The subject of suffering frequently comes up in Christian teachings. Many times the speaker will quote a passage like Romans 5:3-4
3 And not only [that], but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope.
Then they go on and on about “the value of suffering”: God is using suffering, hardship, difficulty to improve our character, refine us, make us stronger, make us “more Christ-like”.
They have it completely wrong.
First of all, they make the above points by proof-texting scripture that they have plucked completely out of context: the immediate, proximate and larger contexts of scripture. In the case of the above verses, here is just the immediate context:
1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only [that], but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; 4 and perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Verse one is loaded. It is built upon a powerful train of thought in Romans 1:17, 3:20-4:25. That’s the “proximate context”. And it is all about the finished work of Christ and how rebel sinners are saved by Christ through faith. Romans 5 comes on the heels of the development of the essential biblical thought that “the just shall live by faith” by looking at the Abraham’s walk of faith. Because of the finished work of Christ, by the grace of God, through faith now we see Romans 5:1-2:
1 Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
Now, having seen the immediate and proximate contexts of Romans 5:3-4 which many speakers wrench out of context, we can see that those two verses have nothing to do with what is commonly taught today about God’s purpose in suffering. In the immediate and proximate contexts just mentioned (and I could go into much greater depth, just read the context for yourself), we see that what is pointed out in a somewhat implied sense in verses 3 and 4 is the benefit of trials as the trying of our faith and not the trying of our character. This theme is definitely brought out in the larger contexts of other New Testament passages, namely: James 1:2-8, 1 Peter 1:2-13 and Hebrews 12:1-13. In these other verses the trying of our faith is explicit.
Let’s look at the verses in James 1:2-8 as a prime example:
2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have [its] perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. … 8 [he is] a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
That’s the key: what’s being tested is not you or “your character”. God is not using adversity to punish you, straighten you up, get you to stop sinning or make you “more Christ-like”. God is sovereignly using adversity to try (or test) your faith (verse 4). This isn’t a “testing” to see how good you are at walking by faith. God is omniscient and knows all things. It is a test, a proving, a backing-you-up-in-the-corner so that you stop relying on yourself and your flesh and getting you to rely on God (2 Cor 1:8). It is a proving to you what a wonderful gift God gave you when He gave you the gift of faith. When did that happen? The moment you were born again.
It is an essential principle in the Bible that “the just shall live by faith” (Hab 2:4, Rom 1:17, Gal 3:11, Heb 10:38). Further, it is impossible to please God without faith (Heb 11:6). Why? The rest of Hebrews 11:6 says, “for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him”. Notice how God-centered Hebrews 11:6 is. And it comes off the Christ-centerednessof the full context of Hebrews.
So, why faith? Romans 4:16 says,
Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all
In back of faith is GRACE. Underlying the necessity of faith is GRACE. And grace is the gift of God Our Father in totally loving us, totally accepting us and totally blessing us, not because we are so good and earned it, but because HE is that good and gives it.
Now put the pieces together: it is all of GRACE, because it comes as a gift (unearned, unmerited) from our Loving Father, through Christ, by faith. Trials, testings, adversity, needs, even temptations try/testour faith. Look at it as an opportunity for us to quit relying on SELF and quietly rely on God. Difficulties force us beyond ourselves into a place of depending on God, who gives all by grace, through faith in Christ.
THAT’S the whole point of the testing of our faith. And that’s what the Holy Spirit brings out so brilliantly through James:1:2-4
2 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. 4 But let patience have [its] perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
Now, having given the full context of the “trials” passages in Romans 5, Hebrews 12, James 1 and 1 Peter 1, how often do you hear today’s speakers mention anything about the testing of our faith (and it’s incredible results) when it comes to trials, testings, difficulties, even temptations? You hardly hear a peep about it. Their messages basically communicate that such things will “make” us “more Christ-like”.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
GOD is the one makes us more Christ-like. And He unfailingly does so through our union with Christ. HE is IN US and we are IN HIM. The trying of our faith trains us to rely on CHRIST WITHIN and not ourselves, living as stranded orphans.