Everyone suffers, Christian and non-Christian. Job 5:7 ‘Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.’
However, I have noticed that those of us who are Christians often respond to suffering in one of two ways:
a) we know that God has the power to end the suffering and set us free, but when He does not do so quickly, we are frustrated and tormented by this knowledge. This is what I wrote in my diary on 14th June 1990, ‘Why won’t Jesus help me - His Name is Saviour, so why am I failing so helplessly. All He needs to do is speak to my inner storm and say, “Peace, be still!” And then I will be whole again.’ I spent several months in this phase, knowing He could miraculously end the depression, then getting angry with Him because He did not do so. Overwhelming guilt for getting angry with Him instead of trusting Him followed this.
b) another common reaction is to think the trial is the result of concealed sin in our life. We begin a soul-searching witch-hunt trying to find that sin. I spent hours praying, searching my heart and mind, tearing myself to pieces as I tried to uncover concealed sins – all to no avail.
James 1:2-4 teaches us what reaction we should have, but it is a very difficult verse to learn to put into practice. ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’
This teaches us that trials:
a) are going to come our way
b) and will do so for a reason
At first I struggled (and failed) to put James 1:2-4 into practice while depressed. Romans 8:28 says, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ Yet we may well say, “What good could ever possibly come into my life through this?!”
It was only after I accepted that depression was part of my life and stopped fighting and fearing it, that I was able to put James 1:2-4 into practice. At that time I thanked and praised God for what He was doing in me through the depression, and for the depression as well. I recognised His sovereignty - that He was in control - and was using it for good, and would use it for good. Recovery from depression begins in earnest when we reach this place - it also releases the power of God’s grace into our lives.
Trials Develop Our Faith
This then is the first reason God allows trials to come our way – He uses them to develop our faith and maturity and to fashion us into the image of Christ. This can be very painful, but is well worth it in the end.
(A small post script here too. Note that James says ‘face trials of many kinds.’ He does not say ‘all kinds.’ We can avoid some trials by simply walking away from them. Others are spiritual attacks that can be torn down with the spiritual weapons we have in Jesus. And in other cases, God does free us from them miraculously. But we need God’s wisdom to recognise what kind of trial we are experiencing. Too often people think depression is a spiritual attack that can be stopped instantly, or an illness that should be healed on the spot.)
Trials Teach us to Rely Upon Christ's Strength
There is a second reason God allows us to undergo trials. It is during these times that we learn to rely upon Christ’s strength, rather than upon our own. We come to realise that Christ’s grace and provision is truly all we need to persevere.
Paul learnt this lesson through his own sufferings, as revealed in 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. ‘Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it [a thorn in my flesh] away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
To surrender control of our life to Jesus, and to accept the suffering instead of fighting and pleading for it to end, is a difficult lesson to learn. But we can rest assured that Jesus will never put us through something that we cannot overcome with His assistance. Philippians 4:12-13 ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’
The other day, while reading the diary I kept while depressed, I was amazed to find this entry from March 1990.
March already. To think that I was expecting this year to be the best I have had yet. It’s a nightmare, and the worst I can remember. In light of all this, I have been thinking of marriage in two ways. On one hand, I’m in favour of never getting married. If I’m going to go through things like this again and again, then I do not want to burden any poor woman with me. On the other hand, I will not mind going through things such as this, if my wife will go through such things too. In which case, at that time I will understand what she is going through, and I will simply support her, accept her, place no pressure on her, and I will give her as long as she needs to come out of it.
I had no idea how prophetic that entry was. My wife did indeed suffer from depression, and because I had been there previously, I was able to support her through it.
Trials Equip Us to Help Others
This then is a third reason God allows us to suffer. These trials equip us to comfort and encourage others who face the same trials. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 describes the process perfectly. Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus endured trials on Earth, for that very same purpose. Because He went through them, He is able to comfort and support us.
Hebrews 4:14-16 ‘Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’
In Isaiah 9:6 we read that one of Jesus’ names is Counsellor, or Comforter. ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’
So be encouraged that Jesus is able to comfort us because He experienced trials too, and be further encouraged that we go through trials such as depression so that we can later comfort and support others who are going through it. I like to think of myself as a signpost that shows others suffering from depression the way to learn to live with it, and then overcome it.
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