Originally Posted on March 29, 2006
After my diagnosis one of the first questions I began to ask was, “Why is this happening to me?” For years I have encouraged my people, who have been surprised with a difficulty, that God has a purpose (Eph. 1:11) and would often list a few. I have been quite a bit more serious in searching the Scripture for those possibilities of late! And I have been amazed that the Lord often supplies us with His intention, when He has no obligation to do so. The information He gives leads to a relationship with Him (John 20:31, I John 5:13). We don’t need all the information to trust Him.
In affliction it is good to know that God has a purpose, though it is not necessary to know what it is. God does not always telegraph His goals for each trial. But it is necessary to know that Jesus alone gives value to suffering. The following is a list of possible purposes He has in our sickness. Note that I am addressing the common denominator of pain caused by several types of troubles. These afflictions may include sickness, financial problems, broken relationships, tribulations, trials, our own mistakes, “old age,” and even the consequences of our sins.
Reveal God’s Power
In John 9 Jesus corrected the disciples’ assumption that the reason for this man’s blindness was his or his parents’ sin, with the stated purpose “that the works of God should be made manifest” (cf. 9:34, 11:4). Sometimes it is God’s will to manifest Himself in healing through medicine or miraculous intervention. Recent tests reveal that my cancer has been reduced but not removed. I thank the Lord for His continued care and control of my disease. Some who love me have been praying that this test would have revealed a complete removal of the disease. But God has not chosen to do that for me now. I suspect some may be disappointed or discouraged that their faith or mine was insufficient. It is not wise to “test” (Heb. 3:9, ESV) the Lord. We come to Him “with confidence” (Heb. 4:16, NAS) in His grace, but not with presumption that we can demand our will over His.
God is good all the time, whether He chooses to heal or not. Physical healing may not be God’s best purpose for sickness. Some think healing is the only game in town. There are several other possibilities. But when He does heal, He is to be praised (Psalm 107:21-22).
Reveal God’s Presence
God is not known of all who know about Him.
“Ye shall seek me and find me when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
“It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71).
Some will not be motivated to seek God until they are flat on their backs. If that’s what it takes to initiate the search, then suffering is good. I am not writing to servants of the Lord who are naïve regarding troubles, but not all who have difficulties look for God and find Him. Many of us waste a prime opportunity to expand our relationship with Him. Those with extreme needs are closer to finding the extreme God. That’s why I love to speak before recovery groups, the Rescue Mission, and other environments where the common denominator is loss, failure, and suffering.
God’s presence is everywhere for He is omnipresent. He is present in the Spirit in every believer (Romans 8:9). And He offers His “manifest presence” to those believers who qualify as per John 14:21-23. I must be careful here, for I would not lead anyone into a pseudo mysticism sourced in emotionalism and experience. But I strongly advocate the true mystical relationship of real life that results from abiding in Christ.
God has blessed our little church with many who are troubled with sickness, dysfunctional homes, financial dilemmas, and the like. Many of these have discovered in God’s faithfulness a relationship with Him that they would not trade for a life of ease. I believe God chooses some people to endure difficulties to position them to discover God’s presence, who otherwise would not.
Reveal God’s Grace
Paul tells us about his “thorn in the flesh” in II Cor. 12. The stated reason was “lest I should be exalted above measure” due to the many revelations God had given him; to keep him from pride. The stated purpose was to demonstrate that “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
We often assume that God’s grace is best seen in our strength and success. And there is often a modicum of pride when we are without significant troubles, supposing that God blesses his best children with a trouble-free life. However, the Scripture is replete with the truth “That we should be to the praise of His glory, who first trusted in Christ” (Eph. 1:13). It’s all about Him!
God’s purpose for Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was to demonstrate His grace at the expense of Paul’s stardom. What a wonderful purpose for each of us who with suffering can frame His loving-kindness. The world will listen little to my preaching, but they are arrested by one who “will glory in” and “take pleasure in infirmities.” At work soft praise is heard “loud and clear” over the complaining mantra.
Dependence in weakness may be the best setting for His strength. You and I may never be stronger in ourselves than we are right now. We can become strong in Him. If we learn to lean on Him, by yielding our spirit to the God the Word daily, we can echo Paul’s summary, “when I am weak, then am I strong.” Now this is a purpose worthy of our condition!
“Patience” is the ability to bear prolonged hardship. James 1:2-4 teaches us that this is necessary for maturity and completeness before we see the Lord. Nobody learns consistency and resoluteness without suffering. James calls these the tests of our faith. Faith is a yielded spirit to the God of the Word that obeys Him (James 2:14-26).
Jesus is our example here.
“Though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).
Before Christ came to earth, the trinity was absolute unity with no need for obedience among Them. In the incarnation Jesus laid aside His heavenly glory to the extent that He “became obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:6-8). And we are to duplicate this mindset (v. 5). Suffering was the opportunity chosen by the Godhead for the Son to demonstrate obedience.
In Heb. 2:10-11 part of the unity of v. 11 is the camaraderie of the suffering Captain and the many sons on that way to glory in v. 10. The Christian life is not designed to be down-hill, but is mostly up-hill. The times of rest are in preparation for the longer haul ahead. We are soldiers, runners in a race, laborers in the harvest, and workmen (II Tim. 2). One of Paul’s objectives was to join “the fellowship of His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10).
All believers recognize the need for this consistency of walking daily with the Lord. If we will believe that God purposefully planned that this trying of our faith will produce endurance, we can “rejoice in our sufferings” (Rom. 5:3ff, ESV).
During troubles we receive comfort from the many promises of the Bible. The Psalms are full of consolation. We know He controls all circumstances that touch us (Eph. 1:11). We know there will be no suffering in heaven. Almost every page of Scripture has some way to give solace to the needy.
This is because our Father is “the God of all comfort” (II Cor. 1:3-7). The word “comfort” means “divine strength” (Thayer). Now that’s the kind of comfort that is worth more than the kind words we humans can offer. And in God’s grace we can dispense that “divine strength” to those “which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.”
Maybe the sole purpose of our tribulation is to minister to others as God has to us. Is that OK with you? God does not give us the option to choose our trials. I’m afraid that wouldn’t work too well. Most would opt out. But now that we are already in it, we can accept God’s comfort and then share it. Paul took this option and welcomed this purpose.
In I Cor. 11:20-34 for disobedience regarding the Lord’s table some were disciplined with sickness or death (30). They were to examine themselves and confess their sins before the pending condemnation (31-32). That sickness was due to sin (cf. James 5:14-16 & Heb. 12:5-11).
When I visit a sick person, I do not assume this to be their case, though I have broached the subject in specific instances. Whether we like it or not, God can and will sacrifice our physical for our spiritual well-being.
Christ is working in every believer to prepare us for heaven (Eph. 1:4, 5:25-27). When we sin, we are disciplined by a loving God, whose purpose is our confession and ultimate presentation to the Father as the sinless bride of Christ.
Honestly, this was the first thing I thought of when I began to be seriously ill. After the diagnosis was known I had the elders of our church anoint me with oil. I confessed every sin I knew and then some! God is serious about sin. We had better be.
Don’t waste the tears of your confession in self-pity. Let them wash the Savior’s feet (Luke 7).
Paul describes death as “this (physical) tabernacle (being) dissolved” in preference of our heavenly body. Unless Jesus comes soon, every one of us will pass through death. And I, for one, do not want God to heal me from that infirmity that is designed to take me home.
Maybe God allows infirmities to increase in old age as a final preparation for heaven and to increase our longing to be there. God is gracious and purposeful if He takes us quickly or slowly.
“The Lord is good, a strong-hold in the day of trouble;
and He knoweth them that trust in Him” (Nahum 1:7).
The above list of possible purposes of trials is not complete. I’m sure there are many more. You might consider David’s Psalms (27:5, 28:7, 31:20, 32:7, 34:19, 39:4, etc.). And Psalm 119 includes a great study on “afflictions” beginning with v. 50.
There are two major responsibilities for the Christian’s spiritual life:
First, yield my spirit to the God of the Word daily. Establish and maintain fellowship with Him by submitting to and responding to truth. The applicable purpose is but a thinly veiled disclosure of Christ, for He is truth (Jn 14:6). A rewriting of George Muller’s “Soul Food” is available entitled “Reading the Bible.”
Second, respond to Jesus first in everything. When we believe that our loving and purposeful Lord controls every circumstance that touches us (Eph. 1:11), it makes sense to “in everything give thanks” (I Thess. 5:18).
If you are sick now, you are invited to
“present your (body) a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your ‘spiritual worship’ (ESV). And be not conformed to this world (in mindset or response), but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind (cf. II Cor. 3:18 & Rom. 8:5-6), that ye may prove (‘accept as approved after testing,’ Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key To The Greek New Testament, p. 375) what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Rom. 12:1-2).
Pete Darnell lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Pat. They have three children and 11 of the cutest grandkids you ever want to see. He would appreciate your prayers as he continues his treatments.