For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified are all of one. (Hebrews 2:11)
Suffering is an inevitable part of the human life. For the Christian, good things can happen through suffering. There are lots of good lines about this from lots of Christian authors. One of my favorites is attributed to Samuel Rutherford: “The King keeps his best wine in the cellar of affliction.”
In my experience, there are three stages of processing this truth. First, the stereotypical naive person, often young, who hasn’t suffered very much. Sometimes a seminary student, though those poor guys get a bad rap. I have been this person. Lines like this one from Rutherford, usually encountered through John Piper or somewhere similar, sound so good, and repeating them makes you feel wise.
Then there’s the person actually going through suffering. I have been this person. At this stage you can really believe the thing is true, and want it to be true, but also think “I would like to get the results without the process.” In some of my valleys, I have thought “Right, God’s going to show me his goodness, but I know enough Bible to know he might do that by sending me a really awful affliction that I would like to avoid.” So in the moment, the thought isn’t as always as comforting as one might hope.
Finally, there’s the person who has been through suffering, has gained some distance from it, and is able to look back and say “Yes. This is true.” I am that person. It actually is true that most of the seasons of growth in my walk with God, most of the times where I have been most aware of his presence and his care, have been hard seasons, not easy ones. (I’m also still relatively young, most likely with plenty of suffering still to come, so who knows how naive I’m being right now.)
So God does good things through suffering. This is probably a truth best expressed after we have experienced it personally, when it has cost us something to affirm it.
One thing that’s common to all of us: We don’t go out looking for suffering. We don’t choose it.
We might choose situations that we know full well could end in suffering. That’s true of deep friendship, of bearing and adopting and raising children, of having parents. To love is to risk suffering. But we don’t really choose the suffering itself. We don’t have to. It finds us. That’s part of being human.
It’s a part of being human that Christ did choose. The author of Hebrews tells us that God, in order to “bring many sons to glory”– that is, in order to restore us to full humanity through relationship with him– determined to “make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” Why did Christ, the eternal Son of God, have to be made perfect? Why was suffering the way to do it? Because it’s a key aspect of being human, and it was something the Son had not experienced prior to the Incarnation.
“For he who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one.” Jesus is so closely united to us, so committed to bringing us all the way home, that he willingly chose a life of suffering in order to bring about our sanctification, our restoration to glory. Not an ordinary life of suffering, either. Being limited in time and space, being born with all the mess that entails, being able to be hungry and tired and sick– that is true suffering for a divine being. He went further. He suffered physical torment, relational abandonment, the persecution of those he came to save, the rejection of his own family. All this before the cross, before bearing the full extent of God’s wrath.
He did all this to be truly, perfectly united to us. He took on this role knowing what it would cost. He was willing. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers. This is why, in the moments of our deepest pain, we are never alone. We are united to Christ, who is eternally morally perfect, and who stepped into our world in order to be made experientially perfect. He suffers with us in order to bring us to glory.