worrying about tomorrow” (Mt. 6:34—paraphrase). We imagine that future difficulties will be much worse than they really are. After enduring a healthy bout of suffering, we learn that our imagination was greater than the sufferings themselves. Moreover, the one who has trusted God in the midst of suffering has experienced faith at the deepest level (Phil. 4:10-12; Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-5; 2 Cor. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:6-7). Suffering forces us to take a look at our life from the vantage point of our seat in Christ in the heavenly place, rather than from the limited perspective of our circumstances.

God teaches us HUMILITY through suffering. After giving my first few Bible teachings, I saw how much of an impact I was having through the use of my teaching gift. I quickly realized that this was having a bad consequence on my spiritual life. It led me to spend a lot of time thinking about myself, and this really bothered me (Rom. 12:3). I wondered how God would change me into a person who wasn’t so self-obsessed and narcissistic. If you feel this way, don’t worry: God will let you suffer to the point that you don’t have such a high view of yourself. He lets you take criticism, persecution, and suffering, and this helps you to get the focus off of yourself and onto Him. You remember why you’re doing ministry: for others and not yourself.

Paul was given a vision of heaven (2 Cor. 12:2), but so that he wouldn’t get cocky, God allowed him to suffer. He writes, “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor. 12:7 NIV). If we want to have the visions of heaven that God gave Paul, we also have to be prepared to be given the “thorn in the flesh.” The two go together.

God teaches us to ASK FOR HELP through suffering. When I was still in my undergraduate degree, my car transmission rolled over and died unexpectedly. But instead of asking for a ride to work from one of my Christian roommates, I walked two miles to Cleveland Avenue. Then I waited in the cold to catch the #1 bus to South Linden, where I worked. This was all because I was too proud to ask for help. As I walked for two miles down Hudson Avenue, friends from fellowship honked and pulled over, asking, “Do you need a ride?” But I repeatedly refused their help! Later, as I waited in the cold or rain for the bus, I grumbled and thought, “God… why are you putting me through this?!” That night, when I came home from work, I didn’t miss any opportunity to complain about my circumstances and how hard I had it.

While I fought through this suffering without asking for help, God later gave me more than I could handle. God will often give us more than we can handle, so that we can be “burdened excessively, beyond our strength… so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in [Him]” (2 Cor. 1:8-9). We can learn this lesson sooner or later: We need to learn to humble ourselves when suffering and get the help we need.

When you encounter failure, don’t miss the opportunity to learn something. Allow your failure to be constructive (Jas. 1:5). C.S. Lewis referred to suffering as God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[7] This is especially true in the life of the Christian worker. Sometimes, God cannot get his message through to us, unless we encounter failure. Don’t clam up and defend yourself. Instead, allow your failures to do their good work in your life: getting you to listen to God and others.

Forsake the urge to protect yourself, numb yourself, or run from suffering

A great deal of suffering comes from trying to love others, as believers. Paul was pained over those he led. The Greek word merimnao means “anxiety,” and Paul uses this term to describe his love for those he leads. He writes, “There is the daily pressure on me of concern [merimna] for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28). Then he writes, “Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” (2 Cor. 11:29). Commentators are undecided on what it means to be “weak” in this passage, and yet, the application is clear: Paul had not closed himself off to the pain of people around him. Elsewhere, he commands believers to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). He writes that we should have “care [merimnosin] for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25), and he approved of the fact that Timothy “was concerned [merimensei]” for the Philippian believers (Phil. 2:20). Did you notice that the same Greek word used for unrighteous anxiety is also used for righteous care and concern for others (Greek merimnao)?

But this worry or concern for others can become obsessive if we’re not careful. While Paul was able to worry for others, he was simultaneously able to rest in Christ and experience the joy of the Lord. For instance, Paul expresses hard work when he writes, “I labored even more than all of them,” but he equally expresses proper rest in Christ, when he says, “Yet not I, but the grace of God within me” (1 Cor. 15:10; cf. Col. 1:29).

The worst reaction to the suffering of ministry is to numb ourselves to it. We all know our self-medications that we turn to while coping with anxiety, stress, or pain: overeating, alcohol, work, shopping, entertainment, or maybe just retreating from genuinely loving others from the heart. Take your pick. We should know ourselves well enough to identify when we’ve crossed the line in these things into self-medication. Resist these urges. Peter writes that we need to wait on God during suffering before he will “perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish [us]” (1 Pet. 5:10). If we numb ourselves to the pain of loving others, we will never experience God’s provision for us, opting for second best.

People in our culture will build up their “castles” (mansions) and “moats” (privacy fences), so that they never have to interact with another human being. We’ve gone beyond not wanting to talk to our neighbors; these days, people don’t even want to look at them. They will retreat to their fortresses, close the blinds, and barricade themselves from all possibility of pain, trials, or suffering. While this is one way to deal with suffering, it has a high cost. C.S. Lewis wrote,

Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, unredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.[8]

Instead of protecting ourselves from harm, learn the lesson of the psalmist, to “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10 NIV). Allow yourself to continue to feel for others, rather than growing cold in your love (Mt. 24:12). Watchman Nee writes, “There is much suffering that we can avoid if we wish; but if we are to be of use to the Lord, it is a fundamental necessity that we make deliberate choice of the path of suffering for His sake. Unless we acquire a disposition to suffer for Him, the work we will do will be of a very superficial quality.”[9]

Count it a privilege to suffer for Christ

After being flogged by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, “[Peter and John] went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). God has suffered so much for us that it feels good to know that we can offer something back—even if it’s small. Peter and John felt that is was a privilege to be given the opportunity to walk in the way of Christ, suffering for him (cf. Phil. 1:29).


We might understand these three final means of growth in this way: Fellowship separates the walking believer from the non-walking believer; ministry separates the growing believer from the stagnant believer; but suffering separates the good believers from the great believers.

Further Reading

McCallum, Dennis. “Cultivating a Tender Heart”

McCallum’s article addresses the plight of ministry pain and anxiety. We have read this over a dozen times, and each time, it speaks powerfully.


[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1. 25.

[3] Darrel W. Amundsen, “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon,” in Christian History, Issue 29, Volume X, No. 1. 163-164.

[4] This word also appears at the beginning of the verse in Greek to show emphasis. This would be similar to Yoda saying, “Content, I am!” Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[5] Wehrenberg, Margaret, Psy.D. Steven Prinz, M.D. The Anxious Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 45.

[6] Robert A. Emmons “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389.

[7] Lewis, C. S. The Problem of Pain. New York: Macmillan, 1962. 62.

[8] Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. New York: Harcourt Brace and Co., 1991. 121.

[9] Nee, Watchman. The Normal Christian Worker. Kowloon, Hong Kong: Hong Kong Church Book Room, 1965. 92.