Means of Growth: Suffering

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Dennis McCallum and Gary DeLashmutt

How to Teach It

  1. The "inner and outer man" motif. Paul sometimes uses language referring to the "flesh" or sin nature as the outer man (2 Cor. 4:7-18; Rom. 7). The main idea here is that suffering serves to "break down" the outer man so that the life of Christ can be "manifested" or revealed through the believer. This process is seen as important for victory over the power of sin (Rom. 7:24), and for effectiveness in ministry (2 Cor. 4:12). This approach is taught effectively by Watchman Nee, in The Release of the Spirit.
  2. The "life out of death" motif. The pattern of death, resurrection and victory is evident in numerous passages. Both justification (Rom. 4:25) and our position in Christ are gained in this way (Rom. 6:1-11). In addition, the Bible teaches that there ought to be a process of death-resurrection involved in spiritual growth (Lk. 9:22-24; Jn. 12:24 Rom. 8:13; 2 Cor. l:4-9; Phil. 3:10-11; 1 Pet. 4:1). In these passages, "death" refers to the breakdown of the old pattern of self-sufficiency through a gradual process of suffering. See a representative example of this approach in Miles Stanford, Principles of Spiritual Growth.
  3. Strengthening faith, or deepening our understanding. Through suffering, we should gain an understanding of how to apply God's word to real situations and problems. This kind of wisdom cannot be gained without suffering. Likewise, only the one who has trusted God in the midst of suffering has experienced faith at the deepest level (Phil. 4:10-12; Job; Rom. 5:3-5; Jas. 1:2-5; 2 Cor. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:6,7).
  4. The "parent-child discipline" metaphor. Heb. 12:5-13 teaches that God disciplines us as a loving father in order to bring us to maturity. This training process includes more than just correcting us when we sin. It also includes working through seemingly unrelated suffering to expose and correct character flaws. If we cooperate with God in this painful process, we can look forward to eventual healing in these areas.

Other Principles

  1. We could suffer unnecessarily as a direct result of sinful choices on our part (1 Cor. 11:30-32; Col. 3:25; 1 Pet. 4:15). In these cases, it is also possible that the suffering will cause growth, although even more growth would result if we avoided such suffering.
  2. Suffering is necessary for all believers. The statements in Phil. 4:11,12, for instance, could not be made unless suffering has occurred. Likewise, Heb. 12:8 states that all of God's children have become partakers of his discipline.

Catalog of Passages

Distill the meaning and significance of each of the following passages relative to suffering as a means of growth

  • Lk. 9:23-24
  • Lk. 22:31-34
  • Jn. 12:24-26
  • Jn. 15:18-20
  • Acts 5:41
  • Acts 14:22
  • Rom. 5:3-5
  • Rom. 7:14-25
  • Rom. 8:28,36,37
  • 1 Cor. 10:12,13
  • 1 Cor. 11:31,32
  • 2 Cor. 1:4-9
  • 2 Cor. 4:7-18
  • 2 Cor. 7:9,10
  • 2 Cor. 12:1-10
  • Gal. 5:16-17
  • Phil. 1:29-30
  • Phil. 3:10-16
  • Phil. 4:10-12
  • 2 Tim. 3:12
  • Heb. 12:5-13
  • James 1:2-4
  • 1 Pet. 1:6,7
  • 1 Pet. 4:1,12-19
  • 1 Pet. 5:6-10

The Believer's Response to Suffering:

  1. Suffering should neither be sought nor avoided. The issue of whether or not a given course will cause suffering is irrelevant. Only the will of God should determine our decisions.
  2. Note the tendency of the immature to sometimes equate problems resulting directly from their own sin with "bearing the cross" (1 Pet. 4:15). This includes sins of omission. By spiritualizing failure, they tend to perpetuate it. Is it God's will to bear a given type of suffering, or to take steps to correct it? The scriptures above apply primarily to suffering encountered because you are doing God's will, not because you are violating it.
  3. Wrong responses:
    • Being surprised (1 Pet. 4:12)
    • Regarding discipline lightly (Heb. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:12)
    • Fainting, growing weary, or losing heart (Heb. 12:3,5; 2 Cor. 4:16)
    • Being bitter toward God (Job)
  4. Correct responses:
    • Pressing on (Phil. 3:l0-16); enduring (Heb 12:1; 1 Cor. 10:13)
    • Learning to be content (Phil. 4:l0; 2 Cor. 12:10; 1 Tim. 6:6)
    • Seeing the unseen purpose behind trials (2 Cor. 4:18; Rom. 8:28,29)
    • Forsaking the self life (Lk. 9:23-25)
    • Asking God what we are to learn from this discipline (Jas. 1:5)
    • Praising God & thanking Him (Jas. 1:2-4) - we have not responded properly until we can do this.
    • Actively cooperating with what God is teaching through this discipline (Heb. 12:11-13)